The Great Basilica of Nature

Cambridge University theoretical physicist John D. Barrow, the winner of the 2006 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, is a man of many talents.

The author of 17 books and over 400 journal articles, as well as a play exploring the meaning of infinity, Barrow is perhaps best-known as the co-author, with Tulane University mathematical physicist Frank Tipler, of the 1986 book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, in which he investigated whether the Earth is indeed fine-tuned for life. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, noted science journalist Timothy Ferris wrote, “I was infuriated by it, disagreed with it and loved reading it.”

In the following essay, written for the occasion of winning the Templeton Prize, Barrow reflects on the majesty of nature, our ever-expanding knowledge of the universe and why religion should always have a place at the table with science.

A little over a year ago I was in a great church — the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. Its predecessor was raised in the year 832 to house the mortal remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, which had supposedly been brought to Venice from Alexandria four years earlier by two Venetian merchants. They are alleged to have hidden the remains of the martyred saint under layers of pork so as to avoid the attentions of Muslim customs officials.

The present Byzantine-style basilica, with its distinctive cluster of low domes, was begun in 1063 and consecrated in 1089. Today it sits next to the Doge’s Palace on the edge of St. Mark’s Square, attracting tourists and pigeons rather than pilgrims with a fa├žade to launch a thousand postcards.

I arrived at the church in the early evening with a small group of other scientists for a guided tour after it had closed to visitors for the day. When we entered, it was almost in total darkness. There are few windows, and they are small and far from transparent. We were asked to sit in the center, allowing just a few faint floor lights and an occasional electric candle to guide us to our seats. Above us there was only darkness.

Then, very slowly, the light levels rose above us and around us, and the interior began to be illuminated by a discreet system of hidden sodium lights. The darkness around us gave way to a spectacular golden light. The arching ceilings above us were covered in a spectacular gleaming mosaic of glass and gold. Between the 11th and the 15th centuries nearly 11,000 square feet of gold mosaic was made, square by square, mixing gold with glass through a delicate process that is still not fully understood, to produce this sparkling golden sanctuary. Appearances can be deceptive.

But, on reflection, what was more striking to me was the realization that the hundreds of master craftsmen who had worked for centuries to create this fabulous sight had never seen it in its full glory. They worked in the gloomy interior, aided by candlelight and smoky oil lamps to illuminate the small area on which they worked, but not one of them had ever seen the full glory of the golden ceiling. For them, like us, 500 years afterward, appearances were deceptive.

Getting closer to the stars

Our universe is a bit like that too. The ancient writers who celebrated the heavens’ declaration of the glory of the Lord saw only through a glass darkly. Unbeknown to them and countless others who followed them, the universe has revealed itself by the instruments that modern science has made possible to be far bigger, more spectacular and more humbling than we ever imagined it to be.

The universe appears big and old, dark and cold, hostile to life as we know it, dangerous and costly to explore. Many a philosopher of the past concluded that the universe was meaningless and antithetical to life: a bleak and black realm in which our little planet is a temporary outcome of the blind forces of nature. Yet, appearances may again be deceptive.

Over the past 75 years, astronomers have illuminated the vault of the heavens in a completely unexpected way. The universe is not only big, but it is also getting bigger. It is expanding. Great clusters of galaxies are moving away from each other at increasing speeds. This means that the size of the universe we can see is inextricably bound up with its age. It is big because it is old.

These huge periods of time are important for our own existence. We are made of complicated atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, along with many others. Maybe one day other forms of terrestrial intelligence will be made of silicon atoms. The nuclei of all these atoms do not come ready-made with the universe. They are put together by a long slow-burning sequence of nuclear reactions in the stars. It takes almost 10 billion years for this stellar alchemy to burn hydrogen to helium, and on to beryllium, and carbon and oxygen and beyond, before the dying stars explode in supernovae and spread their life-giving debris around the universe where it finds its way into grains of dust, planets, and ultimately into people. The nucleus of every carbon atom in our bodies has been through a star. We are closer to the stars than we could ever have imagined.

Driven to understand

Astronomy has transformed the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the skeptical philosophers. It breathes new life into so many religious questions of ultimate concern and never-ending fascination. Many of the deepest and most engaging questions that we grapple with still about the nature of the universe have their origins in our purely religious quest for meaning.

The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God. The atomistic picture of matter arose long before there could have been any experimental evidence for or against it.

Out of these beliefs came confidence that there was an unchanging order behind the appearances that was worth studying. Great questions about the origin and end of the universe, possibly the sources of all observed complexity, and the potential infinity of space grew out of our religious focus on the great questions of existence and the nature of God.

