The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Monday, April 18, 2005

God, the Big Bang and government scientists

What happens when science and the Bible seem to agree?
April 15, 2005

Every year, on the Saturday after the Jewish holiday of Simchas Torah, an astrophysicist from the University of California Santa Cruz campus would come to synagogue just outside of town, and deliver the dvar Torah, the dissertation of that week’s reading from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The reading was Bresheet, the beginning of the first chapter of Genesis, wherein God creates the universe. The astrophysicist was appropriate because the similarities between the description in Genesis and the current cosmology, the Big Bang, are spookily similar, even though the former was written more than 2,000 years ago. If you make allowance for metaphor (the word “day” does not mean day but a discrete block of time), there is not only no conflict, but the two seem in many ways simply different lenses on the same story. One has a supernatural origin, the other doesn't. Having an astrophysicist do the dvar Torah, as an astrophysicist (he was Jewish), always amused the congregation. But he was always good at it, he never made too fine a point of specifics so he did not try to define things like string theory. He wasn’t representing anyone but himself and we loved having him join us. How things have changed.

Now, with the new emerging theocracy in America, scientists need to be really careful about that kind of stuff. One man who demonstrated that is Raymond Orbach, director of the office of science at the Energy Department. At a brown bag lunch someplace (not sure exactly where) Dr. Orbach did something like what the Santa Cruz astrophysicist did, except, he of course made a Powerpoint presentation. (My idea of hell, by the way, is spending an eternity watching Powerpoint presentations). Titled “Genesis, Science and the Beginning of Time,” Dr. Orbach also pointed out the striking similarities between Genesis and the Big Bang. His problem, of course, is that he works for the government and the Powerpoint images were government issue. It might have even been at a government office. I don’t now. You can find it here, a pdf file. Whether he should have done so or not, is now the topic of a commentary battle on Technology Review’s blog. [Thanks to Jonathan Beard for point me to this]. By this afternoon, there were 38 comments posted about the presentation, with most of them unhappy about the talk. The fact he quoted President Bush, was noted by many. The issue, however, goes back to the ancient battle of whether you can be a scientist and believer. Clearly the astrophysicist at Santa Cruz didn’t think there was a problem, but many of the correspondents on the Technology Review blog did.
Orbach takes science back to its limits, something like string theory and the first 10^-44 seconds, but in going back further then seems determined to inject religion into the discussion by quoting Genesis and by quoting others who invoke God as part of the process that explains the beginning of time. Not exactly what you would expect of a man of science—a science that has succeeded in going back further and further in time towards the Big Bang, and which shows no signs of suddenly stopping or of needing to invoke God at any point.

Is Orbach pandering to the religious right or devaluing science as is already underway in the Administration? In any case, I don’t think it’s appropriate for a man of his position.
Some writers were fervent atheists, which they presume to be the proper mindset for a good scientist. And others thought it was fine, except that it seems to be part of a growing religiosity that ought to be a concern to everyone. (Religiosity and being religious are not necessarily the same thing.) Some were merely amused.
There are people who do not understand the inherent separation of religion and science. I am not as well versed on the subject as the experts, but the short version is that religion can accept science as a study of God's universe and science cannot comment about God. The statement of religions position about science is pretty clear and historically supported (even, by some historians accounts, in the case of Galileo). The statement about science's view of religion is less obvious. Science is the study of the world around us. It is not based on opinion but on evidence. Ideas in science change as this evidence comes to the scientific society (we like to think). By the nature of what God is (supernatural), we cannot gather evidence about him/her. Therefore science cannot, and probably doesn't want to, comment on God. Science cannot prove or disprove God and as all the scientists reading this know, you can only disprove a hypothesis.

P.S. Scientists know that God is separate from science. People who claim science disproves God really do not understand either. They state opinion as fact without evidence or legitimate support. Such statements are very unscientific.
It is an interesting and ancient dispute, made more interesting by the times we live in. Would Dr. Orbach felt comfortable making such a presentation before the era of George Bush and the rise of fundamentalism?

And by the way, the similarities in versions of the creation get better if you use the Hebrew version (and its translations) rather than the Christian versions, which are based on the Greek and contain numerous errors. For one thing, the tense used to describe creation is different in the Hebrew. From the Jewish Publication Society Translation:
When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said “Let there be light”; and there was light.”


  • At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Would Dr. Orbach felt comfortable making such a presentation before the era of George Bush and the rise of fundamentalism?

    Sounds like relaxing of atheistic fundamentalism to me. Plus, to call this presidency "the rise of theocracy" is beyond ridiculous.

  • At 8:15 AM, Blogger Conservative Apikoris said…

    Haha, this isn't the first time. I once wrote an article about eutrophication of coastal waters, and in the fiorst draft I cited the example from Exodus (some people speculate that the plague of turning the rivers into "blood" was an algal bloom.) I wan't even making a religious point, I was making the historical point that eutrophication was something that people have noticed for thousands of years.

    But that didn't stop my boss from insisting that I remove the passage, he didn't think it was proper for a government science report. I wonder what he would have said if I had found an example from Homer or one of the vedas. (I did, however, use the example in a PowerPoint presentation, and nobody seemed to mind.)

    But I don't think I was being zapped by an atheist fanatic (my boss was a liberal Catholic), rather i think it was management fear of the atheist and the believer fanatics who seem to have nothing better to do than cause trouble.

    And a final comment about astrophysics, at least as portrayed in that particular presentation: I think that worrying about the origin and ultimate fate of the Universe is a waste of taxpayers' money. The United States was founded long after the Universe was created, and it will be dissolved long before the ultimate fate of the Universe, so I don't see what benefit knowledge about those issues would be for the Nation. But then, I can do all my science perfectly using Newtonian concepts, so what do I know?

  • At 10:02 PM, Blogger Joel Shurkin said…

    Look, I;m still getting used to quantum mechanics.



Post a Comment

<< Home