Religion Weighs In

Most scientific debates take place in coffee houses and scientific conferences.  But with something as fundamental as how the universe began the public got involved.  George Gamow was in large part responsible for the publicity by writing articles for popular magazines.  Eventually even the Catholic Church got involved.  In 1951 Pope Pius XII gave an address in which he praised the Big Bang Theory as proof  of the existence of a creator:

“Thus everything seems to indicate that the material universe had a mighty beginning in time, endowed as it was with vast reserves of energy, in virtue of which, at first rapidly and then ever more slowly, it evolved into its present state. . . . In fact it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial Fiat lux uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies. . . . Therefore there is a Creator.  Therefore God exists!”

image of pope Pius xii
image of pope Pius xii (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The atheist and jokester Gamow seized on this and mischievously quoted the Pope in a research paper he published in 1952, knowing it would annoy many of his colleagues who were anxious to avoid any overlap between science and religion.  The large majority of physicists believed that the validity of the Big Bang Theory had nothing to do with God and that the Pope’s endorsement of it should not be used in a serious debate.  Supporters of the Steady State Theory began to use the Pope’s address as a way of mocking the Big Bang Theory.  British physicist William Bonner suggested that the Big Bang Theory was part of a religious conspiracy to shore up Christianity.  “The underlying motive,” he said, “is of course to bring in God as a creator.  It seems like the opportunity Christian theology has been waiting for ever since science began to depose religion from the minds of rational men in the seventeenth century.”

Bonner was clearly referring to Galileo’s experience.  Since that unfortunate encounter between religion and science, science had portrayed a religious person as someone who checked his intellect at the door of the church when he entered.  This wariness toward religion sometimes bordered on paranoia.  English Nobel laureate George Thomson observed: “Probably every physicist would believe in creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.”

English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-bo...
English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Русский: Георгий Гамов (1904—1968) — советский и американский физик-теоретик, астрофизик и популяризатор науки. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, scientists were fairly equally divided between the two theories.  Both models had established themselves as serious contenders but neither had proven conclusive.  Both were based on observations that were made at the limits of science’s technology, so the “facts” deduced from those observations had to be taken not lightly but with critical examination.  Furthermore there were a number of highly intricate connections between the facts that were necessary in order to arrive at the final version of each theory.


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