Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Big Bang

In my short lifetime as a scientist/teacher the Big Bang model of the universe has moved from conjecture to well documented scientific theory. A couple of students at University of Michigan (I wish it had been Notre Dame but you can't have everything) summarize Big Bang cosmology rather nicely. For those of you (yeah, like anyone is reading this besides me!) who are curious, there are some cogent facts that make the Big Bang a very solid theory (theory means we KNOW something. Hypothesis means we're guessing.)

1. In the 1920's Edwin Hubble, having given up his brief career as a prize fighter turns his black eye to the sky and discovers that all the galaxies are moving away from us. Moreover the farther away they are, and they are all really, really far away, the faster they are moving. That is the classic geometry of an explosion. Think about it. From his data you can run the movie backwards and figure out about how old the universe is. About 15 billion years.

2. In the 60's a couple of Bell Labs engineers, Penzias and Wilson, accidentally discover a microwave hum if you will coming from every direction in the sky. So they took a break in their quest for a micro-wave oven and asked what could be causing this hum. Now every 'hot' object will glow and emit radio waves of a particular wavelengh. If you ask what temperature/wavelength a 15 billion year old universe would be glowing at (2.73 degrees above absolute zero) you get exactly the radiation that Penzias and Wilson had measured.

3. Recently the COBE satellite did a sweep of the sky and showed how amazingly uniform this background radiation is except for small anomalies here and there. The anomalies are a big deal because if you had a perfectly smooth big bang there would be no way for 'chunks' to form. Those chunks are the galaxies, stars, and good old mother Earth.

Nice. There is no longer and serious controversy about the origins of the universe. Similarly there is no real controversy about evolution or the sphericity of the earth. All a theist who is glued to a literal interpretation of the bible has to do is create the illusion of controversy and they're home free. They don't even have to do experiments or present any other data. Pretending there is controversy is enough. You can observe this technique in action right now in monitoring the 'controversy' in global warming. This is a technique well learned from the tobacco institute.

So, why am I writing about the Big Bang? For one thing I'm sitting in a very nice coffee shop on Damen Ave in Chicago and, well, what else does your mind wander to when drinking coffee and sitting alone but the creation of the entire universe? Also, it always seems strange to me that the Big Bang is not mentioned in the bible. I know you can't read it literally for whatever reason but I don't think there is any way to twist the 7 days of Genesis into a cloaked description of the explosion of the entire freaking universe 13 billion years ago. I don't think numbers even went up to a billion back then did they? And yet, since it is VERY clear that the Big Bang really happened (read the above link) and it is supposed that the bible is the word of God, why no mention of it? I assume that if you are a semi-intelligent theist you accept the Big Bang as an event that really happened then you must be in a quandary about why the bible is so far off on this topic.

Or. . . the God of the bible was not the creator of the universe but only the God of people on this one planet. That's kind of like demoting Pluto from planet to an also ran. It's way more impressive to imagine a God that created the whole ball of wax.

Of course the fact that the universe has a definite beginning is more of a problem for our tiny brains than if it were infinite in time as it was presumed to be in pre-Big Bang cosmology. If there is a moment when the universe began can we even ask the question about what was going on BEFORE. Does the word before even carry any meaning if the Big Bang was the creation of space AND time? Also, you have to wonder if the Big Bang had a cause. But again, causality presumes that something happened and that caused something else to happen later. We're back to needing something to happen before time zero. Is that possible? Here's a very good discussion about the idea of 'before the start of the universe' by physicist Paul Davies. Enjoy

Ah well, maybe another free refill on my coffee. Maybe I'll ponder why do fools fall in love. . .

Monday, July 14, 2008


There's a picture in today's Trib showing some protesters on Chicago's south side. They are protesting the alarming rise in gun violence in their neighborhoods. OK, but, the signs many are carrying say, Our GOD is an awesome GOD.

Why is that the sign and what could it mean? The signs wording is a nice short phrase for many nagging questions regarding theism.

1. Ownership. " Our God" implies that there are others but this group has their own and he (or she?) is awesome.

2. Assuming that awesomeness is measureable, how can you tell your God is awesome. Awesome by his good deads or by the destruction that he wreeks?

3. Do the sign carriers not see the irony of believing in a powerful God (or at least awesome) and yet their kids are dying in the streets. Where is God's hand in this mess? Is he un-involved and so there is the violence and if so that's not so awesome. Or, is it His had that is involved in the shooting (although a pistol is really the devil's right hand - Steve Earle) which would be awesome in a way.

4. I'm so tired of empty phrases like this. Support our Troops. Moms are good. Smile. Cubs Suck. Sox Suck. It is especially hard with religious empty phrases because people get so indignant when you try to ask them what a phrase might really mean. 'Take Jesus into your heart'. I went round and round with a Jehovah's witness about this once as I claimed the phrase was devoid of true meaning. I think maybe it only means something (maybe) if you already believe in this stuff. Even then it doesn't really take you anywhere.

Well, I agree that something should be done on the south side and elsewhere where hand guns are so available. To his credit, mayor Daley has tried to get hand guns outlawed in Chicago only to get shot down (!) by the NRA and gun lobby. I guess there are a number of south side hunters that like to go after deer with their Glocks. Right.

Anyway, these people have a good case for protesting and asking for some action. So, what's with the signs?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Emily Dickinson

Who knew? I always have admired poets for their economy of words while managing to get big ideas across. Here's some very nice verse from a surprising atheist...Emily Dickinson. Enjoy.