Slate's Bizbox

back to homepage


Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.

Owen Gingerich


Wright: Owen Gingerich is a senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical observatory and research professor of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard university. He is the author of "The Great Copernicus chase" and "The Eye of Heaven." I interviewed him at Harvard. Ok, well thanks for taking time out from you work to talk to me today. You are a scientist and you're also, by your own account, religious and I gather that you first of all see no contradiction between these two identifies but, more than that you see a kind of synergy between them and by that I mean, on the one hand in your scientific exploration of the universe, you find what you see as evidence for higher purpose or design in the universe, and on the other hand I gather that you find that a belief in purpose and design facilitates your scientific work and here I have in mind something that you wrote: "at least for some of us the universe is easier to comprehend if it has both purpose and design." What did you mean by that?

Owen Gingerich: Well it seems to me that a universe that just is and we happen to be here as part of this incredible astonishing complexity without any sort of purpose or ultimate meaning makes it sort of a macabre joke and I find it difficult to accept that. I suppose this is a gut reaction of how things ought to be and it is one of those things that I can't prove but it simply makes a lot more sense to me to think that somehow there is ultimate purpose and reason behind it.

Wright: So you would have literary had more trouble trying to find out how the physical world works if you thought that there was no point to the physical world.

Owen Gingerich: I think that this has been a driving force throughout the whole history of science of belief in a kind of unity and a kind of design that is possible for human beings as a creatures connected with God, created in the image of God it has kept scientists going in this remarkable pursuit to understand.

Wright: Well, it's certainly true that all scientists come to think of it, whether religious or not, are assuming in some sense a unity that's the driving assumption is that you can boil down the data to a more unified form and that's what everyone is after...

Owen Gingerich: I think Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is it's comprehensibility. The fact that we can hope to understand it is truly remarkable and it seems to me that that's part of the pattern that somehow we're endowed with the ability to understand it because there is something about it that is fundamentally understandable.


Wright: Now, the synergy between the religious and the scientific side of you also works in the other direction. It isn't just that religion facilitates your religion but in your science you find what you see as evidence that affirms your religious belief. What's an example of that?

Owen Gingerich: It seems to me that there is always a creative intention between the religious ideas and ideals and what you see in the natural world which in many respects seems surprising cruel and heartless so how you play these two things together is something that is part of a pilgrimage of understand where you try to put that together. Now in looking for example at the way the elements are made, there is something remarkable in the early part of the periodic table. You have hydrogen, the simplest atom, has an atomic weight of one, more or less by definition and then you get deuterium, a weight of two and tritium a weight of three, helium four but there's no stable mass five. and this has truly remarkable consequences for the universe as we see it. It was sometimes referred to by the late Willy Fowler, Nobel laureate in physics, as God's goof that there was no mass five.

Wright: So, if you look at a period table there's a blank square in the top row, is that it?

Owen Gingerich: There's no blank square it's because the atomic table of elements goes according to the charges in the nucleus and you get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in terms of charges but not in terms of mass. And if you're going to make the elements from scratch or from a big bang, you're going to do it by joining hydrogen atoms together. Weight one, one plus one is two plus one is three plus four you get helium but plus five it doesn't stick and it falls apart again and that prevents you from building up to the higher elements in that three minutes of the cooking of the elements in the big bang.

Wright: Then what was the long term implication of that inability?

Owen Gingerich: In order to get beyond this you have to build them up by putting helium atoms together which is weight four and it goes four at a time. Three times four is twelve and that's carbon and that's what's basic to the chemistry of you and me. Add another helium and you get to oxygen. Carbon and oxygen are after hydrogen and helium the two most abundant elements in the universe and they're absolutely essential for life. If There were a mass five, you would then be able to build it up one step at a time and go zooming right up towards the heaviest elements in the moments of the big bang and the abundances would be entirely different from what we see now. So what might in some peculiar sense be seen as a goof turns out to be absolutely essential for making the abundances that are exactly what we need for higher organisms and for intelligent life.


Wright: So would we have never gotten carbon at all ...

Owen Gingerich: We would have gotten carbon but not in the present abundance. It would be an (()) probably.

