The Wonder of the Universe (RJS)

Karl Giberson has a new book out, The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World, published by IVP. I received a copy of the book courtesy of the publisher awhile back and have begun to read it over the last few days.  This book is a description of the wonder of our universe and of the process of discovery that led to our modern understanding of the universe.  It is an excellent book for a general audience – college educated perhaps (although high school students may like it as well), but with little understanding of science required. Although I will not post through the book chapter by chapter, I will put up a few posts on the topics covered by this book.

In the first four chapters of the book Giberson discusses the history of the science that led from the understanding of cosmology with a flat earth on pillars covered by spheres with the lights of the heavens to the modern theory of general relativity and big bang. Giberson is an excellent writer and tells a fascinating story. This story emphasizes the way science progresses with new observations and new capabilities leading to new hypotheses and better understanding but always building off of what had come before.

How do you understand the process and progress of science?

The ancient understanding of the world was entirely empirical – the natural appearance was assumed to represent reality. The earth is flat, the sun, moon, and stars contained in a solid firmament rise and set each day. Waters contained above occasionally fall and water below can rise up through springs. The description of Noah’s flood in Genesis reflects this understanding of the world:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. (Gen. 7:11-12)

Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. (Gen. 8:2-3a)

The image in Giberson’s book (also found in numerous places on the web, so I am not sure of the precise attribution) gives an idea of the general view that was commonly held and underlies the story:

This view of the world gradually changed, beginning as early as 500 BC as Giberson tells us.

Around 500 B.C. Pythagoras – of the beloved math theorem about triangles – thought long and hard about the odd appearance of the moon as it went through its phases. The line separating the dark and light parts of the moon had an interesting shape that could only be explained only by assuming that the moon was round. Pythagoras then took a speculative leap and concluded that the earth must be the same shape as the moon. (p. 25)

Within 100 years eclipses were understood and …

By 350 B. C. there was a consensus that the earth is a sphere.  Aristotle noted that seafaring travelers reported seeing different constellations as they traveled farther and farther from the equator. (p.26)

Observations of the world around us and the heavens above (or around) led to a better understanding of the nature of the world. Each generation, building on the accumulated knowledge of preceding generations accompanied by better observations spanning a broader range of experience, expanded the  depth of understanding and explanation. In the early years of the Christian church the general view was Aristotelian with a spherical earth surrounded by concentric circles containing the moon, planets, sun, and stars.

From the consensus of a spherical earth Giberson leaps forward some 1800 years to Copernicus (1473-1543) and his hypothesis that the earth moves around the sun, Galileo (1564-1642) and the telescope he used to study the heavens, Newton (1643-1727)  and the theory of gravity, the discovery of Neptune and the anomalous orbit of Mercury, Einstein (1879-1955) and general relativity moving beyond Newton’s theory and explaining the precession of Mercury, the big bang and the expanding universe. The tale of scientific discovery and consensus building is fascinating. Dr. Giberson does an excellent job of explaining the way science works, moving forward in both tiny steps and larger leaps grounded in the interplay between observation and explanatory theories.

The conflict surrounding Galileo. Working through the gradual acceptance of a sun-centered solar system Giberson makes some interesting observations about the famous – or better, infamous – case of Galileo.

The word fools, unfortunately, was often on Galileo’s lips as he enthusiastically ridiculed those who disagreed with him.

Galileo’s advocacy for Copernicanism grew with each passing year, despite his consistent failure to find the evidence he promised, He became bolder and more aggressive. His fame spread across the continent and he grew steadily richer, with increasingly more lucrative academic postings and endless sales of telescopes. Gifted at debate  and self-promotion, he steadily climbed the Italian social ladder, to the envy of his colleagues. He made enemies and backed many of his critics into corners from where they could do nothing but seethe and look for an opportunity to get even. Some more cool-headed Jesuit astronomers were quietly teaching Copernican astronomy in Catholic universities, and, had Galileo not turned the motion of the earth into a political controversy, their diplomatic approach would have probably carried the day and avoided what became a great humiliation to the church. As it was, they were quite frustrated that Galileo’s bombastic personal style got Copernicanism declared heretical and his book listed on an Index and Prohibited Books that good Catholics were not supposed to read.

