Last October, scientists in Portugal announced the discovery of 32 lonely planets floating outside Earth’s solar system. The orbs are among the total of 370 worlds or “exoplanets” astronomers have now identified. They include “hot Saturn,” located approximately 260 light-years from Earth, and a “hot Jupiter,” about half that distance away. As well, three darkened planets have been seen orbiting the remains of a once-mighty star— now reduced to the size of a city. Also coming into clearer focus are huge sheet-like superclusters — generations of stars that arose and then perished, their spectacular deaths spreading complex particles that eventually formed planets and allowed life to evolve, at least here on Earth.
Also in 2009, the world’s largest atom smasher, the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider, was reactivated following a false start the year before. It’s now helping scientists understand the makeup of the universe and its tiniest particle, nicknamed “the God particle” because its discovery could unify particle physics and help humans know the mind of God.
Ultimately, the collider aims to recreate the conditions one-trillionth to two-trillionths of a second after the big bang, which scientists say marked the beginning of the cosmos.
Science — specifically, cosmology — is revealing the universe as far more vast, beautiful and potentially more meaningful than anyone could ever have imagined. From their space- and ground-based observatories, cosmologists are providing glimpses of incandescent nebulae and glowing supernovae, as well as a look back into the time before galaxies were even formed. Not only are they on the verge of uniting space sciences under one mathematical umbrella — often called the “theory of everything” — they’re articulating a new Genesis story. They are figuring out how and when the universe began, what it’s made of, how big it is and how likely it is that other intelligent life exists. Scientists say that they may eventually be able to tell us who we are and where we came from.
Will new cosmological discoveries will render religion obsolete? Or could 21st-century cosmology, like ancient cosmologies before it, help enlighten and guide the way for humanity, perhaps even leading it beyond religious polarization? As American astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by traditional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”
Looking up at the heavens, early scientists came up with a rather bleak picture of the universe: an endless emptiness randomly filled with stars. In the 17th century, the French physicist and philosopher-monk Blaise Pascal wrote that he felt tossed into a scientific universe that was “cold, shapeless and incomprehensibly huge,” in which humans were left feeling small and insignificant.
Today, our understanding of the universe has completely changed, says leading cosmologist Joel Primack, a professor of physics and astrophysics at the University of California. Back in the 1970s, Primack and other astronomers developed the cold dark matter theory, which explains how structures form in the universe.
Then about 10 years ago, the uncertainty regarding the basic parameters of the universe — as well as the expansion rate of the universe and the age of the stars — was resolved rather suddenly. Basically, for the very first time in human history, scientists had a picture of the origin, evolution and structure of the universe that was consistent with all the data and theories. “It was a fantastic development,” Primack says. “We’ve never had anything like this before.”
He is now using supercomputers to simulate the evolution of galaxies. “Perhaps the biggest change may be the realization that space is not simply emptiness, and we humans are not merely a random growth on the surface of a small planet of an average star, as many people have assumed for generations. Today’s golden age of astronomy reveals a universe that is rich, fascinating and meaningful,” he says. “It’s not just ‘out there’ but right here. And in it, we humans occupy an extraordinary place.”
Of course, cosmologists have a great deal more to learn. In the 2006 book The View from the Center of the Universe, which Primack co-wrote with his wife, philosopher Nancy Abrams, he says this new “scientifically accurate” creation story will continue to shape our understanding of our place in the universe for thousands of years. “The psychological and spiritual impact on me has been enormous,” says Primack. “And I think that all scientists who’ve made significant discoveries have had somewhat similar experiences. It’s not so different from the experience that religious people have in their revelations.” Yet in a recent Yale University address, Primack said the universe has played no part in mainstream religions in modern history, except perhaps to demonstrate the glory of a creator.
One reason faith groups tend to ignore cosmology, according to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, is that the investigation of space and time has profound implications for the role of God in the universe. In his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, the renowned British scientist proposed that if the universe were completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither a beginning nor an end. It would simply be. “What place, then, for a creator?” he asks.
Likewise, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg paints a picture of a “chilling, cold” universe with no significance for humankind. “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” Weinberg, an avowed atheist, wrote in his 1993 book, The First Three Minutes. Not surprisingly, it annoyed many religious believers.
For Christians and those of other faiths, the universe is inherently purposeful and humanity’s role in it is central. Historically, the church has vigorously defended its view of the created universe. Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600 for speculating, among other things, that other worlds could be inhabited. In 1633, the Roman Catholic Church placed Galileo, the father of modern science, under permanent house arrest for challenging the view that Earth was the centre of the universe. But in the centuries since, the Vatican’s views have shifted radically.