Wright: And I mean I guess there's no way of knowing whether what we would have gotten instead would have been conducive to life right or of course any ...part of the premise of all of this is that carbon is the basic building block of life as we know it right.

Owen Gingerich: I think if you look at the properties of the more abundant atoms that carbon plays an utterly unique roll. It's very difficult for us to imagine how you could get a comparable complexity using some other atom. But of course it isn't necessary to worry about that because carbon turns out to be so ubiquitously abundant. And therefore it's always available for exactly this purpose, of making a complex organic chemistry. The reason carbon is so special is that it can bond with itself into long chains, into rings, in very complex forms and that is the basis for the entire system of enzymes those chemicals that do all the machinery inside of ourselves. It simply is the complexity that makes our life possible.

Wright: Now this is this is sometime referred to as the anthropic principle the idea that in various fundamental constants in the universe happen to be exactly or close to exactly what you would need to get life and there's a number of these things -- gravitational constant, and so on -- I gather, that's what this is one the example you just gave is an example of the anthropic principle right?

Owen Gingerich: I've given an example of the anthropic principle and Sir Martin Reece, the astronomer royal, has a recent book entitled "Just Six Numbers" and these are essentially six anthropic numbers. They are dimensionless numbers that if they were change by a relatively small amount any one of them would make life impossible and yet they all seem to be independent of each other and There they are. If you want to think a little bit more about the anthropic principle by the way it's had an interesting history. When it was proposed as an idea it was essentially saying look all these things are so magnificently tuned it looks as if the universe was specifically designed to make life possible. Later on, the people who were uncomfortable with that turned the argument upside down essentially saying but look if it wouldn't be like that we wouldn't be here to speculate. And therefore it is necessary that we find a universe with all these anthropic numbers in it simply because we're here.


Wright: Right so in their view it's almost redundant to say the universe is conducive to life, after all we're here. The life is here so you're almost adding no information. That's their argument, right?

Owen Gingerich: That's the argument. And it seems to me that there are sort of three ways you can approach this. You can say Well, somehow there is a master plan and the universe has been designed so that it's possible for us to be here. Or secondly, that somehow the way universes work we just are in one of myriad universes, that these multi universes come with all kinds of physical principle, dimensions, constants and that then out of this huge number we are necessarily in the one that happens to have this configuration. Now thirdly you could suppose that there is something physical about the universe that it could be no other way. That there are no alternative universes possible that the constants for reasons we don't understand have to be this way in order to make a universe at all. Now some people might say ok those last two of the three options are the scientific ones. The first option is essentially a religious option because you're saying that there is something supernatural out there that accounts for the design. But it seems to me that the more you think about it the more blurred this all becomes because if the universe has to be this way and can be no other, does that preclude a design or a designer? Seems to me that it's much the same it's once more just turning the same kind of information on it's head and approaching it from another direction. So essentially I would have to say if I were speaking to a mixed audience of skeptics and theists that all of you are men of faith even those of you who are skeptics have opted for a belief system that you happen to have chosen that rules out the notion of god that that's something that you cannot prove in any way. It may make more sense to you that way and I would have trouble arguing against them. I know for example that Steve Weinberg, an eminent physicist, one of the very creative scientists of our generation is rejecting the notion of God and it has nothing to do with the way in which the physical constants are put together in the universe, has nothing to do with nuclear physics or atomic structure. It has to do with the problem of evil. He finds it difficult to conceive of a beneficent creator in world that has so much suffering in it.

Wright: And an omnipotent one... One that was both benign and omnipotent ...

Owen Gingerich: Yes of course...

Wright: ... could have done better.


Wright: And why is that not a problem for you?

Owen Gingerich: I suppose it's a way of weighing things and I see this is a tremendous problem but I feel that's in somebody else's ball court you know you start thinking about these problems, the scientific ones, the cosmological ones the theological ones, and there's no way you're going to solve all of them. You can't be the polymath the renaissance person who combines Aristotle and Aquinas and Leonardo and all the rest in one brain and solves all the problems...

Wright: So you're going to leave the problem of evil to theologian?

Owen Gingerich: Exactly. You have to leave somethings aside...

