New insights in cosmology, astronomy, and physics narrow a gap between science and faith, and support a case for a created Universe and the extreme rarity of life.
Staring off into the west one clear night, I spotted something rarely seen through a foggy prison cell window – a faint star. In my 8 x 12 laboratory, in which two people also eat, write, dress, and sleep, a towering wall conspires with the glare of prison lights to render the night sky impenetrable. So on that night, I stared in wonder at the rare sight of a star. “Who are you?” I asked, and the longer I stared the more my eyes adjusted. I could barely make out another star just to its left, and then a fainter one equidistant to the right. Then my heart beat faster.
I realized with a jolt that I was looking at Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, the three stars that depict the belt of the Constellation Orion. Each is 1,400 light years away. I stared in wonder knowing that the light I was seeing from those stars in Orion’s Belt was generated 1,400 years ago. Here on Earth, civilization was midway through the Dark Ages, and my Scottish ancestors were busy repelling Saxon raiders.
I remember reading somewhere that if you put an astronomer in prison, he (or she) will revert to mathematics. There’s some truth to it. The wonders of the Universe did not cease at the door of my prison, but an imprisoned mind will go wherever it can for inspiration.
I was only an amateur astronomer, but shortly after seeing Orion’s Belt that night, I found a math problem that kept me awake. It was a mathematical curiosity having to do with the number nine. Even if you hate math, this is an experiment you can easily try. The puzzle was described in a book entitled Why Does the World Exist (Norton 2012) by Jim Holt, a science writer for The New Yorker and The New York Times:
”If you take any multiple of 9 (like, 18, 27, 36, etc) and add up the digits (1 + 8, 2 + 7, 3 + 6, etc) you always get 9 back again. To the mathematically naive, this might appear a matter of chance. To the skillful algebraist, by contrast, it is a matter of necessity… though no human algebra can furnish a key which solves the difficulty” (Why Does the World Exist, p. 10).
Jim Holt wrote that he “found this idea of a hidden cosmic algebra – an algebra of being! – irresistible.” So do I, and I just had to understand it. So with little to see beyond the glare of prison lights in the outside universe, I ventured inside. Armed with my little book light and a calculator, the multiplications of nine just blew my mind. Try this Multiply, for example, 9 x 25. It equals 225 which in turn, if you add 2 + 2 + 5, equal nine.
Now multiply nine times anything Say 9 x 3,147. The digits in your answer should have no mathematical relation to each other, but they will always equal nine or some permutation of nine. Eventually you will cross a threshold at which your answer will be 18 (as it is above), or 27, or 36, etc. all of which, when the digits are added, equal nine. I fell asleep imagining the nine choirs of angels with calculators trying to comprehend the mystery of cosmic algebra while God snickered in the cosmic background.
Monsignor Charles Pope recently added to my mathematical obsession in a December post, “It’s a Wonder-filled Life: A Meditation on the Mystery and Unlikely Chances of Our Very Existence.” In an 18-point equation with explanations, Msgr Pope determined that the probability of the person you call “myself” existing at all is one-in-ten followed-by 2,685,000 zeros. It’s an unfathomable number. The mathematics of probability conclude that you and I should not exist at all.
CATHOLICS AMONG THE STARS
Most TSW readers know that I read The Wall Street Journal which seems to have surpassed The New York Times as the “Paper of Record” (and a WSJ subscription is a fraction of the cost of the Times). The print edition of the WSJ includes an online subscription. I have no more access to the online world than I do to the night sky, but when I see a story that captures my interest, I can sometimes telephone a friend to help me post a comment.
Readers who subscribe to the WSJ can access and see all my comments under my profile at WSJ.com. A recent one back in November was posted on a great article by Sohrab Abmari, “Finding our Place in the Stars.” I know you may not see the article without subscribing, but here is my comment:
“It is edifying that Professor Thorne keeps an open mind. However, he ought not to be so quick to dismiss all interest in theology. It was, after all, a Catholic priest and physicist, Father Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed the Big Bang. The Father of Genetics, Gregor Mendel, was also a Catholic Priest, as was the astronomer Copernicus. More recently, Father Andrew Pinsent of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion, was also a physicist at the Large Hadron Collider.”
By the time I was able to call someone to help me post that comment, the article had about 100 comments. Still, I posted one, and it received more reader recommendations than any other comment. Clearly, the Catholic tradition of scientific achievement was both little known and welcome news to the readers of that article.
