The creation story: religion vs. science

Unknown-1The Judaeo-Christian creation story is pretty straightforward – God did it (don’t ask where he came from). Science says it was a Big Bang. Superficially the two may seem equivalent. However, science today has a great deal more to tell us about the Big Bang than simply that it banged.* And importantly, this isn’t just story telling like the Bible’s, but confirmed by empirical evidence. Science is not just another “faith.”

We know more about the Universe’s beginnings than the average person probably realizes. This includes a quite detailed nanosecond-by-nanosecond account of its event-filled first moments. One key issue is how it got so large if it started from a Big Bang – that is, from virtually zero size. There doesn’t seem to have been enough time.

imagesThe answer is inflation – a quick early burst of expansion at faster than light speed. Of course Einsteinian relativity says light speed can’t be exceeded. But that only applies to motion within space. Inflation expanded space itself.

This might sound like a “just so” story, invented (implausibly) to patch a hole in the Big Bang idea. Not so. Indeed, physicists have figured out why, given the conditions existing in that first nanosecond, inflation must have occurred.

The key is that gravity, normally a force of attraction, can also, in very special conditions, be the opposite: repulsive. And during that first nanosecond, conditions would have been chaotic. Specifically, the Higgs field would have undergone wildly fluctuating energy levels.

The Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider

(The Higgs field permeates everything; it’s the underlying substrate upon which matter and energy do their thing. Its reality was recently confirmed by the discovery of the Higgs particle, at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider.) It’s the Higgs field that can make gravity repulsive; and with all the fluctuations, at some sub-nanosecond it would have hit the sweet spot triggering repulsion. Then – whoosh! After blowing the Universe up to vast size, another Higgs fluctuation would have returned gravity to its normal functioning, slowing the expansion to a more stately pace.

The Universe’s expansion was discovered by astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 through careful observation that distant galaxies are all moving away from us. And it was realized that if that film is run backwards, the galaxies all crunch together – giving us the Big Bang. Until recently, it was assumed that gravity would cause the Universe’s expansion to continue slowing down. But then further careful observations revealed that expansion is now in fact accelerating.

Scientists hated this counter-intuitive finding, and tried hard to explain it away. But science is based on facts and evidence, not dogma, and acceleration was duly accepted.

images-1The acceleration began about midway in the Universe’s 13.7 billion year history. The cause is dark energy – so labeled because we don’t (yet) know exactly what it is. However, note that gravity’s strength is inversely proportional to the distance between objects; expansion increased that distance; until the push of dark energy became stronger than the diminishing pull of gravity, causing the slowing expansion to speed up.

Not only does all this jibe with the known laws of physics, and not only is it also confirmed by astronomical observations, but furthermore, the entire Big Bang/inflation schema is confirmed by data from the 1992 COBE satellite, which measured with incredible exactitude the temperature of the cosmic background radiation – literally, the radiation left over from the Big Bang. The overall reading, as well as the observed infinitesimal variations, agreed exactly – exactly – with Big Bang/inflationary cosmology. Bingo!

So, again, we know what happened all the way back to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. But we can’t get to Time Zero itself because there you encounter what physics calls a singularity, where its (thus far known) laws don’t work. Nor can we peek into the time before that – the very idea may be considered meaningless since Time itself began with the Big Bang. So we are left with the ultimate question: why and how did it bang? Why does the cosmos exist at all? Or, how can you get something from nothing?

images-2I’ve written about this before. In considering physicist Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, I noted disputation from religious quarters over what “nothing” really means. Whereas Krauss talked about the Higgs energy field that exists even in a vacuum, the retort was to postulate a deeper nothingness, without that. Well, one can postulate that the moon is made of green cheese. We know it’s not, and we also know a Higgs field pervades everything – even “nothingness.”

This is crucial because it’s a good bet the Big Bang resulted from that field’s energy fluctuations. Quantum mechanics (a branch of physics) tells us that even if a field’s energy level at a given moment is zero (as “nothing” as you can get), it’s still subject to fluctuations around that value, so in the next moment may be other than zero.

This too has in fact been proven, in the laboratory. Physicist Hendrik Casimir figured out how to actually measure the effect, now called the Casimir Force. This confirms that even seeming nothingness hosts an energy field which may be zero but undergoes jittery quantum fluctuations around that value – and just such a fluctuation could quite plausibly have produced the Big Bang.

Untitled-1You may still prefer to believe the whole thing was the work of an imaginary quasi-anthropomorphic being. I prefer the adult version: reality, elucidated by science.

*I’ve been learning more about this from Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos.



6 Responses to “The creation story: religion vs. science”

  1. DAN Says:

    But the fact remains that you cannot create something from nothing.

  2. Sylvia Barnard Says:

    Only Fundamentalist Christians and Jews take the Biblical story literally. Non-Fundamentalist Christians and Jews are still out there fighting. It’s really important for a humanist to appreciate that Fundamentalists do not represent all Christians/Jews. In fact, the Jews/Christians you know personally (like me) are very unlikely to be Fundamentalists.

  3. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    Frank, the creation account in Genesis is NOT an account of the creation of the universe. It is an account of the creation of man. In fact, where the account starts the universe (and the earth) are already in existence (short of a very “big picture” statement that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, that is the extent of the description of the creation of “everything”, no time frame, no specifics… The account of Genesis starts with a barren earth incapable of supporting life.

    Second, it is a very simplistic account meant to be understood by simple people. There is nothing inherently unbiblical with the big bang theory.

  4. Bumba Says:

    A fine account. The overwhelming power of the theory of relativity provides us with notions we don’t initially understand or like. But the scientific view expands our world – which is spiritually invigorating. The current insistence on Biblical descriptions as being historically and scientifically correct is shameful. Not to enter into Republican politics, but the educational level of the public is concerning. I love to read these popular science books too.

  5. bruce Says:

    Wish I was sharp enough to follow along with the physicists. I’d appreciate getting away from my pedestrian thinking of infinity. No matter how I bend it, I come up with an “over there”. Sort of the same thing with before the beginning.
    Can you recommend a book for beginners?

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Bruce, the Bryan Greene book footnoted in my post is very good, can’t say it’s an easy read, but it is very clear. You might also try Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”

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