January 28, 2001
On the Verge of Re-Creating Creation. Then What?
By JAMES GLANZ
Ask a philosopher, a theologian, an artist or a composer how close humanity is to understanding the mystery of cosmic creation, and you are liable to get an answer that is majestic, inspiring and extremely imprecise. Ask a physicist the same question and the answer will be much more cut-and-dried: about 10 millionths of a second.
If the theory that the universe began in a single tremendous explosion more than 10 billion years ago is correct, as most scientists believe, then a few millionths of a second after that instant, the cosmos was filled with a fiery sea of particles that scientists refer to - inelegantly - as a quark-gluon plasma.
At a government laboratory near Exit 68 on the Long Island Expressway, physicists appear close to recreating a drop of that primordial sea by smashing together the central cores of gold nuclei at nearly the speed of light. And next summer NASA plans to launch a new satellite whose observations, along with experiments like those on Long Island, could help scientists work out a mechanistic, gears-and-levers theory of the genesis moment itself - the hows, if not the whys, of creation ex nihilo.
That final revelation, if so florid a word is apt in this context, may still be decades off, if indeed some hidden flaw does not bring the whole logical structure crashing to earth before then. But this may be a good time to ask whether, as science treads over those final 10 microseconds, there is a human epiphany - something to match the scale of "The Divine Comedy" or Handel's "Messiah" - waiting at the other end.
If so, will it leave any room for those glorious cultural expressions of creation's mystery, or simply reduce them to the status of historical knickknacks? When all terms in that equation are filled in, what becomes of the scientific quest itself?
Few scientists willingly take up those loaded questions. Not surprisingly, some religious and philosophical thinkers who are familiar with the latest scientific work are already considering them. In fact, in a few decades scientists may be surprised to find these thinkers there waiting for them.
"What is important in creation is not envisioning God up on some platform pushing the mighty `On' switch," said Dr. Owen Gingerich, a historian of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who is a member of the Anabaptist faith and who is noted for his writings on religion and science. "Rather, it is the design and intention that went into it, how it unfolds. In that sense, driving it back farther and farther with a gluon soup doesn't have any moral implication at all, because that doesn't take away from the grandeur of the design."
Mr. Gingerich said a cosmic explosion would merely add layers of meaning to the Biblical God's "Let there be light." But others have suspected, not without reason, that the cultural and emotional landscape after science passes through often resembles the site of a monster truck rally the day after the last race is run and the last six-pack discarded.
"The cold star-bane has cloven and rent their hearts in twain," Yeats famously sneered in a warning on the dangers of regarding the heavens scientifically, "and dead is all their human truth."
Indeed, evidence for scientists' deafness to the cultural and aesthetic implications of their work can be found in the very words they use to describe the creation event. They call it the Big Bang, a term coined in the 1950's by a British cosmologist, Sir Fred Hoyle, who was intentionally belittling the theory because he didn't believe in it. END
Edited to finish comment.
[Edited 1 times, lastly by Deborah on 01-29-2001]