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Making sense of the universe

As you will be aware, it was my intention yesterday to write something about Stephen Hawking’s address to the Google Zeitgeist gathering for 2011.  His talk had been heavily trailed in the global press, and there are plenty of juicy bits to talk about.  As you will also be aware, I lost my nerve and talked instead about Stephen Wragg’s quirky art project which chronicles the spread of unauthorised painted pedestrian figures.

This is often the reaction of preachers to a man with an intellect as finely honed and an argument as aggressively atheist as Hawkings’.  We either avoid it like an open manhole cover in the pavement, or we dismiss it as the realm of the hopelessly cerebral which is of no interest to us lesser mortals. Neither is a particularly worthy response, I believe. It is better, surely, to identify those areas where we agree, and those elements of his argument (insofar as we understand it) where we might wish to challenge him?  Note that there is no reason why we should not challenge him, rather than the other way round.

There were two phrases in the pre-interview with Hawking with which we might find broad agreement.  Challenged on how we should live our lives in a universe where he believes we have found ourselves by chance, his answer was that we should ‘seek the greatest value of our action’. This is not a million miles from Jesus’ teaching.  He also said that ‘science is beautiful’, citing examples like the double helix.  This would fit neatly into a Christian view of a complex and created universe.

However, when he then went on to say that science is beautiful when it ‘makes simple explanations’ and lost me before the rest of the sentence was over I feel he may have undermined his own argument. Can a thing be beautiful when words obscure it from view? I appreciate the elegance of the universe at both a microscopic and an interplanetary level  because I see it as the handiwork of a creative genius. The beauty is in the thing itself, not the explanation of it.

He also suggested that the universe is governed by a degree of logic far greater than I see around me. If you visit the Google Zeitgeist website you will find that their analytics of the year 2010 suggest that human beings are more concerned with networking and Ipads than they are with the beauty of double helices or the possibility of an underlying mathematical formula to the universe!

Stephen Hawking is a courageous and brilliant man whose refusal to be limited by his physical disability is an inspiration. He can be courageous and brilliant without being right, though.

Moldovan Eurovision band Zdob şi Zdub have now become famous for their pointy hats. They told the press that these hats gave them ‘contact with the cosmic spheres’. Presumably this was to no avail, since it did not help them to win the competition when the time came for the votes to be counted! Intellectual genius is a crowning glory to human endeavour, but the point where it’s true worth is seen is yet to come

Image: justwilliam1959

A celebration of individuality

I was all set to write a piece today on Stephen Hawking’s address to Google Zeitgeist later on about his quest for the ‘M formula’ which will explain the universe without any need for reference to God. He will talk about the additional 7 dimensions of which most of us have not heard, and the fact that many of the unviverse’s particles have invisible and hitherto unproven twins. Is your head hurting yet?

In the meantime, my attention was drawn to the work of Stephen Wragg, as he records the different depictions of pedestrian signs on the pavements of the UK. Not only are these signs ‘unofficial’, but they depict the individuality of every painter who has painted them. In fact, in some instances the paint has been applied so thickly that the word ‘sculpted’ might be more appropriate.

Don’t you think their quirky and unnecessary individuality suggest something about our human identity? Surely a universe produced by pure mathematics would have a little more uniformity about it? Just sayin…


…I have data overload

So, we are now in possession of the most detailed picture of the universe ever compiled. The statistics are mind-boggling:

  • It was shot on a 138 megapixel camera (the one usually used on this blog is 8 megapixel)
  • It took ten years to compile
  • The final image contains more than 1 trillion pixels
  • In order to view the whole image properly, you would require more than 1 million high-definition televisions

The latter is perhaps the most important point of all. We simply cannot take all this data in. Whilst the curiosity and skill to seek such data is a God-given gift, the ability to process it is beyond us, at least without some major cerebral upgrade! Scientists will study the data on this latest survey of the heavens (known as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey) for years to come. Each little part will be looked at in immense detail, especially the “brightest million objects”.

Often the church has artificially set itself up in opposition to the sciences. We  have acted as if it were a competition between wonder and analysis. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Properly conceived, the one feeds the other, surely?

If David had had access to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey when he wrote Psalm 8, he would still have written it, I’m sure. Since yesterday we have the benefit both of his wonder and man’s analysis. Anyone set to preach on Psalm 8 this weekend?

Photo: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

When I consider your heavens

The work of your fingers

The moon and the stars,

Which you have set in place

What is man that you are mindful of him?

(Psalm 8 v. 3- 4)

Richard Littledale

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