Science Seen Physicist and Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand your world.
Back to the Universe
Physics―I assert―should be unmoved by religion. Recent posts show many physicists avoiding religious issues by turning to a multiverse. I name names of some who have succumbed (like Andrei Linde, Steven Weinberg and Brian Greene; far from the only culprits). In fairness, then, let’s check out who was first to stray. His name is Einstein.
Einstein’s general relativity (GR) is a theory of gravity and space. (Some would say spacetime, but that must wait for another post.) GR relates the state of any place in space to what’s around it. It’s his pet project, pretty esoteric stuff. Having published it in 1915, he doesn’t have much opportunity to use it. But in 1917 he tries it out on the whole universe. He worries that his universe―the one described by his equations―would collapse under its own weight. He believes the real universe is static and stable. In other words, it’s perfect; it always was and always will be as it is. So he cheats. He adds an antigravity effect to the equations for his universe to prop it up.
There can be little doubt this was a religious impulse, as Einstein himself defines religion:
While it is true that scientific results are entirely independent from religious considerations, those individuals to whom we owe the great creative achievements of science were all of them imbued with the truly religious conviction that this universe of ours is something perfect and susceptible to the rational striving for knowledge.
A few years later large telescopes discover that the universe is not static. It is expanding. Gravity will slow it over time and may reverse the expansion. Famously, Einstein then calls the antigravity effect―which he invented for no other reason than to make his universe static―‘my biggest blunder’.
Thus far, like the story of those multiverses, this seems to be a cautionary tale: Physicists should keep religious impulses, whether pro or con, out of their equations.
But the tale takes a new twist. In 2011 three physicists share the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that the expansion of the universe is not slowing over time. Indeed the expansion is being accelerated by some unknown antigravity effect! Suddenly Einstein’s biggest blunder looks like a stroke of genius.
So the moral of the tale is . . . well, how can I find any moral in it, given this turn of events? Maybe, tongue in cheek, my moral might be: Physicists, keep religious impulses out of your equations unless your name is Einstein.
Albert Einstein (1948), “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?”, The Christian Register, Boston: The American Unitarian Association, June; http://www.einsteinandreligion.com/irrec.html
“The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011”, Nobel Prizes and Laureates, Stockholm: Nobel Media; http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2011/
Victoria Jaggard (2011), “Physics Nobel Explainer: Why Is Expanding Universe Accelerating?”, National Geographic, Washington: National Geographic Society, October 4, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/10/111004-nobel-prize-physics-universe-expansion-what-is-dark-energy-science/
Colin Gillespie (2013), “The Antigravity Effect”, in Time One: Discover How the Universe Began, New York: RosettaBooks, p. 101, http://www.rosettabooks.com/book/time-one/, excerpted at http://www.timeone.ca/chapters/the-antigravity-effect.pdf
Relativity 4 Engineers, “What Is Cosmology?”, http://www.einsteins-theory-of-relativity-4engineers.com/what-is-cosmology.html
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