Noah’s Ark has been re-built, right here in Kentucky. It just opened to the public this summer. It is supposed to bring in many tourists who will see something from Genesis on a Kentucky landscape. The Kentucky Ark will probably generate plenty of the usual discussion of science versus traditional belief systems—that is (from an astronomy perspective), The Big Bang versus Genesis.
Some years back in the Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal, two authors, Martin Griffiths and Carlos F. Oliveira, wrote a contribution to that usual discussion. Their article, “The Big Bang—a Hot Issue in Science Communication,”* portrayed the communication of ideas from science that challenge traditional belief systems as “an ideological war that is worth the fight.” They said—
The Big Bang theory strikes at the heart of human philosophical and cultural meaning, uprooting a secure humanity from a known place in the Universe to one of unimaginable smallness, adrift in the unfathomable sea of space. This is the core of its contentious state for those who seek a more comforting and meaningful alternative. It is also a reflection of the place of science and its communication in our society—where does science fit in our culture? It is up to scientists to ensure that we replace one set of meaningful values with one of equal meaning that is deeply rooted in a new culture that addresses an understanding of our place in the cosmos.
Bad idea. Those of us interested in astronomical outreach should put distance between ourselves and such notions of ideological war and replacing values and culture. We should stay away from pitting the Big Bang against Genesis, for that is a recipe for endless conflict with one tradition and culture after another. Ideas like the Big Bang can be more effectively communicated to the public by respecting the traditional belief systems and cultures that are embodied in the Kentucky Ark.
Force people to choose between a scientific idea (such as the Big Bang) and a competing knowledge claim based in a traditional belief system and culture (such as a universe created by God in six days approximately 6000 years ago), and many will choose to reject the science. The people lining up for an Ark visit this summer (and the line to see this land-locked boat will probably be the envy of many a science museum or planetarium) are likely to belong to a circle of friends and family members who share Creationist ideas. Even were one of these folks to have an interest in science and to lack any inclination to see great theological significance in the true age of the Universe, he or she could face serious social consequences, including disruptions to important relationships, were he or she to set aside Creationist ideas in favor of the Big Bang.
Thus the astronomer who truly wishes to effectively communicate the Big Bang to the broadest possible public needs to be able to do so in a manner that does not force people to choose. The astronomer needs to be able to communicate in a manner that does not partake in an ideological war, that does not attempt to replace values, and that does promote openness to understanding the Big Bang theory.
I will now describe a method for doing just that.
For over two decades I have been communicating the Big Bang to the public in the Ohio River Valley region of the United States, in college courses and in public astronomy programs at my college’s observatory. Creationist views are common here—the Creation Museum, operated by the same “Answers in Genesis” organization that built the Ark, is just upriver from my home city of Louisville, Kentucky. Any discussion of the Big Bang in those classes or programs is likely to evoke questions from my audience, often starting with whether I “believe” in the Big Bang.
My answer is, of course, that I do not. Rather, I believe in the Theory Of Alien Schoolchildren, or TOAS. The TOAS says the entire Universe was created at the moment our class or program began, by highly advanced alien schoolchildren, as part of a school science project (or, if you prefer, a computer simulation). In fact, the Universe has only existed since that moment, and the alien schoolchildren just programmed into their project our memories and the appearance of a deep past.
The discussion (which just took on a much lighter tone) can now cover a number of important points. First is that, absent a time machine, the TOAS cannot be disproven. This provides a chance to acknowledge, and to get my audience to acknowledge, that ideas involving the past cannot be tested in the same way as theories such as conservation of momentum. Second is that, ultimately, the TOAS is scientifically irrelevant—we can only deal with the past the Universe appears to have. If there is a note from my wife in my pocket reminding me to take care of some important errands on my way home from the class or program, I had best act on that; whether or not my wife’s request ever “really” happened is irrelevant. Alien schoolchildren may have created the universe just an hour ago, but the universe they created was a mature universe, with all that implies.
It is then pretty easy to discuss the Creationist view: perhaps God indeed created the universe 6000 years ago; but when He did so He created a mature universe—one whose age, by all appearances scientists can see (and scientists can only deal with the past the Universe appears to have), is 13.7 billion years, born in the Big Bang.
