Science and Religion. The road show

Great evening speaking to a group of people at Glencoe Union Church last night. The pastor is very active in issues surrounding the interactions between Science and Religion (and in particular with the Templeton Fund). He invited me to give my talk on best practices in conversations between scientific and religious thought.

I’m taken by an off-hand comment he made in introducing me. It was that I was the first speaker they had in the series (which has been nearly a year long one at this point) who was trained as both a scientist and a theologian. What the community seemed particularly interested in was the way that I, and others with such background, integrate the two disciplines.

I know a number of people with the same sort of background as I have – though most are much better scientists than I am or was. But when I think about the people I know, most of them are in the Society of Ordained Scientists, and there’s only about 150 or so of us. That’s a small number actually, even though it feels like a lot of us when we’re all together.

Perhaps it’s time for those in the SOSc, and those who have similar sorts of backgrounds, to become much more intentional about speaking publicly about the integrative work they have done in their rule of life. People seem to need to know it can be done. And it’s a proof best done by example it seems.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

What’s going on with the new data from BICEP?

I’ve seen a number of news reports over the last day talking about the newly announced detection of primordial gravity waves by the BICEP program at the South Pole. Most of them trumpet these results as proving the Big Bang. That’s not what’s going on here.
What’s been found is the first experimental evidence of a theory that’s been widely accepted but never “proved” by primary data, that very early on in the existence of our Universe, space-time expanded at rate far exceeding the speed of light. We don’t really know why that happened, and we don’t really know for sure that it stopped happening, but the fact that it happened was used to explain the relative homogeneity of matter and energy in the early Universe, and the fact that the space-time manifold is nearly flat.

The “nearly flat” part was the motivation for the original idea behind what’s called the “Inflationary epoch” of the Universe. When I was a physics student back in the mid seventies and mid eighties the big push in observational cosmology was to try to determine whether we lived in an open or closed Universe. A closed Universe would have had a overall curvature of space-time that would be “spherical” in a four-dimensional sort of way – like the two-dimensional surface of the earth is curved in a spherical way in three dimensions. An open Universe would have been curved like a saddle shape. A good chunk of my graduate studies were involved in working out some of the basic mathematics of a curved Universe (specifically: finding coordinates under which the Klein Gordon Equation was separable into individual spatial unit vector terms). We talked about the funny but completely unexpected possibility that the Universe was “flat” – and had exactly zero curvature. That was the Euclidean ideal, but no one executed to find it.

Except we did. The data kept coming in and as it got better and more precise, the observed curvature was shown to be about as perfectly flat as anyone could measure.

That was a big surprise. Of all the infinite values that the Universal curvature could be, the odds of it being exactly flat were vanishingly small. Something must have made it that way.

So cosmologists guessed that for some unknown reason the Universe had gotten very very big at some early moment in its history. And that while it was curved in some fashion at the largest scale, we could only observe a very very small portion, and that small portion was so stretched out that it looked flat to us. (That link is from 2011 btw.)

What the BICEP data is showing is something that was expected if Inflation was real, but hadn’t yet been observed, that the would be gravitational perturbations from that early epoch that would still be visible. The discovery of these waves is experimental proof that Inflation happened. So the idea that was invented to solve a puzzle about the flatness of space is now seen to have really happened.

Here’s an excellent sort of technical explanation of what is going on in these observations. (It was posted the evening before the announcement was formally made.)

And here’s a superb(!) explanation of why this might be a very very big deal – we finally have data that takes us back to the very beginning. From this we might be able to say something about what was going on before our Universe was born. Note that I said “our” Universe. Because this almost directly implies (and maybe not almost) that there was something before we were. That’s a big deal.

(I have a book in front of me that argues from these principles and others that the possibility that there is something existence before we were might just give a full physics based reasoning for something we in theology call “eternity” – and maybe even more. I’m reading the book for my Lenten journey. Hope to be able to post on it later.)

