Thursday, June 13, 2019

God and the Nobel Prize

A religious skeptic recently told a friend of mine, "If someone were to find proof of the existence of God, that person would win a Nobel prize." It is certainly true that proof of God would be a monumental accomplishment worthy of great recognition, though I'm not sure which Nobel prize would be given for such a discovery: chemistry? peace? literature? After thinking about this for a while, it could be argued that there has already been a Nobel prize awarded for a scientific discovery that gave "proof" of God: the Nobel prize in physics in 1978.

Of course, in a scientific context, nothing is ever really proven to be absolutely true. Our theories and hypotheses may be tested and verified to the point that we believe they are most likely universally valid, but we don't say they are absolutely proven because if we were to find any exception in any circumstance to any general law then that law would not be absolutely true. Nevertheless, we certainly have overwhelming evidence that certain ideas seem to be always correct and we can call that "proof" in the context of this discussion about proof of God. With such a definition, we could say that the theory of special relativity is proven or that the principle that energy is always conserved is proven.

The story of the 1978 Nobel prize actually begins in 1927 when the Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre proposed that the universe had a beginning, something he called the "primeval atom" or "cosmic egg."1 Lemaitre’s idea was not taken too seriously by most scientists because it was published in a fairly obscure journal and there was no evidence for such a beginning. But that changed in 1929 when the astrophysicist Edwin Hubble published a paper showing that galaxies were moving apart from each other; the universe was expanding.2 The implications of this discovery were recognized by scientists, theologians, and philosophers. If the universe were expanding now it must have started to expand at one point; it likely had a beginning. For many reasons, some philosophical and theological, scientists were reluctant to accept that the universe had a beginning. Many alternatives were proposed and evidence for these alternatives was actively searched for, with no positive results.

In 1949 this hypothetical beginning of the universe was first called the “big bang" by physicist Sir Fred Hoyle, who was not fond of the idea that the universe may have had an origin. By most accounts, he coined the term “big bang” because he thought it was such a ludicrous and silly name that no one would adopt the name, and possibly no one would adopt the theory either.

Nevertheless, based on Hubble’s discovery and other data, theoretical physicists developed mathematical models that calculated the ramifications of a universe that had a beginning in a hot big bang; an origin in which the visible universe was once compressed into a very small, hot, dense region. In 1948 Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman calculated that if the universe was originally very hot and very dense that we should still be able to measure the residual heat from billions of years ago. They predicted that the temperature of the universe should be fairly uniform throughout its volume and should be something just above absolute zero, a temperature of about 5 K (–451 ℉)3. Alpher and Herman's paper was not widely known and there were no experiments designed to measure the overall temperature of the universe for 20 years.

But in 1964, two physicists from Bell labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson began an experiment in an attempt to measure radio wave signals from the space between galaxies. The “telescope” they used to make their measurement looked like a large horn and had a large cavity open to the air. (See the telescope in the background of the above picture).

Unfortunately, their experiment immediately ran into problems. Whenever they turned on their telescope they encountered an annoying electronic noise similar to the fuzzy hiss that could sometimes be seen on old analog television sets. They tried everything they could to get rid of the noise, including cleaning out pigeon droppings from inside the telescope. Unbeknownst to Penzias and Wilson, a team of three astrophysicists at Princeton, Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles, and David Wilkinson, were preparing to search for the residual radiation from the big bang as well. Bernard Burke, who was a friend of Penzias, had seen a preprint of a paper by Peebles and mentioned the paper to Penzias. Because of that chance encounter, Penzias and Wilson realized that the noise they were observing in their telescope had the exact characteristics of the heat left over from the big bang as predicted by Alpher and Herman. They had unknowingly stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of the 20thcentury, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation.4 The temperature was measured to be just under 3 K, very close to what had been predicted. This was indisputable proof that the universe had a beginning.

The theological implications of a beginning of the universe have been recognized since at least 1929 with Hubble’s discovery. If the universe had a beginning it must have had a transcendent cause, something that began it that is separate from the universe itself. This transcendent cause is identical to the characteristic of the biblical God. Penzias himself stated, "The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole."5 His own discovery of the CMB was exactly what would be expected if the Bible were true in its statement about origins and if there were a God who created the universe.

The importance of the discovery of the CMB was validated in 1978 when the Nobel committee awarded one-half of the Nobel prize to Penzias and Wilson for "their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation."6 The CMB gave confirming proof that the universe had a beginning and, it could be argued, is among the best possible evidences for the existence of a creator. How could a transcendent infinite being provide evidence of his existence to creatures limited to finite dimensions of space and time? There are a few possibilities, but one of the most obvious options would be to make the origin of their universe knowable to those creatures and to have the origin require a necessary transcendent cause. This is about as close to “proof” of the existence of God as can be imagined. So the discovery of the CMB, that indicates our universe had a beginning and thus gives “proof” for the existence of God, was awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1978. Skeptics may want to take notice.

1Lemaitre, Georges, "A homogeneous universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae,” Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles, (1927).
2Hubble, Edwin, "A relation between distance and radial velocity among extra-galactic nebulae," Proc Natl Acad Sci USA15; 168–173, (1929).
3Alpher, Ralph and Herman, Robert, "On the Relative Abundance of the Elements," Phys. Rev. 74, 1737-1742, (1948).
4Penzias, A.A. and Wilson, R. W.,  "A Measurement Of Excess Antenna Temperature At 4080 Mc/s". Astrophysical Journal Letters. 142: 419–421, (1965).
5Browne, Malcolm. "Clues to the Universe's Origin Expected." New York Times, Mar. 12, 1978, p. 1, col. 54.

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