Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bang?

By: Dennis Cverbye



villains of Western society. Once portrayed as heroes, they now appear in movies betraying Sigourney Weaver to bring home an alien for “the Company” or ignoring Susan Sarandon’s desperate search for a cure for her son. We read about them in the newspapers faking data, and we see them in front of congressional committees defending billion-dollar research budgets. We hear them in sound bites trampling our sensibilities by comparing the Big Bang or some sub- atomic particle to God.

Last year, in 1992 a journalist named Bryan Appleyard rode this discontent to the top of Britain’s best-seller lists with a neoconservative polemic called Understand-ing the Present, subtitled Science and the Soul of Modern Man.. Science, he maintains, devalues questions it can’t answer, such as the meaning of life or the existence of God. Its relentless advance has driven the magic out of the world, leaving us with nothing to believe in. With no standards, liberal democracies descend into moral anarchy and cultural relativism. Once Galileo first looked through that tele-scope, it seems, the Los Angeles riots were only a matter of time. Science, he concludes ominously, must be “humbled .’

Appleyard would lay the woes of the 20th century at Stephen Hawking’s wheel-chair. Commenting on Hawking’s hope that physicists may soon construct a theory that would unite all the forces of nature into one equation suitable for a T shirt, a so-called theory of everything, he declaims that it could predict that “a particular snowflake would fall on a particular blade of. grass.” Never mind that such deterministic ambitions died long ago with the discovery of quantum uncertainty. Faced with such a bleakly predictable universe, who would not reach for the candles and tarot cards?

Scientists are partly to blame for this mess. They have silently acquiesced in the proposition that if we just keep writing checks and leaving them alone, science could solve the problems of the world. They have promoted the presentation of themselves as antiseptic drones, whose work is uncorrupted by influences like sex, greed or ambition, which muddy life for the rest of us. But science is done by real people who do not check their humanity at the lab door. Lamentably but humanly, they do shoot their mouths off too much about God and the egregiously mis-named theory of everything. Young Turks for the past hundred years have pro- claimed the imminent end of physics, but every advance has only opened new vistas of mysteries. There is no reason to think we even know the right questions yet, let alone the ultimate answers. The currency of science is not truth, but doubt.

 And, paradoxically, faith. Science is nothing if not a spiritual undertaking. The idea that nature forms some sort of coherent whole, ruled by laws accessible to us, is a faith. The creation and end of the universe are theological notions, not astro-nomical ones.

 We can only wonder whether some law of laws will stand revealed someday at the end of the grudging trial-and-error process of science. The theory of everything, even if it existed, however, could not pretend to tell us what we most want to know. It could not tell us why the universe exists—why there is something rather than nothing at all. And it could not tell us if our lives have meaning, if God loves us.

Written on a piece of paper or on a T shirt, the theory of everything would be just decorative trim around the grand mystery of why anything or any law exists. But by reminding us of our deep cosmic ignorance, science, far from dulling the mystery of existence, sharpens it the way garlic wafting on the evening breeze whets your appetite. It reminds us that we dwell in a mystery that is more to be savored than solved.

On God’s love science is also silent, and that silence is the wind of liberation. Physicists can neither prove nor disprove that Jesus turned water into wine, only that such a transformation is improbable under the present admittedly provisional physical laws. Quantum theory and tensor equations are part of nature as much as trees and rains and sex are. We are, all of us, including Appleyard, free to make what we want of it. We are free to wake up every morning grateful for the feeling of sunshine on our face or grumpy at the prospect of tomorrow’s rain. The fact that science cannot find any purpose to the universe does not mean there is not one. Cosmic ignorance does not diminish us; it ennobles us.

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