God and the Astronomers

“When an astronomer writes about God, his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers.”

Written by agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow and published in 1978 by Reader’s Library Incorporated, God and the Astronomers is a short book detailing the origins of the Big Bang theory and its implications for scientists (many of whom were reluctant to embrace a theory that could posit a creator) as well as believers.

It seems appropriate to begin with a condensed timeline of events–provided throughout the book by Jastrow–surrounding the idea and evidence of an expanding universe.

1913 – Vesto Slipher, an American astronomer, discovers (by accident!) a number of galaxies in our “neighborhood” rapidly moving away from Earth…some at up to 2 million miles per hour.  This was the first evidence for the idea of an expanding universe.

1914 – Slipher reports his findings to an enthusiastic American Astronomical Society located in Evanston, Il.  In attendance that evening was a student who was being elected as a member of the Society.  That student was Edwin Hubble.

1917 – Albert Einstein publishes his equations of general relativity.  Quickly thereafter, Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter provides a solution to Einstein’s equation giving legitimacy to Slipher’s previous observation of an expanding universe.

1919 – Arthur Eddington, British astronomer, verifies Einstein’s theory by measuring the bending of light by gravity.

1922 – Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann finds an error in Einstein’s algebra.  Einstein fights the accusation but ultimately, in 1923, admits his error and admits that Friedmann’s math is correct.

1925 – Slipher has by now clocked the speeds of some 42 galaxies, almost all of them moving away from Earth.  Around this time Einstein, in a letter to de Sitter, writes “This circumstance (of an expanding universe) irritates me.”  Our author Jastrow adds a comment to Einstein’s remarks:  “This is curiously emotional language for a discussion of some mathematical formulas.”

1927 – Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and astronomer, is able to give a solution to Einstein’s equations which support the idea of an expanding universe.  His proofs were very similar to those of Friedmann.  For some reason, Friedmann’s work went unnoticed in the scientific community.  Eddington publicizes Lemaitre’s theory and as a result the expanding universe theory becomes widely known.

1948 – Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman posit and predict fireball radiation.  Few in the scientific community pay notice.

1965 – Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, discover (accidentally!) a faint glow of radiation coming from every direction in the Universe.  They had not, at first, realized that they had “stumbled upon the answer to a great cosmic mystery”.

Jastrow’s book is a quick read and mainly deals with his incredulity at what he perceived to be the scientific community’s reluctance to accept the evidence that the Universe had a beginning.  He writes “…the Universe had, in some sense, a beginning–that it began at a certain moment in time, and under circumstances that seem to make it impossible–not just now, but ever–to find out what force or forces brought the world into being at that moment.”  And that, “…astronomers are curiously upset.  Their reactions provide an interesting demonstration of the response of the scientific mind–supposedly a very objective mind–when evidence uncovered by science itself leads to a conflict with the articles of faith in our profession.  It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence.”

Jastrow alludes to science’s dilemma pertaining to the origins of the universe and is unequivocal in his comparison of “faith” and “science”.  He writes, “This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover.  When that happens, the scientist has lost control.  If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized.”  Jastrow suggests that the fact of a creation theory would provide at least some evidence to the claim in the book of Genesis that “In the beginning, God created….”, and that such evidence would be anathema to the scientific community.

God and the Astronomers is a fascinating and quick read (even for a pathetically slow reader like myself) that is able to convey a great deal of scientific information in an easily digestible manner.  Whether a believer or not, one finds a great deal of scientific history, value, and excitement within these pages.  Jastrow ends his book with an extraordinary–and now quite famous–paragraph:

“Now we would like to pursue that inquiry farther back in time, but the barrier to further progress seems insurmountable.  It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation.  For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream.  He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”  (Emphasis mine.)






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