Wright: That's the best solution to it I've heard yet.


Wright: Now the one group of people you can't accuse of making a leap of faith I think is agnostics, right? Atheists are in a sense assuming something they can't prove but that's not true of agnostics right?

Owen Gingerich: If you're agnostic and say you simply don't know, and you're open to arguments from both sides, I suppose it's more difficult to pin a tag of faith on these people. I wonder how many honest agnostics one has. It was interesting in a debate between Steve Wineburg and John Polkinghorn that Steve Wineburg said most people aren't entitled to be atheists because they haven't thought about it enough. So I suppose you do have a large unthinking middle ground of people who quite honestly haven't made any kind of leap of faith in this matter because they just haven't thought about it enough to even try to decide.


Wright: One thing I've been wondering lately is what happened before the big bang? The reason I say this is I had always assumed that that was a question that was, by definition, not amenable to scientific analysis, what happened before the big bang. But then I saw a newspaper article not long ago about these various I guess scientific theories about what happened before the big bang. Is that or is that not something that scientists can investigate?

Owen Gingerich: It's interesting that if you look at theology and you would talk let's say to Hannenburg, he would talk about eternity as something very different from the passage of time, that eternity somehow embodies all of time within it and I suppose the scientists are coming around to think about eternity in a sense that if you want to ask what happened before the big bang you're going outside of our ordinary measure of time because time in an Einsteinian sense is present only when you have change and motion and you don't have change and motion as long as you have nothing.

Wright: Which is the case before the big bang?

Owen Gingerich: That's right.

Wright: By definition.

Owen Gingerich: But you could nevertheless define an eternity as something in which time is embedded and if you have this kind of eternity There might arise other universes and even the possibility of universes that either lack a dimension of time, have multiple dimensions of time or so on. It's very hard to wrap ourselves around anything like that because we are as creatures extraordinarily time dependent. We think in terms of cause and effect, we think of ourselves as having a past that can be remembered and a future which is inaccessible to us. These questions about the nature of time are very interesting and profound and I think when people ask what happened before the big bang they're not divorcing themselves from the notion of time. They're thinking of before in a sense of you know what's happening out There and it's not what happening because what's happening is a time dependent notion.,

Wright: So is it does this fact that that to step past beyond the big bang, to go back before the big bang is to leave a time-dependant universe.

Owen Gingerich: I would say so.

Wright: Does that mean that it really is not a subject for scientific investigation properly speaking and is just a matter for philosophic and theological speculation or are There scientists who hope can realistically hope to find some data at some point that would support one area or another?

Owen Gingerich: It's very curious because I have an ongoing discussion with Martin Reece about this and I know a lot of other cosmologists would tell him that Hey this is just a metaphysical speculation that There are multi verses out There and he says No No the mathematics shows that in this kind of model There is no reason why you can't change the parameters and have other quite different universes and if you can show mathematically that they can be There there's nothing to prevent them from actually being there. I think many people have a problem with that because it is hopeless to get in touch with any of these other universes. But I always have to pause and say for a long time Christians have been talking about a totally other kind of universe that we don't have direct access to and that's Heaven, the hereafter, paradise, whatever. It's curious I think most scientists would even if they believe in multiverses feel somewhat uneasy at the notion that Hey wait a minute! Theologians have already been there.


Wright: I don't know how closely related this is but in somewhere in your writing you brought up this book "Flatland" this well known book. Can you first of all describe the summarize the plot kind of and then say a little about it's relevance to the intersection of science and religion.

Owen Gingerich: "Flatland" is an extraordinarily interesting book about life in a 2 dimensional world which is then interrupted by the presence of a visitor from a 3 dimensional world, a sphere, who manifests himself as a circle that can grow larger and larger and then smaller and smaller again as the sphere passes through this 1 dimensional plane the creature in this 3 in this 2 dimensional flatland world who begins to get the vision of a 3rd dimension is locked up as crazy but the sphere on the other hand is greatly insulted at the thought that there might be four dimensions, one lying beyond him and the whole idea of the book is to get people into the notion of thinking of higher dimensions and how they could interact with our 3 dimensional world. This then in turn becomes very popular because so much of general relativity can be explained in terms of multidimensions and nowadays with the so-called string theory which may or may not turn out to be a great explanatory device for multiple universe and all of this is now talking again in terms of multiple dimensions.