Posted in Science, SOSc | 8 Comments

You made the heavens and the earth, with all their vast array

From today’s meditation:

“The universe is essentially a giant empty, soundless, cold, chaotic void. In incredibly rare instances, there are small pockets of organized matter. The little pockets represent very simple things like electrons, a proton, a cosmic ray. Even more rarely those little bits of organization combine into something complicated—a hydrogen or helium atom. Even more rare than that are clouds of hydrogen. Stars, planets, and everything else that we can see are very small and very rare things when we think on the cosmic scale. It’s hard to imagine that God fills all of this vastness with the fire of love, or that God can comprehend its totality.”

More here.

Every now and then I read something that I’ve written and think, wow. That’s not bad.

Posted in SOSc | 3 Comments

Ash Wednesday meditation from Lent is Not Rocket Science

You might be interested in some of the thoughts of mine about Ash Wednesday that we’ve posted on our diocesan blog. Here’s a taste:

“I find it very evocative that the ashes we use on this day come from the destruction of the work of creation. The microbes and cellular creatures of creation labored for years to organize the minerals and chemicals that made up the structure of the leaf of palm. When we cut the leaf off the tree, taking it away from its source of nourishment and water, those cells began to die. They dried out and become mere husks of what they once were. But the fire of Fat Tuesday released the molecules back into the atmosphere so that a new plant could use them again. Fire, water, air, and Earth are all present in the moment of the creation of the ashes. And though we put the end product on our foreheads, the life-giving parts have been returned to creation to be used again and again.”

The full meditation is posted here.

It’s from my new book published by Forward Movement. You can read the first week’s meditations on our diocesan blog linked above, and download the ebook for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or iTunes at a discounted $1.99 price to follow along as we discuss this book the rest of Lent. The print editions of the book sold out three weeks ago, but there will be additional copies printed for next year and following. (Links to the ebooks are also found on the diocesan blog.)

Posted in SOSc | 3 Comments

Relationship trumps vindication

Cof orange hexEpiscopal Bishop Jake Owensby (of Western Louisiana) is one of the sharpest people I know. So when he writes something calling for a change in our corporate behavior both in the Church and in our society, I pay attention.

In his recent post on resolutions for the New Year, he ends by sharing the following list which he offers as a way to move us beyond the corrosive partisanship that just about everyone agrees is tearing us apart, but no one seems to be able to escape.

  • Seek the common good, not just your own narrow self-interest.

  • Ask what you can contribute in every situation, not merely what you will get out of it.
  • When we disagree about ideas, assume the good will of those with whom you disagree.
  • Refuse to indulge in contempt for those with whom you disagree.  Look actively for the good in them.
  • Find the one thing you agree upon and commit to working together on that with all your might.
  • Remember that right relationship is more important than being right.

We need a new tone in this country.  We need a positive, cooperative spirit that takes disagreement as a process for finding common solution instead of battles to have our own way all the time.

We are all in this together.

More here. (With graphics and a movie even!)

I added the emphasis on Jake’s last point because I think it’s so important. We need right relationships with each other more than we need to be able to protect God from the errors we fear someone else might be making. God doesn’t need our protection. And for people that might argue that we are trying to protect the person making the error, rather than protecting God, I’d like to be shown proof of how uniformly successful they’ve been in changing the behavior or ideas to which they object…

It seems to me that the opening of John’s Gospel, where we remember the moment that the Word of God literally “pitched a tent and lived among us” points us to the method that God used to finally gain our attention and change our direction. God lived among us in relationship first – our understanding and change takes place as a result of that relationship. Relationship seems to precede amendment of life – at least in most of the biblical narratives. We are called, I believe, to seek relationship with others more than we are called to find vindication of our ideas about others.

I make a further point in the opening chapter of the book “Entangled States” when I argue that the Church has a special charism in creating these sorts of healing relationships in such a moment in our history.

