Kerpow !

The morning of 2nd Sept 2010 began for me as it usually did, by reading the front page of the Times, where the headline read “…. God did not create the Universe”. Reading on, I learned that a new book on popular science was about to hit the shops, and perhaps I might buy it. Perversely however, the book it put me in mind of was that 1970′s comedy classic “Monty Python’s Brand New Python’s Paperbok”, containing that little remembered gem “God’s School Report”. Laid out on a standard School Report document, we are informed of his progress in Latin “Quite the best scholar I’ve ever had” and Biology “Weak, thinks he knows it all, constantly rude about Darwin”; the one that I particularly recall however was Geography “Interesting ideas on rock formation, keeps going ‘Kerpow’ “.

Another book that apparently address notions of God, that I recall reading in the 80′s, has been described as “the most read, and least understood book of all time“, and since the author of that book was the subject of said sales pitch, this might be the moment to recall his words on that occasion “…In order to talk about the nature of the Universe and to discuss questions such as whether it has a beginning or an end, you have to be clear about what a scientific theory is. I shall take the simpleminded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean)“. Those words come from A Brief History Of Time and were written in 1988 in Cambridge, UK by an English cosmologist. His name is Prof Stephen Hawking, then the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and one of UK’s most eminent scientists; and also a man confined to a mechanised wheelchair by advanced Motor Neuron Syndrome since his twenties.

If the truth be told, I m probably as guilty as most of the “most read / least understood” gibe, but I warmed to Hawking straight away as a scientist that I could do business with. Not just for the quality his science, but because its underlying philosophical framework recognised what science was and what it was for. Another man whose opinions I admire on this subject said “Let us imagine a white surface with irregular black spots. We can now say : Whatever kind of picture these make I can always get as near as I like to its description, if I cover the surface with a sufficiently fine square network and now say of every square that it is black or white …… [Mechanics] thus provides the bricks for building the edifice of Science and says : Whatever building thou wouldst erect, thou shalt construct it in some manner with these bricks and these alone“. Those words come from the Tractatus Logica Philosophicus and were written in 1918, in a POW camp near Cassino, Italy by an Austrian soldier. His name was Lieutenant Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man decorated many times for bravery, yet on the verge of suicide after hearing that his pre-war lover at Cambridge, an Englishman named David Pinset, had just been killed.

Alas that a few more of us cannot see this simple truth about science, obvious to Wittgenstein who had studied under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge, seventy years before Hawking; but perhaps that is too much to ask in a world where there will always those who desire to have their secularist opinions re-enforced by the latest scientific proof of the non – existence of God. And since these people have taken science as their world view or, dare I say it, religion; then it must also have something to say about the more interesting questions “who are we ? why are we here ? where did we come from ?”. Thus a sure way to sell books of popular science in the modern era is to trail a highly dubious tagline about God, preferably the non existence of. It’s all good knockabout stuff, indeed Prof Dawkins has made a tidy living for years with it, but is it really science ?. Since when did God become a matter requiring science’s attention ?

Without wishing to be unkind, I am about as likely to seek the opinion of Stephen Hawking on the subject of God as I am to get on the horn to Rabbi Sachs for a rap about M-Theory. If some choose to pit science against religion, then they will end up pitching it against Religion’s big brother as well – Philosophy, and that’s a different ballgame. Looked at from that viewpoint, I recommend going out into the back garden tonight and looking up at the night sky. From here, If I look south I can see a magnificent Jupiter, prominent and orange against the backdrop of stars, seemingly uncountable yet just a small spattering in an unremarkable galaxy among millions that exist, have existed and will exist at points in space and time throughout the universe or even the multiverse. In the face of such overwhelming evidence of the power and complexity of nature, what chance do you really think there is that any human, Scientist or Theologian, would have a real handle on where that lot came from or even what it really is ? In fact, what makes you think that such thing is even knowable by us ?

But actually, that isn’t what Hawking is claiming at all. Rather, I’ll take the “simpleminded” view that publishers know a good controversy when they see one and will promote the “God Abolished” angle for all it is worth. What he is actually saying is that scientific theories should be seen for what they are, mental abstracts designed to serve a practical purpose – but just what else did you think religion was then ? And so you can see that Science and Religion are really not so very different, and I mean that in the sense that each has two constituencies, those that believe it literally, and those that view it in the abstract. When Hawking talks about God it is important to understand what he is referring to. In saying that there is no place for a “God Moment” in his model, he may be just saying that there is no “light the touch paper” moment in his thinking, God in this conception being seen as the “Kerpow” provider; but this is a very limited conception of a deity, in the sense that a cricket umpire can gently ripple his hand for four just as well as he can raise a kerpow-like finger for out.

And so, no doubt, the silly season will prevail and pointless missiles will fly back and forth between science and religion, whilst the world continues to turn on its axis unperturbed by the tumult below, for in truth the existence of God isn’t our pressing concern right now. A solution to the energy crisis and peace in the middle east would seem to be way ahead of that on most people’s reckoning. And so a suggestion for Stephen Hawking’s next book, which I hope will be a best seller.

In august 1939, one month before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Albert Einstein and his colleague Leo Szilard wrote to Franklin Roosevelt to alert him to the fact that recent developments in physics had raised the possibility that not only was nuclear fission possible but that “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.”. Well, nobody knew what such a bomb would look like at that time, so we can forgive him the error of scale; but his essential point was correct. A scientist offering his considered practical opinion on a thorny problem – how to stay safe from Hitler.

Our problems today are of a less violent nature, but they are no less serious. We need an alternative source of energy, not only to stop polluting the atmosphere but also to break our reliance on unstable parts of the world for expensive fossil fuels. I don’t pretend that that is going to be easy or that one scientist, even one as eminent as Hawking can solve alone; but, surely a man who has spent so much time studying the interactions of matter and energy on a microscopic as well as a cosmic scale must have some thoughts on how that energy might be generated. He isn’t going to come back with the solution on a plate, but I bet he could do a very respectable “starter for ten” to get the discussion going.

And that brings us from the realm of the Monty Python to the realm of cold hard reality. For we each of us know that a solution to the energy problem is also a solution to the middle east problem. We need science to be working that problem, and to be seen to be working that problem. So when the news report arrives from the Large Hadron Collider (assuming we haven’t all disappeared into a mini black hole by then) it isn’t trumpeted with headline about how the universe began, but instead tells us how it helps in the development of a replacement for nuclear fission. We need abundant, low environmental impact, energy and only science can shows us how. Concentrate on that and give us a “Roosevelt letter”, while the Philosophers worry about the God problem.

You know it makes sense

Copyright ©201o Savereo John


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