Wright: Here's something you wrote in a book of collected essays called "How Large Is God?" You wrote: "As we become more sophisticated in constructing our view of the cosmos we must likewise become more nuanced in our view of God, of the divine. It makes no sense to drive an ox cart down the interstate." What did you mean by that?

Owen Gingerich: Well, clearly a lot of Biblical imagery is set in a different cosmological time of a much smaller closed kind of a world and I think we have to come to terms with the vastness of the universe and we have to understand that just because the universe is so vast, it doesn't mean that we're insignificant because we're so small. We have to understand that these vast reaches of time and space are closely cupeled with the way in which the elements have come to be and it seems to have take a very very long time to get the iron built up in the slow cooking of stellar interiors those fiery furnaces that have produced the elements required for our bodies, for our blood, for our... so many of the more esoteric biochemical reactions inside us. So when I look at many of the scriptural discussions I have to say Hm well I'm a little uneasy at this, the idea of the ascension of Jesus into Heaven. I mean, does he go up and is picked up by an alien space craft? Where is up with respect to our universe? It made every bit of sense for a kind of medieval universe where the Heavenly hosts were assembled just beyond the sphere of Jupiter. It makes no sense at all to us now. That's what I mean by driving an ox cart down the superhighway.


Wright: You have abandon some of the traditional details of Christian belief, at least in their specifics and I actually found another quote of yours in which You... it seems to me You have a, the way You describe God is in a vaguer way than Christians would have thought of God 150 years ago say. You say, "For me it makes sense to suppose that the superintelligence, the transcendence, the ground of being in Paul Tillich's formulation has revealed itself through prophets in all ages and supremely in the life of Jesus Christ." Now these terms, "the transcendence," "the ground of being," "the superintelligence," doesn't sound like you know a guy with a beard in a throne that you might have thought of, some people think of today you know more Christians might have thought of in an earlier time. So can u talk a little about the way you're ... I mean, what is God in your...

Owen Gingerich: I think that many people have a view of God that is very much fixed by the Sistine Chapel with the old man reaching his finger out and creating Adam. That's a view that goes back very far but that imagery is so profound in our understanding and thinking about God and yet when u think about this Creator of all of the natural world the incredible power, the incredible knowledge, understanding and omnipotence of something like that is so far beyond human comprehension that this is hardly something that we could even begin to relate to. It becomes very much a danger with natural theology to generate an image of God of large numbers of incredible feats and power and so on. If God has this omnipotence and wants to relate to his creatures then I would say that God would also have the power to come forward in many different aspects including the aspect of this patriarchal figure that appears in the Leonardo Sistine Chapel but I think as we begin to understand more and more about God we understand that that really is not a satisfactory view because that is so much of projection of a particular kind of patriarchal society on what God should be like. And it is quite possible that God in the revealed aspects in fact changes and adapts to an interaction with humankind. So, how can information come to humankind? I am not myself a believer that you find it (()) on tablets of stone or coming to You on a microchip or however else might be possible for revelation. Revelation has to come through the minds of human kind and it would come through people who have religious experiences, who think very deeply with deep understanding and this kind of revelation CNA come very clearly through a person in the case let us say of Jesus. But I would think that it is a very bold kind of arrogance to suppose that that's the only way that God has come and revealed itself to us. So I would say I would not dismiss the notion of a personal God but I would have to say that the personal God is only a tiny fraction of what God is all about and that is the fraction that gives us the possibility of a relationship so that I'm afraid that natural theology doesn't really build up a great picture of the God that we would worship and find useful in making ethical decisions or relating to our fellow human beings.


Wright: As You describe God in kind of more abstract terms then maybe Christians would have done in the 19th Century. Are You increasingly describing God in a way that could apply to other religions aside from Christianity. I mean, are we moving toward some conception of God that transcends the individual great religions and encompasses them all something that Hindus could agree on or ....

