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The Big Noise and the Stars Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Sunday, 15 August 2010

In the beginning was a Big Noise, and we live in its echo and are made of its stardust. 

Some Christians struggle with this, as did many physicists when the “Big Bang” theory was young. Einstein after all had based his theorizing on the concept of a steady-state universe: notwithstanding forces of change, everything has always existed as it does now. And the archetypical, most-honored, and most famous physicist of them all flatly rejected the idea of a Beginning. 

Atheists – in and out of physics – love the steady-state idea, because that word “beginning” gives them the shivers. But, old or New, atheists cannot explain how an always-existing universe manages to defy the logic of causation, which is a bedrock of materialism. A steady-state universe has no beginning, they say. But how can anything exist without having a beginning – a first cause – that gives rise to each and every subsequent moment in space and time? Their answer: We don’t know, except we know it wasn’t God!

Now the Big Bangers themselves – most of whom have made little or no effort to answer those same causal questions – are not exactly a college of cardinals. Indeed, most are content to have triumphed over the steady-staters (for various reasons to do with later discoveries) in asserting that the universe most certainly did have a beginning, and they remain unconcerned about the genesis of the condensed matter that exploded nearly 14-billion years ago and began expanding and is expanding still.

That ball of matter was the size of (depending upon who’s doing the speculating) either a fist or a pin head, presumably one upon which angels were dancing (and are dancing still). And within this cosmic pinhead was simply everything, actual or potential. According to Stephen Hawking, matter’s density before the Big Bang was a billion-followed-by-sixty-three-zeroes tons per square inch. (Does such a number even have a name?) But to Hawking and other cosmologists, the radiant dust of that explosion has been expanding and cooling and condensing ever since, forming planets and solar systems and us, but all of this was just a matter of “chance” – no dancing angels and no music to set them dancing and no Maker of angels and music and of all that matter before the Big Bang. It all just . . . was.

Cosmology has always been a matter for study, although almost literally until the last century it was primarily a philosophical or theological discipline, whereas now it’s almost exclusively the province of physics, mathematics, and astronomy. This makes it wonderfully appropriate that the scientist who first proposed what he called the “Big Noise” (“Big Bang” was a sarcastic coinage of astronomer Fred Hoyle) was a Belgian priest, Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître, S.J..

             Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître, S.J.

If you poke around in this area you come across arguments by Protestant authors asserting the Big Bang as proof of Genesis, yet most of these ladies and gents seem never to have heard (and certainly make no mention) of the man who first articulated it as “a day without yesterday.” Other writers confirm or deny, with equal and alarming ferocity, that the Big Bang proves everything or nothing.

Lemaître (1894-1966) himself was cautious about the use of his work in Catholic apologetics, and so cautioned Popes Pius XI and XII, who came very close to asserting that Lemaître’s work did indeed confirm the Biblical account of Creation. Lemaître knew only too well that, through new discoveries and methods of measurement, science is constantly refining its explanations of everything, and the last thing the good monsignor wanted was to see the Church painting itself into a cosmological corner. Fr. George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, points out that “scientific knowledge is relative. Conclusions will alter as more evidence produces better knowledge of reality. Therefore a theology which justifies itself in scientific terms lays itself open to being proven wrong.”  

“As far as I can see,” Lemaître wrote in 1931, “such a theory remains entirely outside of any metaphysical or religious question.” Indeed, Lemaître also wrote that the theory “leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being.” But by that he did not mean to imply that his belief in what he called the hypothesis of a “primeval atom” (hypothèse de l'atome primitive) isn’t, in fact, a confirmation of Genesis, only that – as science – the validity of the explanation works without theological referents. God may cross faith with science; physicists and theologians need to travel parallel paths.

Lemaître was emphasizing what we all ought to know – that no description of any sort ever adequately reveals the thing itself, and he asked rhetorically: “Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes.”

So, the physical universe (the only thing materialists recognize as actually existing) is finite. The clock is ticking. Christians have always known that; known that we exist in time and space both physically and spiritually, with Kingdom (eternity) to come. The revelation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was that God is present; the revelation of Jesus Christ is that each of us, stardust though we partly are, has a unique role in His cosmic drama. And there are no bit parts. Not just stardust are we, but stars.

Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and author of The Compleat Gentleman.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., August 16, 2010
Nietzsche actually formulated a theory of the cosmos in the 1880s similar to Fr. Lemaitre's, and that view became the basis of his belief in what Nietzsche called the eternal recurrence. He posited that since there exists a finite amount of matter/energy and an infinity of time, the universe must not only expand, but that, failing to reach escape velocity, it collapses upon itself and then explodes again--eternally. How sad that the poor soul refused to see the Hand of God at work! He was almost right but infinitely, tragically mistaken. (He also positied that since matter/energy is finite and time is infinitee everything that can happen has happened and will again. Talk about Deja Vu!)
written by John Farrell, August 16, 2010
Nice column, however it's a little misleading to say Einstein believed in a "steady state" theory prior to Lemaitre's work; more accurately he inherited the "static" universe of the 19th century Newtonian astronomers. The steady state theory of Hoyle and Bondi posited (implausibly) a continuous creation of matter out of nothing to keep the universe in what appeared to be a steady state. Einstein explicitly denigrated this idea.

A minor quibble, but for what it's worth.
written by Joe, August 16, 2010
As someone once put it, the idea that the universe and all that's in it started with a Big Bang is akin to the notion that an explosion takes place in a print shop and the result is a dictionary.

Or, the watch and watch-maker analogy is instructive. Still, the thought constantly arises: If everything must have a first cause, then who made God? When did He/She/It have a beginning?

So we are once again back to square one, overworking our feeble minds for answers that always will be elusive. Still, it's fun to speculate how this crazy cosmos, sometimes perfectly in sync and at other times seemingly totally disordered, came to be -- even though we never will.
written by Other Joe, August 16, 2010
Joe, I suspect that your print shop analogy doesn't convey what you intend. It is the kind of illustration used to show a weakness in the Darwinist notion that nothing but chance is required to explain the existence of you and me.
God, being not a thing, is by definition an uncaused being. Since time is defined by physical relationships, there was no time prior to the "big bang". Time is a meaningless term on the other side of that divide. For the same reason the term "beginning" has no meaning before the big bang. That was the beginning of everything. It was a singularity. In the Bible, God calls Himself "I am". Such a being is outside of time (transcendent). Our brains are indeed feeble when compared to a consciousness capable of enabling the observable universe, but smart guys Like St. Thomas have been over this stuff for Joes like us.
written by George Sim Johnston, August 16, 2010
Of course, there was no "bang", or noise of any sort, because there were no airwaves ("In space no one can hear you scream ..."). Fr. Stanley Jaki in his excellent book Genesis One Throughout the Ages argues that it is a mistake to correlate the latest finds of science with the six-day creation account for the simple reason that there is not a single scientific datum in that narrative. "Let there be light" does not have to signify the gamma rays after the Big Bang. And so forth.
written by John Anderson, August 16, 2010
Robert Spitzer's "New Proofs for the Existence of God" just came out a few weeks ago from Eerdmans. Am slogging through chapter 2, but it is absolutely fascinating, and I think I can recommend it to anyone who has had a good physics course somewhere along the way. He starts with discussions of various cosmological models but then discusses what the odds are that all of the physical constants are just so that a universe hospitable to life exists. He makes the good point that deciding whether such a universe came about because of chance or God is not a decision that science is equipped to make. However, metaphysics can use scienctific data in its arguments for the existence of God. Kudos to Fr. Spitzer!
written by Patricia, August 16, 2010
When the Big Bang theory won out over steady state, I had recently read "Showings" of Julian of Norwich, written in the 1300's, describing when in 1373, she had a vision in part of which the Lord placed a small ball the size of a small hazelnut into her hand, telling her, "This is everything that is." She thought it so small as to almost go to nothing. So I had a nice feeling about the little ball of the scientists. Science cannot prove or disprove God, I knew long ago-but this is lovely.
written by Emina Melonic, August 17, 2010
Very nice and insightful essay, Brad. It kind of makes one relax a bit...unburden oneself. It makes one see that we really don't have to carry it all, and that there is indeed a purpose to things.
written by Ye Olde Statistician, August 18, 2010
It is not quite correct to think of the Big Bang as an "explosion" as of something out into a nothing. There was no "empty space" for the hazel nut to explode "into." Space does not exist without the extension of matter, just as time does not exist without the change of matter. (Einstein weirdly echoed Aquinas on this point; and Augustine once laughed at the notion of "before creation," saying, "as if there could be time before time.")

It is more that space-time expanded - quite fast - in that first instant, and is still expanding.

But there is no more a "first moment" of time than there is a "first real number" in the open interval (0,1).
written by steve ott, October 11, 2010
Ye Olde S.:

Only true in the standard topology of the real nos. Every set can be well-ordered, so that (0 , 1) can have a first (least) element. But don't ask me to produce one!

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