December 15, 2004


EXCERPT: Chapter One: The God of Sci/religion (God In The Equation: How Einstein Became the Prophet of the New Religious Era By Corey Powell)

The world's newest spiritual center is a long way from Mecca or Jerusalem, Vatican City or Lhasa. It lies at the remote summit of Mauna Kea, a million-year-old mountain of lava and ash jutting nearly three miles above the tropical Hawaiian shore. While the old sites still hold a sacred place in the imaginations of countless billions, their spiritual wisdom hasn't changed in centuries. Hearing the latest gospel requires a pilgrimage to the top of this hulking, dormant volcano.

Antiseptic white domed buildings, mysteriously unmarked, interrupt the desolate landscape. There are no spires, no stained glass, no columns or gilded doorways to welcome the visitor. Inside, the high priests of science and their electronic surrogates peer through the dry, rarefied atmosphere into the vastness above. A trek to this remote pinnacle of astronomical power begins on the lightly traveled Saddle Road, which runs between Mauna Kea and its active twin, Mauna Loa, on Hawaii's Big Island. Your rental car is wheezing by the time you reach the stopping point halfway up, at Hale Pohaku. Even after a night of acclimation, your own lungs are working double time when you reach the top, an altitude of just under fourteen thousand feet. At night the stars appear strangely dim, because your retinas are starved for air and unable to pull their normal duty. The sky swims with the blackness of a near faint, similar to the kind of negative rush you see when you stand up too quickly. Take a deep breath of pure oxygen from a tank and all the visual chemistry falls back into place. Then, a revelation: The sky blooms with light, the universe made manifest by a dose of rudimentary medical technology.

The two Keck telescopes are the supreme oracles of Mauna Kea. After a half hour in the dark, a healthy person's pupils open not quite one-third of an inch, and behind them the retinas store about one-tenth of a second of visual information. Keck I and its newer twin, Keck II, maintain an unblinking gaze thirty-three feet across and can hold it for hours. Their thirty-six-piece, segmented mirrors gather billion-year-old light from faraway quasars and galaxies, amassing the raw information to answer questions otherwise unknowable to mere mortals. Photon by photon, the Kecks are validating the new way of understanding the world.

The word coming down from Mauna Kea is not traditional science. It is too grand in scope, embracing all of space out to the edge of the universe and all of time back to the moment of cosmic origin. It is empirical, but it knowingly overreaches, describing particles that have never been detected, fields that have never been felt, and regions of space that have never been seen. It utterly dwarfs human conceptions, much like an omnipotent deity. Yet this celestial form of enlightenment also bears little resemblance to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or any other old-time religion. In place of the unity of God, it seeks out simplicity of explanation. In place of a central dogma, it rests on the falsification of theory through empirical data. It develops its own entrenched doctrines, but it also provides the tools with which to discard them. This new faith has acquired millions of converts and permeated every corner of American culture. It has changed our world, but until now it hasn't had a name.

Call it sci/religion, because it blends elements of the experimental and the mystical. The name also works as a pun on two defin-ing aspects of modern science. In quantum theory, the Greek letter psi represents the fundamental uncertainty of measurement. At any moment, a subatomic particle does not have a single, well-defined position; instead, it has a statistical blur of potential positions. In essence, the uncertainty principle means a particle can be in two places at the same time, allowing interactions that would be forbidden according to classical physics or common sense. This quantum rule bending permits the nuclear reactions that cause stars to shine, and in some current cosmological models it even explains the origin of the universe. So: "psi religion." Sci/religion also evokes scientists' wariness about openly discussing the metaphysical strains that are increasingly obvious in their work. They shy away from questions about their personal faith, fearing that any answer will only make them look foolish or reactionary. When you ask them if they believe in God, they always respond the same way, with a sigh. So: "sigh, religion."

The founder and greatest prophet of sci/religion had no such qualms about finding common ground between the material and the mystical. Albert Einstein recognized the search for truth as an inherently spiritual endeavor. "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man," he explained to one of his students in 1936. Explicitly and implicitly in his work, Einstein preached the doctrines of unity, simplicity, and universality. These principles are the guiding lights of sci/religion. Few of his followers speak as openly as he did, but their actions give them away. Just look at the beliefs that motivate their experiments, their equations, and their journal articles. Look at their research on Mauna Kea. They worship in the Church of Einstein.

