October 10, 1999
Science vs. the Bible: Debate Moves to the Cosmos
By JAMES GLANZcientific lessons about the origins of life have long been challenged in public schools, but some Bible literalists are now adding the reigning theory about the origin of the universe to their list of targets.
Nearly overlooked in the furor over the Kansas school board's vote in August to remove evolution from its education standards was a decision on the teaching of the science of the cosmos. Influenced by a handful of scientists whose literal faith in the Bible has helped convince them that the universe is only a few thousand years old, the board deleted from its standards a description of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins, the central organizing principle of modern astronomy and cosmology.
The Big Bang theory, based on decades of astronomical observations and physics research, suggests that the universe originated in a colossal explosion of matter and radiation some 15 billion years ago. But "young Earth creationists," as they are generally known, have come up with their own theories to explain how cosmic history could be condensed into mere thousands of years. They are making this case in books, pamphlets and lectures, as well as on a number of Web sites. Mainstream scientists consider their theories to be wildly out of line with reality, even though books describing them are often liberally sprinkled with references to authorities like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
As a result, physical scientists now find themselves in a fight in which they have seldom played a public role. They have responded with a mixture of disdain, disbelief and consternation, and the reactions have not been limited to physicists and cosmologists in Kansas. "It's the denial of what understanding we have of the origin of the universe in terms of modern science," said Jerome Friedman, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1990 for collaborating in the discovery of the subatomic particles called quarks and is the president of the American Physical Society. "That's a terrible loss," Friedman said.
Hume A. Feldman, a cosmologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who has worked at Princeton University and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, called the matter "frightening." "When I went into cosmology," Feldman said, "I never thought I would get involved in anything like that." Feldman said that developments in his state bore a distant resemblance to the difficulties of political scientists under Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and that he feared that such pressures could impair the educational system.
But advocates of the creationist view say alarm over their theories is overblown. Steve Abrams, a member of the Kansas board and a veterinarian in Arkansas City who was among the leaders of the push to make the changes, said there were legitimate scientific doubts about whether the universe was more than several thousand years old. "There is sufficient data to lend credibility to the idea that we do not have all the answers for teaching the origin of our universe," he said.
That sentiment was echoed by John W. Bacon, a board member from Olathe who also voted with a narrow 6-4 majority for the changes. "I can't understand what they're squealing about," Bacon said of scientists who oppose the board's action. Millions or billions of years ago, Bacon said, "I wasn't here, and neither were they. Based on that, whatever explanation they may arrive at is a theory and it should be taught that way."
Those objections closely mirror criticisms leveled at evolution by its opponents. Alabama biology textbooks, for example, must carry a warning that reads in part: "No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."
The Kansas challenge to the teaching of the Big Bang is not the first public objection to the theory on religious or political grounds. Three years ago, the school superintendent of a conservative county in western Kentucky ordered two pages that explained the Big Bang in grade-school textbooks to be glued together. The superintendent said that the Big Bang should not have been explained without including the biblical version of creation as well.
The change in the Kansas standards does not preclude the teaching of mainstream biology, physics or cosmology, allowing teachers to present alternative viewpoints if they choose to do so. But because the standards are used as the basis for state tests, the changes will probably have a practical effect on what is taught, said Bill Wagnon, a professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka and a board member who voted in the minority. Students' scores on those tests help determine whether a school receives accreditation from the state. "The curriculum standards describe that process of what needs to be covered," Wagnon said.
So radical were the Kansas board's recommendations that it has been unable to publish its own standards, or even to display them on its Web site. That is because the standards include long extracts from a book on education standards that was published by the National Research Council. Because of its disapproval of the board's revised standards, the Council has refused permission for them to be reprinted.
Beyond the expunging of evolution, the board also took out references to the hundreds of millions of years of Earth's geologic ages and modified sections on using the slow decay of radioactive elements to measure the ages of fossils and other rocks. Among the most striking changes was the removal of passages in the original standards dealing with the Big Bang. Cosmologists see ample evidence for that explosion in the present expansion of the universe, in a diffuse afterglow in space called the cosmic background radiation, and in the precise abundances of light elements like hydrogen and helium that were left over from the cataclysm.
Cosmologists have also calculated the way in which stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies coalesced from slight ripples in the primordial soup that emerged from the Big Bang. To date, the results of those calculations match the precise observations of such structures in the heavens. Of course, for all its success in accounting for observations, the Big Bang is indeed just a theory, although it is one with few scientific dissenters.
The biggest problem for the young Earth creationists is explaining the time that has apparently passed since the light we see from distant galaxies was emitted. Given the constancy of the speed of light and estimates of the distance between Earth and faraway galaxies it is difficult to explain how Earth and the cosmos could be young. But D. Russell Humphreys, a nuclear weapons engineer at Sandia National Laboratory who is also an adjunct professor at the Institute for Creation Research near San Diego, thinks he has an answer. In an interview, he said that Einstein's equations of relativity, the basis of the Big Bang theory, could be used to construct a universe in which the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
Abrams said that in thinking about the Kansas standards he had been struck by Humphreys's book, "Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe" (Master Books, fifth printing in 1998). Humphreys's ideas "seem to be right there on the cutting edge, so to speak," Abrams said.
But most cosmologists say they are simply out of left field. The theory relies on a peculiar feature of Einstein's equations, which predict that powerful gravitational fields can speed the progress of time and, in effect, make clocks run at different rates in different places. So Humphreys assumes that the Earth is close to the center of a structure related to a black hole, in which gravity is especially intense, so that billions of years could pass in deep space while only a few thousand years went by on Earth. Such a universe "has clocks clicking at drastically different rates in different parts," Humphreys said in an interview.
Edward L. Wright, vice chairman for astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that there is no evidence that the Earth is at the center of the universe, or that such tremendous gravitational fields exist outside of ordinary black holes. Moreover, Wright said, the acceleration of time would alter the vibrations of waves of light, shortening its wave length and turning it into deadly gamma rays. Bombarded by such radiation, he said, "the Earth would be sterilized."
Humphreys, whose research in cosmology is unrelated to his work at the lab, said other features of his model would prevent the frequency increase. Abrams also cited a theory that the speed of light was almost infinitely fast in the past, meaning that the light from extremely distant galaxies could have reached Earth quickly and would not be billions of years old. He referred to writings on this subject by Danny Faulkner, a professor of astronomy at the University of South Carolina's Lancaster campus and an adjunct professor at the Institute for Creation Science. In a telephone interview, Faulkner cautioned that he had merely been describing ideas put forth by other scientists in the creationist movement and was not certain that the changing speed of light was correct. Indeed, high-precision measurements of the speed of light and other crucial physical constants have revealed no detectable change in their values over recent time.
The debate over the age of the universe has exposed intense disagreements not just in schools but also among evangelical Christians. "Often young-universe and old-universe creationists focus more energy on defending their respective positions than on reaching out to nonbelievers," wrote Hugh Ross, a former radioastronomer who is an evangelical Christian, in "Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy" (NavPress, 1994). Ross thinks that a literal reading of the Bible can be reconciled with the Big Bang, but says that his views are distinctly in the minority among evangelical Christians. The six days of Genesis could stand for "six consecutive long periods of time," Ross said.
The importance of the issue for many Bible literalists means that cosmologists could face the pressures that biologists have dealt with since John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution in 1925, said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education Inc., in El Cerrito, Calif. "I don't think physical scientists are going to be immune to this," Scott said. "It would be very unwise for them to brush this off."