On Religion and Ignorance

 On Religion and Ignorance

I recently read a post by a student at a Christian university regarding philosophy. There were some statements made about learning about “opposing viewpoints such as the Big Bang theory.” The author went on to make erroneous comments about molecules evolving and “the universe, the sun, and everything in it would have already died” by the time life had evolved.

Here are some issues I have with the post:

Molecules : discovered in 1811, they make up everything, including the cells that make up your body. Generally, it is cells that are concerned with evolution, not molecules. They don’t change much aside from well known chemical reactions.

Big Bang : The street name for a theory on how the Universe came into existence. It holds that the Universe is around 13.75 billion years old. Current models using well-established laws of physics can account for everything from 10-43 seconds to present. Lest you think our laws of physics are flawed, be reminded that the Global Positioning System is based on atomic clocks in orbit. These clocks are tuned to run slower than Earth-bound clocks because the Theory of General Relativity and Theory of Special Relativity (Einstein, 1916 and 1905 respectively) predicted they would run faster than Earth once in orbit. The fact that GPS works so accurately is because Einstein’s theories were very good. It is possible for something to be a “theory” and still be the functional model by which we observe the universe. Sir Isaac Newton is regarded as one of the most intelligent physicists the world has ever known. He invented a new type of mathematics, Calculus,  to solve the problem of planetary orbits. Yet his most valuable contribution to physics, the theories governing gravity, are completely wrong in some situations such as high speed (a significant fraction of the speed of light) or high gravity. Does this mean that the theories are wrong? No, they are completely useful in everyday situations and are good enough for some space program operations. Theories are not perfect, they are not universal, but they are useful when they are good enough for the general population of scientists to use. Is the Big Bang theory perfect? No, it cannot account for the very earliest or the far future state of the universe. It will be improved as our measurements and methods get better, like Einstein improved on Newton’s equations for gravity.

Here are some problems with the statements made in the post. The poster claims that everything in the universe would be dead by the time evolution had advanced. The universe was formed 13.75 billions years ago, by the best estimates. It was very hot, so hot that all four forces (electromagnetism, gravity, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear) were essentially one force. It took one millionth of a second before this hot soup could cool enough to allow quarks to form. Quarks make up hadrons, more on them later. A full second after the Big Bang, the expanding universe had cooled enough to allow quarks to combine to form hadrons. Hadrons include protons and  neutrons. After 10 seconds, electrons and other leptons could form. It took the next 380,000 years before photons were created (photons are the particle/wave that gives us the electromagnetic spectrum including visible light). While that is happening, within 20 minutes after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled to the point where protons and neutrons could get close enough to form basic atomic nuclei. Read carefully: the universe had cooled to the point where nuclear fusion could occur. Nuclear fusion occurs in the Sun and other stars. Humans can only get things hot enough for nuclear fusion by using atomic (nuclear fission) bombs. The early universe was a very hot place. It took around 377,000 years for the first atoms to form. The only atoms formed were hydrogen and helium, because of the energies involved. So what about the other 116 known elements? More on them later. For the next 800 million years, the universe was completely dark. After this time, matter had cooled enough for gravity to become the dominant force in the universe, and quasars formed. Quasars are thought to be early galaxies that were very bright. At around 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the first stars began to form. These stars burned bright, hot, and fast as they were composed of only hydrogen and helium. Stars work by fusing light elements into heavy ones. The line goes like this: hydrogen > helium > carbon > neon > oxygen > silicon > iron. Think about this: everything heavier than helium was fused in the heart of an ancient star. Humans are made up mostly of carbon based molecules. Formed in a star. Steel is mostly iron. Formed in a star. The oxygen you’re breathing? Formed in a star. When these first stars died, they exploded, spraying the mix of heavy elements out into space. The second generation of stars were formed from the remains of the first. As the second generation of stars were forming, stars began grouping in galaxies, bound by gravity in a dance with a massive black hole in the center. This gets us to around 9 billion years after the Big Bang, or 4.6 billion years ago. This is when the Sun and Solar System formed. The Sun is a third-generation star, and the Earth is proof that heavy elements were around. The Sun is a Type G star on its main sequence, which means it’s middle aged. It is 4.6 billion years into its 10 billion year life. Earth has an iron core, with carbon and silicon in the crust and an atmosphere of oxygen. My area of interest is astrophysics, so I will leave it to others to explain the biology of getting the molten blob of rock called Earth to support life.

I hope that it is clear that nothing would be dead by the time life had come to be, and that these facts are backed up by real measurements. Are they perfect? Of course not, humans and the instruments we create are not perfect. But they are interesting.

Does it limit the power of God to claim that the universe was not created in 7 literal, 24 hour days? I don’t think so. Is a watchmaker a failure because he spends months hand machining tiny parts so that his watch will keep accurate time? I find it fascinating that the matter that literally makes up everything I know was once in the core of a star. I find that cool. I think that forcing Creation to happen in a timescale that humans understand is limiting. The truth, as we understand it today, is far more fascinating.

Ignorance is an unwillingness to expand one’s mind and understanding. There is literally a universe full of interesting things to learn about. Why not explore them, observe them, calculate, measure, and predict?

Ignorance is not asking questions. I learn the most by asking questions. Questions will cause you to learn things you never expected, and sometimes you might have to adjust your beliefs to account for the answers. We live on a round world, orbiting a star, but not too long ago, the church disputed these facts. Ask Nicolaus Copernicus. Then ask some questions; learn something you didn’t know before.