Surely someone can explain why the physical science of physics is more honest about itself than the philosophy of evolution biology generally is (with the notable exception of the great Ernst Mayr)? As the physicist Robert Griffiths put it: “If we need an atheist for a debate, I go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn’t much use.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2004 8:49 PM

However, if Mr. Griffiths wanted a deist for a debate, the Physics dept would do just fine.

You shouldn't allow your root and branch antagonism towards evolution to further cloud your judgment about Evolution biology. An evolutionist could easily be entirely deistic in the way many, if not most, Physicists are, and still not find any conflict with Evolutionary theory.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 15, 2004 10:11 PM

I was fortunate enough to get a tour of this facility years ago through the good offices of an acquaintance's wife, who is an astronomer. As a Christian, I reject the 'Pele' nonsense surrounding volcanoes on the Big Island. I must say, however, it was spiritual. Perhaps from the lack of oxygen, which is noticeable.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at December 15, 2004 11:49 PM

I've also been to the observatory complex at Mauna Kea. A true temple of Big Science.

To look upon the face of the cosmos is to look into eternity itself. Physicists understand that.

Posted by: M. Murcek at December 15, 2004 11:59 PM

I'm a backyard astronomer, and once spent an evening at the top of Mauna Kea, studying the sky both with the naked eye and through a good amateur telescope. It was an amazing experience. I was not prepared for the darkness of the sky and the number of stars that were visible. I had always thought that the sky at the Grand Canyon or the middle of the Negev was a dark as it could get, but Mauna Kea was unbelievable...truly awe-inspiring.

Posted by: Foos at December 16, 2004 1:12 AM

> Surely someone can explain why the physical science of physics is more honest about itself than the philosophy of evolution biology generally is

Here's a stab at it: Physics is based on empirical evidence and has accumulated empirical evidence that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Evolution is based on circumstantial evidence and has accumulated circumstantial evidence that man can't really know anything.

Posted by: Guy T. at December 16, 2004 1:21 AM

I'll take another stab. Physical laws are universal, simple, and yet elegant, not to mention being amazingly accurate.

Physicists have learned to be humble. It was only a little more than 100 years ago that physicists thought all physical laws had been discovered, only to have Michelson-Morley's null experiment, radioactivity, X-rays, quantum mechanics, and relativity upset their dogmatic viewpoint.

Every physics student recapitulates this history: first Newtonian mechanics, then Maxwell's electromagnetic theory, then quantum mechanics and relativity. It teaches them that every theory is fallible, and yet there is some underlying elegance to the universe which is unexplained and mysterious.

Posted by: jd watson at December 16, 2004 2:54 AM

When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, what is man that thou art mindful of him?

Posted by: Mike Morley at December 16, 2004 6:31 AM

I worked 14 weeks on the summit of Mauna Kea at two telescopes. I never heard it described as a shrine, except to the Hawaiian gods.

For beauty of sky I recommend the Chilean observatories -- the southern sky is far more lovely than the northern, thanks to the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds.

Physics has self-confidence -- it doesn't need to be fluffed up by pseudo-religion. It's when the evidence isn't quite enough to prove the conclusions that people get passionate.

Posted by: pj at December 16, 2004 9:09 AM

All the physicists I know are atheists, except one who is an Episcopalian, but they are all working physicists, not academics.

I'm not sure why the stars should be more awesome from atop Mauna Kea than in, say, somplace outside Des Moines.

And it's kind of arrogant, in a way, to demand a whole thumping universe in order to reach the threshold of awe. I reach it every day in my garden.

Though I've never been to the top of Mauna Kea, I have been atop Haleakala, which is nearly as high, and I live on the side of it. The stars seem just as neat from my backyard at 1,500 feet as from the summit at 10,000, though.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 16, 2004 4:51 PM

Intriguing though that you moved to the psi-religious Jerusalem.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 5:43 PM

I don't know what psi-religion might be. I moved here because my wife said, 'Move someplace warm.'

The other candidate was Bay City, Texas.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2004 12:37 AM

Ah, the Super-Conducting Super-Collider Mecca...

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 8:29 AM