Commentary: It's a wonderful cosmos

  • 04 June 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

LAST month I read a column in The New York Times by David Brooks that has bothered me ever since. In it Brooks describes an essay about the medieval concept of the universe entitled C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem by Michael Ward, a chaplain at the University of Cambridge.

Brooks writes that "while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God... The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it 'all fact and no meaning'."

Brooks's and Ward's articles both reflect a popular view that science, by explaining the inner workings of the universe, robs it of the wonder that religion provides - a viewpoint that, frankly, I find offensive. How anyone can suggest that medieval hallucinations might spark the imagination more than the actual universe that we have been so fortunate to uncover is beyond me. The "heavenly actors" populating the spiritual universe of Lewis were, like many religious myths, intellectually lazy creations of fundamentally ignorant minds. It is a far grander kind of imagination that is needed to fathom the real universe.

The night sky isn't populated with mythical beasts, but with a small slice of the 100 billion or so stars in our small island galaxy, the Milky Way, one of 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Each of the stars, while not alive in an anthropomorphic sense, houses an exotic world of action at a searing 10 million degrees, releasing the energy equivalent to a thousand billion hydrogen bombs going off every second - a wonder-work of nature's creation.

The light from the stars of other galaxies takes billions of years to reach us. A Hubble Space Telescope photograph, in which every speck of light represents not a star, but an entire galaxy, with each galaxy containing billions of stars, surely spurs the imagination more than any fable. Around some of these stars there may be planets that once housed life. I say once, because the stars that produced the light in Hubble's images are probably long gone. We are literally watching the history of the universe unfold before our very eyes.

In our own galaxy, a star explodes in a brilliant supernova once every hundred years or so, and is briefly as bright as 10 billion suns. Yet most such explosions are invisible, obscured by dust, so in fact the last exploding star observed from Earth in our galaxy was seen by Kepler in 1604. Yet the universe is so big and old that these events are happening all the time. With a powerful enough telescope a region in the sky at night the size of a dime held at arms length will reveal more than 100,000 galaxies - so many that one may see up to 10 stars explode on a given night. Over time, 200 million stars have exploded in our galaxy, producing almost all the elements that make up our bodies. The atoms in your left hand may have come from a different star than those in your right: we are all star children.

If this poetry of nature does not change the way we view our place in the universe, providing not mere facts but new meaning, then we are truly spiritually bereft. Yet too many people feel that they must invent alternate realities to justify human existence.

Too many people feel they must invent alternative realities to justify their existence

Why does it matter if people cling to myths for solace? Because real-world problems such as climate change can only be solved by real-world thinking. Like it or not, the harsh reality is that nature doesn't exist to serve humanity, and turning to myths that put humans at the centre of creation only distract us from appropriate actions.

Brooks's column also mentioned Barack Obama's much-maligned statement that some people turn to religion for refuge from the inequities that abound in Bush's America - a truth many people would rather not hear. If we live at a time when honest questions about the role of religion and people's motivations for action cannot be voiced in public, then I worry about our future.

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