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The Great Basilica of Nature

Cambridge University theoretical physicist John D. Barrow, winner of the 2006 Templeton Prize for Advances in Research or Discovery of Spiritual Truths, is a brilliant man.

The author of 17 books and more than 400 journal articles, as well as a play that explores the meaning of infinity, Barrow is perhaps best known as the co-author, with Tulane University mathematical physicist Frank Tipler, of the 1986 book. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, in which he investigated whether the Earth is indeed well-suited for life. In a review of the book for The New York Times, noted science journalist Timothy Ferris wrote, “I was angry with her, disagreed with her, and loved reading her.”

In the following essay, written to win the Templeton Prize, Barrow reflects on the majesty of nature, our ever-expanding knowledge of the universe and why religion must always have a place at the table with science.

A few years ago I was growing up in a church — the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. Its predecessor was built in 832 to carry the mortal remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, believed to have been transported from Alexandria to Venice four years earlier by two Venetian merchants, has been removed. It is alleged that they hid the remains of the martyred saint under layers of pork to avoid the attention of Muslim customs officials.

The present Byzantine-style basilica, with its distinctive cluster of low domes, was begun in 1063 and consecrated in 1089. Today it is located next to the Doge’s Palace on the edge of St. faça to launch a thousand postcards.

I arrived in the early evening with a small group of other scholars for a guided tour of the church after it was closed to visitors for the day. When we entered, it was almost dark. There are few windows, and they are small and far from transparent. We were asked to sit in the center, letting only a few dim floor lights and the occasional electric candle guide us to our seats. There was only darkness above us.

Then, very slowly, the light levels rose above and around us, and the interior began to be illuminated by an elaborate system of hidden sodium lights. The darkness around us gave way to an attractive golden light. The vaulted ceilings above us are covered in a beautiful glittering mosaic of glass and gold. Between the 11th and 15th centuries, approximately 11,000 square feet of gold mosaic, square by square, were mixed with glass in a delicate process that is still not fully understood, to create this glittering golden temple. make out. Appearances can be deceiving.

But, upon reflection, what was more interesting to me was the realization that the hundreds of master artists who worked for centuries to create this amazing scene never saw it in its full glory. They worked in a gloomy interior, with candlelight and smoky oil lamps to illuminate the small area where they worked, but none of them had ever seen the glory of the golden ceiling. For them, like us, 500 years later, appearances are deceiving.

They are getting closer to the stars

Our universe is a bit like that. The ancient writers who celebrated the announcement of the Lord’s glory in the heavens saw only through a glass darkly. The universe revealed itself to them and the countless others that followed, with tools made possible by modern science that were far larger, more interesting, and more flexible than we had ever imagined.

The universe looks big and old, dark and cold, hostile to life as we know it, dangerous and expensive to explore. Many early philosophers came to the conclusion that the universe is meaningless and anti-life: a dark, black sphere in which our little planet is a temporary result of the blind forces of nature. However, appearances can again be deceiving.

Over the past 75 years, astronomers have seen the sky light up in an unexpected way. The universe is not only big, it is also getting bigger. It expands. Large clusters of galaxies are moving away from each other at high speeds. This means that the size of the universe that we can see depends on its age. Because it is old, it is great.

These great moments are important to our existence. We are made of complex atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, among many others. Other forms of terrestrial intelligence may one day be formed from silicon atoms. The nuclei of all these atoms are not present in the universe. They are compared to a long, slow-burning sequence of nuclear reactions in stars. It takes about 10 billion years for this stellar alchemy to burn hydrogen into helium, and beryllium, carbon and oxygen and beyond, before the dying stars explode in supernovae and scatter their remnants of life around the universe as it finds its way. into dust, planets, and finally into humans. The nucleus of every carbon atom in our bodies has passed through a star. We are closer to the stars than we could ever imagine.

Walks for understanding

Astronomy has transformed the simple, lifeless, meaningless universe of skeptical philosophers. It breathes new life into many religious questions of ultimate concern and endless fascination. Many of the most profound and interesting questions we still grapple with about the nature of the universe have their origins in our religious search for meaning.

The concept of an orderly legal universe that can be understood and trusted arose largely from religious beliefs about the nature of God. The atomic picture of matter emerged long before there was any experimental evidence for or against it.

From these beliefs came a belief that behind appearances there was an immutable order worthy of investigation. The big questions about the origin and end of the universe, the possible sources of all observable complexity, and the potential infinity of space arose out of our religious focus on the big questions of God’s existence and nature.