I failed to add in that comment that Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer who is president of the Vatican Observatory, was recently awarded the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society and its Division of Planetary Sciences. Writer, Kathy Schiffer covered the story for the Catholic news site, Aleteia with “Pope’s Astronomer Wins Carl Sagan Medal” (November 13, 2014).
I know Saint Thomas Aquinas listed envy among the Seven Deadly Sins, and I hereby confess to it. Nonetheless, I am in awe of this award, and of Brother Guy himself whose book, Left Turn at Orion has inspired many amateur astronomers.
I’ve written of the late Carl Sagan before. Back in 1985, the famous astronomer published his sole novel, Contact (Simon and Shuster). I read it in a weekend and was dazzled by it. The plot was something I had long imagined and waited for. Astronomer Eleanor Arroway of the fictional “Argus project” announced to a not-quite-ready world a signal received via radio astronomy. It was a signal that changed everything.
It came from a planet orbiting the star, Vega, about 26 light years away. The message from E.T. had been tacked onto one of our own, one of the earliest televised broadcasts on Earth: a speech of Adolf Hitler opening the 1939 Munich Olympics, and it threw the world – especially the religious world – into an existential panic.
I wrote of this book in a post entitled, “A Day Without yesterday,” my first science post on These Stone Walls. After reading it in 1985, I sent a letter to Carl Sagan to commend him for his masterful handling of the science v. religion debate, but added that unlike the fundamentalist faiths, Catholics would not be so intimidated by either the science or the discovery of life on another world.
A few weeks later, I received a letter from the Department of Astronomy and Space Science at Cornell University. Dr. Sagan thanked me for my insights about his book and added, “You write in the spirit of Georges Lemaitre.” To paraphrase Dr. Sagan himself, I was so excited I must have read the letter BILLions and BILLions of times. But I had no idea who Georges Lemaitre was.
I told this tale, and a good deal about the famous priest, mathematician and physicist introduced to me in Sagan’s letter, in “A Day Without Yesterday,” and continued that story more recently in “The Science of Creation and a Tale of Two Priests.” Readers were astonished to learn of the strange connection we share with Father Georges Lemaitre from behind these stone walls.
After writing of him, we learned that the “Father of the Big Bang and of Modern Cosmology,” a Belgian Catholic priest, was a close family friend of Pornchai Moontri’s Godfather, Pierre Matthews. My post, “The Science of Creation” has a photo of their two families together. I have been trying to calculate the odds against probability that after learning and writing of Father Lemaitre, I learn that he is also Pornchai Maximilian’s Godfather’s Godfather. The odds against this are, no pun intended, astronomical! I took on this story again with some new developments in “Science and Faith and The Big Bang Theory of Creation.”
THE COSMIC ECONOMY OF LIFE
I just read a page in The Week magazine entitled “The Search for E.T.” (November 28, 2015). It quoted some “optimistic” scientists and writers about the degree of probability that life like us may be discovered elsewhere in the Universe in the near future. “Soon,” added theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, “we’re going to have an existential shock.” The article concluded,
“Traditional religious teachings about man’s central role in creation would be overturned, and our species would be forced to redefine itself in the knowledge that we’ve got company.”
I respect their science and their minds, and twenty years ago I would have been right there with them proclaiming the imminent discovery of E.T. Today, however, I firmly disagree. In “E.T. and the Fermi Paradox,” a post I wrote in 2011, I described the evidence for extreme fine tuning that science is seeing ever more clearly.
And a year ago this week in “The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: An Amazing Discovery,” I made a case for why the probability of life like us existing anywhere else is so slim that it is scientifically discountable. I found some strong support for this view in a fine article by Eric Metaxas entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” (The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 26, 2014).
Eric Metaxas made a compelling case not only for the design of God in creation and our existence, but for the sanctity of life. He raised many of the same arguments I raised in past posts demonstrating that the Universe is highly fine-tuned for our existence, and that life is an extreme rarity in the Cosmos if it exists elsewhere at all. Using science as his only tool, Metaxas concluded that “the odds of life existing on another planet grow ever longer.”
It seems no coincidence that just as science proclaimed the unfounded belief that this Universe is teeming with life like us, human life on Earth was deemed expendable in 1973. In this week as people of faith march for life as a gesture of respect for life’s sanctity and God’s creation, science itself is ever more clearly on board with that gesture. The sheer mathematical and scientific odds against life are overwhelming, yet here we are. All evidence in this vast Cosmos points to one truth. Life is sacred.
Editor’s Note: Father Gordon MacRae is honored to announce that next week we hope to feature a very special follow-up to this post by a rather famous guest writer, a priest, scientist and author who also reads These Stone Walls. Please help us share these posts.
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