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AAAS Lectures Explore Science and Religion in Science Fiction
Capt. Jean-Luc Picard stood beside a window on the Starship Enterprise and watched a spaceship approach his vessel from the side. There was troubleperhaps an intergalactic battle. Lasers fired and, outside, the foreign ship exploded in pyrotechnics with a deafening boom.
Lawrence M. Krauss, an acclaimed physicist and chairman of the department of physics at Case Western Reserve University, paused the video clip taken from an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and asked: "What's wrong with this picture?"
Absolutely everything, he told the audience at a recent AAAS lecture. Light and sound don't travel through space at the same speed. The explosion and the roar of the detonation wouldn't occur simultaneously as it does in the movies and on television. "But," Krauss said, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry "knew that without sound, he would never get syndication."
It was telling point during a pair of provocative AAAS lectures on 2 December that explored the overlap and conflicts between science, religion and science fiction. In the second lecture, paleoanthropologist and novelist Mary Doria Russell contemplated how the earth's religions might be affected by the discovery of life on another planet. [Because Russell was ill, her lecture was read by Connie Bertka, director of AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, whose program organized the event.]
Science fiction can help people to see beyond conventional wisdom and explore the possibilities of the universe, the lecturers suggested, while religion can help people explore the meaning of the universe and the source of its creation. But, Krauss said, both fields can also have the effect of blurring the definition of science or undermining it.
Krauss is the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, Professor of Astronomy and chair of the Physics Department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is an internationally known theoretical physicist with wide research interests, including the interface between elementary particle physics and cosmology, where his studies include the early universe, the nature of dark matter and general relativity. He is the author of six popular books, including the national bestseller, "The Physics of Star Trek," and his most recent book "Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth...and Beyond." He has won several major science awards, including the AAAS Award for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology in 2000.
Science fiction concepts like warp drive, time travel and worm holes sound far-fetched, to put it mildly, but they have some scientific underpinning and, arguably, are not necessarily impossible. But extra-sensory perception, UFOs that defy the laws of physics and telekinesisusing mind power to move inanimate objectsall appear to violate key experimental facts about the universe, and thus have no scientific basis, Krauss said.
The far-fetched and the nonsensical come together in shows like "The X-Files," which projects both a firm belief in the paranormal and a thorough mistrust of science. That might be entertainment, he said, but when there's pervasive public confusion about scientific facts and the role of science, then scientists ought to be worried.
For example, the 2001 National Science Foundation Survey on Science Literacy, 53 percent of American adults were unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first human arose; only 50 percent of adults knew that the Earth orbits the sun and takes a year to do it. And a CBS/New York Times poll last month found that 55 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their current form, an apparent rejection of the science of evolution.
The ethos of science is based on honesty, open-mindedness, creativity, equality and full-disclosure, Krauss said. And, he added, "scientists need to understand the limits of science and the value of worthwhile scholarship in other fields."
But at the same time, there "are theologies that are just wrong," he argued. "And many are mutually inconsistent….The fact that theology is wrong does not mean that God doesn't exist. Believing in God and evolution is not mutually exclusive."
Krauss added that scientists should not be worried about offending religious sensibilities when those sensibilities are based on claims about the universe that are manifestly wrong. Moreover, he said that while there was no connection between science and religion, he claimed there is a natural tension between them because, as physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg has said, science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God, but it makes it possible to not believe in God.
Finally, he argued that programs supporting research in areas such as "fine tuning," with an aim to building a connection between science and religion, are ultimately disingenuous because they are designed to suggest that there is some divine purpose to our existence, which grossly distorts what the science actually implies.
Mary Doria Russell first was attracted to anthropology as a high school student in the 1960s. After a successful career in academe and as a technical writer, she was inspired by commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to North America to write a short story about the discovery of life on another planet. But her ideas bloomed into an acclaimed pair of novels, "The Sparrow" (1996) and "Children of God" (1998), in which Russell employed the well-worn "first contact" genre of science fiction to explore deep spiritual, theological and human questions.
The central questions: What happens to our notions of God when life is discovered on another planet? And what happens to the beings on that planet when we discover them?
Russell was reared as a Roman Catholic; as an adult, she converted to Judaism. While religions ranging from Mormon to Buddhism would not be threatened by ET, she wrote in her lecture, some Christian churches might experience a profound theological vulnerability.
"The discovery of just a single bacterium somewhere beyond Earth will be as revolutionary as finding out that the Earth wasn't even the center of the solar system, let alone the center of God's universe," she wrote. "For Christians in particular, finding extraterrestrial life will demand as much rethinking of religion as the Age of Discovery, when Europeans found out there were whole continents not mentioned in the Bible."
The key conflict for some Christians would come with their belief that Jesus Christ is the only human incarnation of God. Russell cited prize-winning physicist Paul Davies, author of "The Mind of God," who says that that Christian theologians fall into two camps. "Some posit multiple incarnations and even multiple crucifixions," she explained, "or as a prominent Anglican minister put it, 'God taking on little green flesh to save little green men.'"
But in the view of many Catholics and other Christians, she said, "the idea of multiple incarnations can only be heresy. Jesus is God's only begotten sonperiod. No little green Jesuses can fit into this world view."
Russell's own belief allows for broader and more flexible possibilities. "As an anthropologist, I would say that the idea of God gives human beings gives us a way of imagining things that we cannot observe with our senses or deduce with our logic," she wrote. "The idea of God gives us a way to think about things that are too large, too complex, too beautiful, too horrifying to be encompassed by a single human mind or a single human soul…
"In my experience, there is majesty to be found in the beauties and ethics of religion, in the symphonies of Beethoven, and in scientific formulations of Darwin and Einstein. To choose one kind of majesty, forsaking all others, is to impoverish yourself voluntarily."
[Read a full transcript of a AAAS interview with Mary Doria Russell here.]
14 December 2004