And, like all great questions, they can have answers that take us in unexpected ways, ever further away from the familiar and everyday: multidimensionality, extra dimensions, shifting time and space – all of which may reveal a universe. which contains more than what is needed for life, more than what is needed for speculation. We now see how it is possible for a universe that exhibits infinite complexity and subtle structure to be governed by a few simple laws – perhaps only one law – that are balanced and understandable, the laws that govern the most interesting thing in our universe: population ” “basic parts” that are exactly the same everywhere.

The hidden logic of truth

It is in this simple and beautiful world behind appearances – where the lawfulness of nature is most beautifully and fully displayed – that physicists seek to find the sign of the universe. Everyone is looking at the consequences of these laws. The results are often complex, difficult to understand and important – including us – but the true simplicity and balance of the universe is found in things that cannot be seen. Most interesting of all, we see that there are mathematical equations, scribbles on little pieces of paper, that tell us how the whole universe works. There is a logic greater than the universe that is more surprising because we can understand a meaningful part of it and thus, share in its appreciation.

Once upon a time we thought that everything in the universe is made of things that we find on earth. We have now discovered that this was only a first guess. More than 70 percent of the universe is made up of a form of dark energy whose exact identity is unknown. It reveals its existence through its dramatic effect on the expansion of the universe. Unlike all other known forms of matter, which exert gravitational forces on and within other forms of matter, this dark form of energy responds to gravity in a repulsive manner, causing all matter to pull away from it. , and creates an acceleration in the expansion of the universe. which started when it reached 75 percent of its capacity. This discovery about our universe was a surprise – like discovering something completely unexpected about an old friend. Again, they appeared to be delusional.

So the universe, like that evening in St. Mark’s was, things are not always what they seem when we look up. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts. The architects of our religious and scientific images of the universe, and the many commentators on their meaning that followed, could see only a small part of what was there and knew only a small part of what it taught us about our place. . the universe We begin to see anew the extraordinary nature of our local environment and the connection that binds life across the vastness of space and time. Appearances can indeed be deceiving.

We know what we don’t know

There are those who say that just because we use our minds to appreciate the order and complexity of the universe around us, there is nothing beyond this order imposed by the human mind. It is a serious judgment. If it were true, we would expect to find our greatest and most reliable understanding of the world in everyday events where millions of years of natural selection have sharpened our minds and trained our senses.

And when we look into the outer realm of galaxies and black holes, or the inner realm of quarks and electrons, we should expect to see some echoes between our minds and the ways of these worlds. Natural selection does not need to understand quarks and black holes for our survival and reproduction.

And yet, we see these expectations turned on their heads. The most accurate and reliable information available about anything in the universe is the events in a binary star system more than 3000 light years away from our planet and in the subatomic world of electrons and light rays, where it is true that nine tenths better. places And interestingly, our greatest uncertainties all relate to local problems of self-understanding—human societies, human behavior, and the human mind—all things that are truly essential to human survival. But that’s because they need to be complicated: If our mind is simple enough to understand, it will be very easy to understand.

In all the sciences we follow, we are used to seeing progress. Our first attempts to grasp the laws of nature are often incomplete. They only see part of the truth, or they see through a glass darkly.

Some people think that our progress is like an endless series of revolutions to overthrow the old order, doomed to never agree on anything more than a more efficient way of thinking. But scientific progress doesn’t look like that from the inside. Our new theories extend and challenge the old. The previous theories are re-examined in some limited case – slow motions, weak gravitational fields, large sizes, or low energies. Newton’s 300-year-old theory of mechanics and gravitation was ignored by Einstein, who would in the future acquire M-theory or its unknown successor. But a thousand years from now, schoolchildren will still be studying Newton’s theories and engineers will still rely on them as they do today. They will be a simple limiting form for slow motion and weak gravity of the final theory, however.

In our religious understanding of the universe, we also use approximations and analogies to achieve certain ultimate things. They are not the whole truth, but that does not prevent them from being part of the truth — a shadow cast in a limited state of some simplicity. Our scientific picture of the universe has revealed time and time again how cynical and conservative our view has often been, how self-indulgent our intermediate picture of the universe is, how hypocritical our expectations, and our attempts to see or deny connections between scientific how bad they are. and religious approaches to the nature of the universe.

Sir John Templeton has sought to encourage this unbiased dialogue in the belief that religion and science can mutually illuminate and appreciate the wonders of our universe and encourage us to seek and understand truth in new ways – a truth that cannot be expected to be perfect. . and therefore often not as it first appears.

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