Owen Gingerich: I think that very many of us and the us includes the people who are looking at this particular video grew up in an environment where you thought that Heaven was a pretty small place, that we pretty well knew who was going to be there and there were an awful lot of people out there who weren't. and I think as one matures and begins to understand that the human aspirations about God one realizes that we have not the power to limit the reach of God's attention to his creatures so I guess I would have to tell you that I would be much more open to other paths to God than I once would have understood growing up in a small rural community in Iowa.

Wright: But at the same time as your conception of God becomes more I guess you might say ecumenical in the broadest sense, in the global sense in other words possibly moving beyond Christianity you still say that you think God has been revealed supremely in the life of Jesus Christ which I hate to mean more fully than in the life of any other prophet...

Owen Gingerich: I would subscribe to that yes and I find that there is a very compelling story in the life of Jesus and the teachings of forgiveness, of salvation and I begin to think that there are unexpected treasures in this message when we're locked up on the planet Earth and realize that we're running out of things that unless we can learn about sharing and forgiveness we're in some problem for the future of the human race.

Wright: What about people that would say that all those are important lessons and maybe more important than ever they are incarnate in the Buddha in as full and admirable a sense as in Jesus?

Owen Gingerich: There may be people who have studied that tradition and who are within that tradition who find that very fulfilling I suspect there are many many people in the Buddhist movement who are simply weighed down by an enormous burden of superstition and I would have to say that the same thing could be said for aspects of Christianity.

Wright: I was about to suggest that myself. I mean in general religions have show a tendency to move away from lots of particular superstitions. Wouldn't you say? as society has evolved toward modernization.

Owen Gingerich: Yes of course.


Wright: Now there's one kind of religious world view that some people see as being the most compatible with the modern scientific world which I think You frown on which is pantheism. Is that and first of all what the word means in your understanding.

Owen Gingerich: Pantheism means that you would find God everywhere that in some sense the universe itself is God. And I think that's a kind of a view of that Einstein held a certain kind of awe about the structure the marvelous way in which the universe hangs together and is understandable and he had a certain reverence as he looked at the world as a result of that it was a kind of religious understanding that really had no place for what you would call a personal God and I would say that in that sense I would not find pantheism particularly satisfying.

Wright: Have you heard the word panentheism

Owen Gingerich: I have heard the word panentheism and I have never been able to get a firm grasp on it. Not well enough to discuss it intelligently.

Wright: I gather than it means that the universe is inside of God, like inside of God's mind or something but in that case I'm not sure I clearly get the distinction between that and lots of other things, lots of other religious scenarios.

Owen Gingerich: This is my problem.

Wright: Yes. Ok well enough about that. In closing, let me just ask you see evidence of design and purpose in the universe. What would You say the purpose is, not that again that this is a scientific conclusion on your part I think but what in your view is the purpose of the whole physical enterprise that we see before us?

Owen Gingerich: As thinking conscious human beings we have to suppose that we play an important part in this purpose of the universe. Otherwise we can't philosophically understand it except in those terms and then we would perhaps conclude that the purpose is to study and understand the universe that God has prepared a universe in which this kind of consciousness could arise and therefore within that framework it is to examine the universe to understand it and at the same time of course use that understanding to enhance the relationships between the creatures on the earth.

Wright: So science is simple to the whole purpose of the universe as you see it

Owen Gingerich: This is a very Keplarian notion. Johannes Kepler felt that by studying the universe he was glorifying God and I suppose that is for a scientist a kind of parochial view but one that I find very inguinal.

Wright: Well thank you I gather you;'re off to Africa soon to see your what 12th, 13th or 14th personal witness the solar eclipse.

Owen Gingerich: Yes, it depends whether you could being under the shadow or whether you had actually a clear view of the sky. So I think I'm going to 11 or 12 of the latter I'm not counting the eclipse on our honeymoon when it was cloudy.

Wright: Oh I see well you're ahead of me regardless of what your criterion are. Enjoy it. Thanks a lot.

Owen Gingerich: Ok. Good enough.

  • jaundice in newborns
  • data backup mysql backup android themes laser liposuction cost empire beauty school online fax service seronegative rheumatoid arthritis cosmetology scholarships online auto insurance quotes