Friday, March 26, 2010

The Greatest Show...Everywhere!

Friends of mine may have noticed I've taken a particular interest in evolution lately.

It is no small part owed to a book I'm reading now, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution written by Richard Dawkins. It is a fascinating book, well worth the read. I'm more than halfway through it in a surprisingly short amount of time. For something as "technical" as biological evolution, which is not any kind of expertise for me, that's a challenge.

Of course, in discussions I've got into about astronomy, I find an understanding of evolutionary processes is important not just for biology but for all sciences. The universe is certainly the biggest ongoing evolutionary process that we can imagine.

Like biological evolution, the notion of an evolving universe has not always been considered or accepted. With the growth of empiricism and the development of modern scientific processes such as experimentation and observation, the way has been opened up. Over 400 years ago, we started to develop a broader understanding of the universe and our place in it when Galileo turned that first primitive telescope toward the skies and discovered that, no Victoria, we really aren't at the center of everything.

Even so, it wasn't until the end of the 19th and very first decades of the 20th Century that we got our first real glimmers of our present cosmology - the expanding universe. We generally credit Edwin Hubble with the discovery in the 1920s of galactic redshift - the process by which a galaxy's light is "stretched out" by Doppler shift toward the red, indicating it is receding from our line of sight - but he did have predecessors including Vesto Slipher, James Keeler and William Campbell.

Our understanding of our evolving universe itself has evolved from a "steady state" in which the universe is as it always was to our current understanding that it had a beginning, is expanding and will likely continue on forever at an ever-faster pace. It's an irony that the name "big bang" came from one of its most vocal detractors, Fred Hoyle. Imagine if creationists could have had a chance to name evolution. Yikes!

Better technology and the limiting speed of light has enabled astronomers to peer into the universe's own "fossil record" from the background 3-degree Kelvin "glow" left over from the big bang to young infant galaxies imaged by Hubble's space-borne namesake to even more recent discoveries of fainter, farther and less developed galaxies.

Here is a recent fairly recent article on it. Here is a picture of one of the Hubble Deep Fields that show dozens of younger, smaller, less "evolved" galaxies.

I used to say that I "believe" in evolution, but I know now that that was a poor choice of words. Science is about evidence. Scientists look to evidence to draw conclusions and must always be open to the possibility of contradictory evidence that might render that conclusion "false." In the case of the big bang and both cosmological and biological evolution, such evidence has not surfaced.

One thing this does not do is say anything about "God." I neither acknowledge or deny "God" as a factor in existence because, quite frankly, it's a concept that lacks definition, in part, because God by definition is either "super" or at least "supra" natural, existing outside of our frame of reference that we consider "nature" by the mere supposed act of "creating" it.

We cannot view "outside" of our universe. Not that such a thing might never be possible. But it leaves us with a problem. And to try and confirm the existence of "God" by his supposed "creation" is an exercise in faulty circular logic. How can we verify the existence of "God" if we cannot see beyond our universe?

Additionally, every process of nature carries on, regardless of the presence of a guiding hand or not. The sun shines, not by continued animal (or human) sacrifice, but through nuclear processes. The rains come and go, bringing bounty or disaster, regardless of what deity is prayed to. And good things happen to bad people and vice versa.

So if God isn't an explanation for anything, is it not fair to say that God is an explanation for nothing? Some are content to throw up their hands and say "it takes faith." Others say "that's it, there is no God." I remain firmly on the fence. Sure, I may end up with a logic wedgie! But I'm content to keep my options open.

Clear skies!

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