I can even cite a scriptural analogy for this: According to Genesis, God created Adam as a mature man; on the very day Adam was created he was speaking profound thoughts: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman [Genesis 2:23, KJV]”. I can then ask the audience:
Suppose an angel carries you back to one month after Creation to meet Adam, but does not tell you to where and to when you are going and who you will meet. Upon meeting Adam, and having no idea who he is, will you conclude that he is a month old? No, you will say, “this man is 30 years old at least!” You will not relate to him as a one-month-old, but as a man, because he in fact is a man. Even if the angel reveals to you Adam’s identity and true age, you will still relate to him as a man. So likewise, while perhaps God created the universe 6000 years ago, as a scientist I do not approach the universe as a young universe, but as an old universe, because in fact it is an old universe. And even if you convert me and I abandon my belief in alien schoolchildren and accept the 6000 year old universe created by God in six days, as a scientist I will still relate to the universe as an old universe. I will leave to the theologians all discussions of why God chose to create a mature Adam and a mature universe.
Now the members of my audience no longer have to choose between the Big Bang and their beliefs and culture. I have acknowledged, and hopefully demonstrated respect for, their views. The discussion, now non-threatening, can proceed to the theory and the evidence behind it. The audience becomes open to, and sometimes enthusiastic about, understanding and discussing the Big Bang once they realize they don’t have to “believe” in it. If need be, I can further soften the audience with historical anecdotes about how scientists themselves did not care to abandon the ancient idea of an eternal universe, and expressed disdain for the Big Bang theory: Arthur Eddington** remarking that the notion of a beginning to the universe was “repugnant” to him, but that he could see “no way around it”; Edwin Hubble+ challenging the Big Bang theory years after making the observations that helped to establish it; and of course Fred Hoyle derisively naming the theory. This helps illustrate to the audience how scientists did not come up with this theory just to annoy Creationists—they were driven to the Big Bang by the evidence they saw in the Universe itself.
As Griffiths and Oliveira point out, ideas such as the Big Bang are under attack in the public domain. If we adopt the “ideological war” view, they will remain under attack, for the “Other” in this business—groups like “Answers in Genesis,” for example—will fight. And as the Kentucky Ark illustrates, they have resources. And, should we somehow triumph over them, we can look forward then to fighting on against a multitude of other groups, large and small, whose traditional beliefs and culture do not support Big Bang cosmology. Do we wish to fight about the Big Bang with every culture from North Africa to Polynesia?
Humor, respect, and understanding are better than fighting. Let us discuss the apparent age of the universe rather than the age, lest some alien schoolchildren set us straight some day. We need a public who understands the Big Bang and other key scientific ideas, and why they are important and scientifically valid. “Belief” in them is not relevant—I’m still betting on the alien schoolchildren myself.
*Griffiths M., Oliveira C. F. 2010, “The Big Bang—a Hot Issue in Science Communication,” Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal, 10, p. 11.
**Eddington A. 1931, “The End of the World: from the Standpoint of Mathematical Physics,” Nature, 127, 450: “[Going back in time] we come to a time when the matter and energy of the universe had the maximum possible organization. To go back further is impossible. We have come to an abrupt end of space-time—only we generally call it the ‘beginning’. I have no ‘philosophical axe to grind’ in this discussion. Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order is repugnant to me. I am simply stating the dilemma to which our present fundamental conception of physical law leads us. I see no way around it.”
+Hubble E. 1942, “The Problem of the Expanding Universe,” Science, 95, 214: “Red shifts are due either to recession of the nebulae or to some hitherto unrecognized principle operating in internebular space. The latter interpretation leads to the simple conception of a sensibly infinite homogeneous universe of which the observable region is an insignificant fraction. The alternative interpretation of red shifts as velocity shifts leads to a particular type of an expanding universe which is disconcertingly young, small and dense.” Hubble goes on to argue that the evidence did not favor the interpretation of red shifts as being due to the velocities of galaxies, and concluded, “…on the basis of the evidence now available, a choice seems to be presented, as once before in the days of Copernicus, between a small, finite universe, and a sensibly infinite universe plus a new principle of nature. And, as before, the choice may be determined by the attribute of simplicity.”