And, like all great questions, they can turn out to have answers that take us down unexpected paths, further and further away from the familiar and the everyday: multiverses, extra dimensions, the bending of time and of space – all may reveal a universe that contains more than is needed for life, more even than is needed for speculation. We see now how it is possible for a universe that displays unending complexity and exquisite structure to be governed by a few simple laws – perhaps just one law – that are symmetrical and intelligible, laws that govern the most remarkable things in our universe: populations of elementary “particles” that are everywhere perfectly identical.

Reality’s hidden logic

It is to this simple and beautiful world behind the appearances — where the lawfulness of nature is most elegantly and completely revealed — that physicists look to find the hallmark of the universe. Everyone else looks at the outcomes of these laws. The outcomes are often complicated, hard to understand and of great significance – they even include ourselves – but the true simplicity and symmetry of the universe is to be found in the things that are not seen. Most remarkable of all, we find that there are mathematical equations, little squiggles on pieces of paper, that tell us how whole universes behave. There is a logic larger than universes that is more surprising because we can understand a meaningful part of it and, thereby, share in its appreciation.

Once we thought everything in the universe was made of the things material that we find on Earth. We have now discovered that this too was only a first guess. More than 70 percent of the universe is composed of a form of dark energy whose precise identity is unknown. It reveals its presence by its dramatic effect upon the expansion of the universe. Unlike all other known forms of matter, which exert gravitational attractive forces on other forms of matter and among themselves, this dark form of energy responds repulsively to gravity, causing all material to accelerate away from it, creating an acceleration in the expansion of the universe that began to occur when it had reached about 75 percent of its presence extent. This discovery about our universe was a surprise – like discovering something totally unexpected about an old friend. Again, appearances were deceptive.

So with the universe, as it was that evening in St. Mark’s, things are not always as they seem when we look upward. The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. The architects of our religious and scientific pictures of the universe, and the many commentators on their meanings that followed them, could see only a small part of what there is and knew only a small part of what it has to teach us about our place in the universe. We begin to see afresh the extraordinary nature of our local environment and the link that attaches life to the vastness of space and time. Appearances can indeed be deceptive.

Knowing what we don’t know

There are some who say that just because we use our minds to appreciate the order and complexity of the universe around us, there is nothing more to that order than what is imposed by the human mind. That is a serious misjudgment. Were it true, we would expect to find our greatest and most reliable understanding of the world in the everyday events for which millions of years of natural selection have sharpened our wits and prepared our senses.

And when we look toward the outer space of galaxies and black holes, or into the inner space of quarks and electrons, we should expect to find few resonances between our minds and the ways of these worlds. Natural selection requires no understanding of quarks and black holes for our survival and multiplication.

And yet, we find these expectations turned upon their heads. The most precise and reliable knowledge we have about anything in the universe is of events in a binary star system more than 3,000 light-years from our planet and in the subatomic world of electrons and light rays, where it is accurate to better than nine decimal places. And curiously, our greatest uncertainties all relate to the local problems of understanding ourselves – human societies, human behavior and human minds – all the things that really mattered for human survival. But that is because they need to be complex: Were our minds simple enough to be understood, they would be too simple to understand.

In all the science we pursue, we are used to seeing progress. Our first attempts to grasp the laws of nature are often incomplete. They capture just a part of the truth, or they see it through a glass only darkly.

Some think that our progress is like a never-ending sequence of revolutions that overthrow the old order, condemned never to converge upon anything more definitive than a more useful style of thinking. But scientific progress doesn’t look like that from the inside. Our new theories extend and subsume old ones. The former theories are recovered in some limited situation – slow motions, weak gravitational fields, large sizes, or low energies – from the new. Newton’s 300-year-old theory of mechanics and gravity has been superseded by Einstein’s, which will be succeeded by M theory or its unknown successor in the future. But in a thousand years’ time schoolchildren will still study Newton’s theories and engineers will still rely upon them just as they do today. They will be the simple limiting form for slow motions and weak gravity of the ultimate theory, whatever it turns out to be.

In our religious conceptions of the universe, we also use approximations and analogies to have some grasp of ultimate things. They are not the whole truth, but this does not stop them being a part of the truth — a shadow that is cast in a limiting situation of some simplicity. Our scientific picture of the universe has revealed time and again how blinkered and conservative our outlook has often been, how self-serving our interim picture of the universe, how mundane our expectations, and how parochial our attempts to find or deny the links between scientific and religious approaches to the nature of the universe.

Sir John Templeton has sought to encourage this impartial dialogue in the firm belief that religion and science can supply mutual illumination and appreciation of the wonders of our universe and inspire us to seek out and comprehend the truth in new ways – a truth that is unfailingly unexpected and so often not at all like it first appears.

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