In February 2009, the Vatican called for the study of the possibility of extraterrestrial life and its implications for the Catholic Church. It brought together astronomers, physicists and biologists to discuss the topic at a five-day conference in Rome — something that could not have been imagined without cosmological advances, says Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno.
He has been scanning the heavens for two decades with the Vatican Observatory’s advanced technology telescope — known affectionately as the “Pope Scope.” Nestled in a silvery-white dome inside a state-of-the-art facility on the summit of Arizona’s Mount Graham, the telescope is giving Consolmagno hints about an interconnected planetary family. Here, science and faith coexist seamlessly.
“It’s hard for me to imagine why anybody would think there was a conflict between the two,” says Consolmagno, whois also a Jesuit brother. “Although a lot of people, especially very devout people, are afraid of science, [the Vatican Observatory] shows that a great way of getting to know the Creator is through that joy that we experience when we look up at the stars. [Science] causes us to look at God in a much bigger way. We want to encourage all religious people to embrace it and not be chased away.”
In the 2006 PBS documentary Faith and Reason, physicist and theologian Robert Russell, director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif., pointed out that in the modern scientific age, theologians and religious people simply cannot afford to ignore new space discoveries. “In order for religions to maintain the power of their moral teachings, they must be seen to be in harmony with the truths of science.”
Michael Bourgeois agrees. He is an associate professor of theology at Emmanuel College, within the University of Toronto. His research includes the origin and destiny of the universe, as well as the relationship between evolutionary biology and Christian theology.
“I am someone who looks at the Hubble Space Telescope images with a sense of awe and wonder, and I think some of the people involved in putting together the composites recognized the kind of inherent beauty in those images,” he says. “Today, it’s now a short step to be asking questions about the significance of the findings of astrophysics and cosmology, particularly around the expanse of the universe. The findings of science will continue to stretch our current understandings of meaning and purpose. And in some cases, for individuals and perhaps for some religious institutions or churches, that stretching will lead to some snapping of particular understandings.”
After all, the last scientific revolution, which saw the Copernican-Newtonian cosmology overturn the medieval one based on the heavenly spheres, eventually undercut the rigid social and religious hierarchies of the time. And the royalty of France and England lost not only their thrones, but their heads.
Says Bourgeois, “One of the regretful things is that Protestantism and Catholicism once neglected the idea that inherent in both traditions is the ability to respond to new situations. And that doesn’t mean that you’re starting from scratch every time, turning your back on what’s been important in those traditions up until that time.”
Similarly, almost all the great pioneers of science were religious people who wanted their findings to support their faith. Contrary to popular belief, all three founders of the sun-centred cosmology — Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton — felt that their new understanding of the universe was merely an extension of their theology. Newton’s whole life’s work was purportedly a search for God. Even Galileo, a committed Catholic, wanted nothing more than for the pope to affirm his perspective of the heavens.
So what’s on the horizon? For starters, new learnings from old stars. Primack says these messengers in radioactive form, speaking the strangest languages anyone has ever heard, have been running through space for billions of years and are reaching Earth with news of their eras. It’s as if a runner from ancient Greece were just arriving today, breathless, carrying news of great consequence.
“As cosmic phenomena living in a cosmically pivotal moment, we must elevate our thinking to the level that our times demand….. An essential ingredient is portraying our universe with all the power and majesty that earlier peoples evoked in expressing their own cosmologies. Mythic language is not the sole possession of any specific religion but is a human tool; we need it today to talk about the significance of our universe.”
Such a historical sweep of understanding will lead humanity to a “wonderfully long-term future lasting literally billions of years,” Primack predicts. “But we’ve got to undergo a transition in the next generation or two, from exponential use of resources on the planet to more sustainable relationships. . . .That’s how we make our spirituality as real as possible.”
The Vatican’s Consolmagno doesn’t look to the heavens to affirm his faith. “It’s not that my science underpins my faith, rather that my faith underpins my science,” he says. “In the end, science cannot prove God or disprove Him; He has to be assumed.
“Our worth, our joy and our meaning comes from the fact that in a universe this big, a God who is so much bigger than it can still have a personal relationship with me, with you and everyone else, including whatever green creatures are waving their tentacles in prayer in Alpha Centauri….And faith will continue to grow nonetheless if it’s a true faith, if it’s not a dead faith.”
Consolmagno says that he never expected to see the day when there would be hundreds of planetary systems beyond our own to muse about. And he admits there are still some theological and philosophical questions to which we don’t have all the answers. “But simply knowing that the answers are out there has already caused us to look at [the cosmos] with deeper eyes and appreciate the true vastness of outer space — as well as the meaning of salvation for each and every one of us.”
By trying to understand this universe, he adds, we begin to understand a deeper level of ourselves.
This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s February 2010 issue with the title “Infinite Sanctuary.”