Universe gives birth to itself, transformed by unknown ‘force’

This is a challenging day to be a journalist on the science beat, if the goal is to avoid ultimate questions.

I am happy to report that The Washington Post — to my surprise, quite frankly — didn’t try to avoid the obvious. Here’s the top of its story on the Big Bang update that is making global headlines:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

Say what? “In the beginning”?

Anyone who starts a story on this issue with “In the beginning” has to know that many American readers are going to connect that with, well, this passage that opens the Gospel of John:

1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. The same was in the beginning with God. 3. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Next question: What is the best verb here, science writers?

So the universe “got very big very fast, transforming itself” from nothing or next to nothing into something really big? It “transformed itself”?

To it’s credit, the Post team did not settle for one verb in its coverage of this amazing development. That same passage the opens the story also uses, well, the C-word. The gravitational waves were “created” in an event at the “dawn of time.” Yes, the word “created” certainly raises an obvious question or two. Later, the linguistic plot thickens:

Cosmology, the study of the universe on the largest scales, has already been roiled by the 1998 discovery that the cosmos is not merely expanding but doing so at an accelerating rate, because of what has been called “dark energy.” Just as that discovery has implications for the ultimate fate of the universe, this new one provides a stunning look back at the moment the universe was born.

And what existed before the universe “was born” and who, or what, gave birth?

Questions, questions, questions. At some point, the professionals behind this story needed to admit that this development raises questions that transcend science. Finally, there is this:

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NPR stumbles on GOP and Darwinian orthodoxy

Here’s a shocker, but not really. More Democrats than Republicans believe in evolution, or so says a survey from the Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew says:

…six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that ‘humans and other living things have evolved over time,’ while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that ‘humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’ The share of the general public that says that humans have evolved over time is about the same as it was in 2009, when Pew Research last asked the question.

The predictable party gap seems of interest to many, though mostly political pundits.

National Public Radio is not content to leave speculation to mere political bloviators, however, and trumpets the change in party affiliation of creationists as a major political issue:

A new national survey showing that the share of Republicans who believe in evolution has tumbled from 54 to 43 percent over the past four years comes at an inopportune time.

The Pew Research poll suggests that the GOP, already struggling with an identity crisis and facing ferocious internal battles, is out of sync on the issue with independents and young voters, who are far more likely to believe in the science of evolution than their forebears.

NPR raises what it considers the key question:

But just how politically significant is the finding, which shows that the evolution belief gap between Republicans and Democrats has since 2009 grown from 10 percentage points to 24 points?

Now there are all sorts of interesting — and interested — people who could address the topic. People who are experienced in science and theology, or people who hold informed opinions about evolution or creationism. Instead, the first “expert” sought out by NPR is a political consultant, albeit a Republican one:

For Republican strategists like Whit Ayres, however, the evolution results are politically insignificant. More than anything, he says, it reflects the trend of both parties gravitating toward their more extreme wings, which, in the GOP, includes evangelical Christians. He argues that it is unlikely to define the GOP negatively or otherwise in any sustaining way.

“It’s not a particularly surprising result, especially if you follow Gallup data on how Americans interpret the Bible,” says Ayres, of North Star Opinion Research. “There’s a significant minority of Americans who believe that the Bible is the actual true word of God.”

Apart from a grammatical flaw that always annoys me — did they really talk to Ayres or someone “like” him? — why is his view on how many Americans believe “the Bible is the actual true word of God” more useful than that of Randall Balmer or George Barna or someone else who “gets” debates about doctrine and science?

NPR does link to the Gallup numbers, but again, is there another, better voice? If so, you won’t find it here.

And what about the “political” implications of this interesting and crucial passage?

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