Posted in Centrists, Religion | 1 Comment

Not one but many: The American Nations

A few months ago a book by Colin Woodward called “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” (on Amazon here) lit up my Facebook and Twitter feeds with many of my friends sharing an analysis of the culture wars in America that could be rationalized by the authors thesis.

The short version is that the “northern” cultures of the US (Yankeedom, New Amsterdam, Midlands and the Left Coast) are locked in a fundamental disagreement with the Dixie cultures (Deep South, Tidewater and Appalachia) over issues like the environment, gay rights, and gun control. The fractures in Washington DC and the increasing conflict that fills the talk shows are all part of a struggle for dominance in the United States that has been going on since before the Revolutionary War.

If you’re interested in current events or politics, you ought to read the book. As a person who grew up on the border between the Midlands and Appalachia to essentially Yankee parents, who lived for a while in Tidewater and in El Norte (the US Southwest) and who now lives in Yankeedom, this book makes sense of things I’ve noticed but couldn’t explain.

For instance, within the Episcopal Church, the one regional grouping of dioceses (called a Province) that is reasonably successful is Province 1 – the New England Province. And according to Woodward, Province 1 is the only Province of the Episcopal Church that I can see which is essentially a single American culture. (The states in Province 1 are all part of Yankeedom – not all of Yankeedom is in Province 1, but it’s the only mono-culture Province.) I wonder if reorganizing the Provinces by culture rather than arbitrary state divisions would make them more effective.

As I’ve been participating in the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and meeting regularly with leaders from across the Americas (including representatives of the South Pacific culture) I’m more and more convinced that it’s critically important to remember that the Church spans multiple cultures and that what makes sense in one context doesn’t in another. That point that the context matters is something that the Anglican Communion office has been stressing, particularly as Anglicans and Episcopalians struggle to stay in relationship across significant cultural boundaries. As much as context matters in the Anglican Communion, it matters in the Episcopal Church as well.

There’s a lot to think about in the points being made in the book. If you’ve not read it, and you’re thinking about or involved in issues at a national level (whether church or state) I really think it’s worth your time to pick this one up. It’s a fast read – especially if you’re a history buff. Stick with it, the most thought provoking section, for me at least, was the final chapters in which Woodward discusses the Culture Wars of the last century.

Posted in Books, Centrists, Current Affairs | 8 Comments

Cosmological principle in trouble? Maybe.

One of the tools used by people doing cosmology is the assumption that at a certain scale in the Universe, things become isotropic in distribution. In other words, if you look at a big enough sample of the Universe, one part of the Universe should be essentially identical to another.

When we look out at the local section of the Universe, the Milky Galaxy or even our local galactic supercluster, this clearly isn’t true. But, if you zoom out far enough, the local density anisotropy begins to disappear. It’s a matter of practice that when you’re looking at length scales of this magnitude, you are working in the realm where the Cosmological principle holds. Even the massive voids between superclusters seem to be evenly distributed.

Except there’s been a recent observational challenge apparently. New images of a Large Quasar Group (LQG) show a structure much larger than should be allowed:

“Based on the Cosmological Principle and the modern theory of cosmology, calculations suggest that astrophysicists should not be able to find a structure larger than 370 Mpc. Clowes’ newly discovered LQG however has a typical dimension of 500 Mpc. But because it is elongated, its longest dimension is 1200 Mpc (or 4 billion light years) – some 1600 times larger than the distance from the Milky Way to Andromeda.”

(A quasar is now believed to be an early form of the core of an active galaxy – we only see them at extreme distance from the Earth, and thus at a very early moment in the Universe’s history.)

More here.

I’m not current enough in the field to know whether or not this is a major challenge, or merely represents a data point that the models can be adjusted to include. Cosmological data has extremely large error built into as a result of the difficulty inherent in making the observations used to support the models.

As I read this, it’s an error of a little bit more than a factor of 2. That just doesn’t strike me as a sufficient motivation to overturn the principle. (It is a principle representing phenomenological experience, not a formal law after all.)

Neat result though. More data for the models.

Posted in Science