…had Galileo been more diplomatic there would not have been any need or his great and celebrated confrontation between science and religion. (p. 52-53).

The story of Galileo is an interesting one – and the lesson well worth learning. The lesson isn’t that the church is a recalcitrant stick in the mud, valuing tradition over truth, or that Christianity is a hindrance to the progress of science and human understanding. Rather the lesson is one of psychology and sociology. History is littered with the casualties of arrogance and self-promotion (unfortunately not always the arrogant self-promoter).

Does this view of the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic church surprise you?

How should we approach new ideas and controversial ideas?

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  • Rick

    “Some more cool-headed Jesuit astronomers were quietly teaching Copernican astronomy in Catholic universities, and, had Galileo not turned the motion of the earth into a political controversy, their diplomatic approach would have probably carried the day and avoided what became a great humiliation to the church.”


  • Joe Canner

    It’s a useful reminder that the interplay between science and religion predates Galileo by a long shot. Many primitive religions thought eclipses were the product of a god’s anger, but eventually came to realize that eclipses were predictable, which tended to rule out supernatural intervention. Religion survived those challenges, it survived Galileo, and it will survive current challenges. Once we realize that, and focus on enjoying the wonder of creation rather than its ability to influence religious belief (positively or negatively), the better of we’ll be. This book sounds like a good step in that direction (at least so far).

  • Scott Gay

    “How do you understand the process and progress of science”.
    The progress that seems most significant to me is Whitehead’s perception of process as organic over mechanistic. The overthrow of the Cartesian views of non-purposeful, naturalistic reductionism, and determinism. To me, even intelligent design is Cartesian. The evolutionary argument against naturalism is often mistaken as against evolution. However, the purpose is to show that the denial of God is problematic for science.
    Now, at this point, one should ask, “How do you understand the process and progress of theology”( or perhaps reformed and always reforming). The numbers not open to freedom and novelty are staggering. The longer one uses the past as a crutch or a beard for stasis, the more remote the possibility of authentic existence. Some people prefer the idea of predestination because it offers the comfort of a self-aggrandizing innocence- God has a wonderful plan for your life. To me there is a beauty and burden that goes with freedom. There are no guarantees of happiness nor is there any immunity from suffering in life. We are each charting a destiny. The USA is a grand experiment in this regard. It matters a great deal, not where you were born and raised, but the character traits of the ones you look to and develop. Here is where Jesus becomes paramount. But here also is where denial of evolution becomes problematic for theology.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    It seems the process and progress of science is like a double edged sword. Maybe this can be a positive image like the Bible is supposed to be a double-edged sword but there seems to be a problem to be overcome in all this from my perspective.

    The great thing about science is it can keep correcting itself, making course corrections, and from some observers, may seem to be in constant flux or ever changing (but there are many evidences, natural laws, etc. that have not changed that much over time. For example, I am not aware how the law of gravity has changed significantly over the past millenium?).

    But there is the problem I sometimes wonder about science and I will take evolution as an example. It is one thing for a seed idea to progress and develop but what if the end result looks entirely different from the beginning? I understand there is an evolution to evolution but what if the end result goes against most of the summaries of let’s say Darwin’s original proposal? Is it still the theory of evolution or has it really morphed into something that is very different or a different species or animal all together? (forgive the pun).

    I raise this issue because I see people doing theology all the time where some theologians describe themselves as whatever but in reality, there is no real historical link to what they are saying. For example, when I listen to modern gnostics talk about real christianity/ies was with the persecuted gnostic group, that theology is better to follow gnosticism rather than the orthodox, what they end up describing (their modern ideas under the heading of gnosticism) would actually be condemned and rejected by the early gnostics themselves. Is it just me or does anyone else see these kind of problems or wonder about this kind of stuff?

    I quess my question is one on the history of science and when do theories become so disconnected to earlier theories that they are actually something entirely different? Do the earlier theories and histories even matter today?

    I hope some of this makes sense (just thinking out loud).

  • Very nice presentation of Karl’s book, Scot. I like this book very much also. I agree with the way in which Karl presents the Galileo affair, among other things. For more on this, go to and view the comments.

    Incidentally, next week I will be starting a column about “science and the Bible” at BioLogos. I hope you will drop in on that conversation from time to time, Scot–you’d have a lot to contribute. And, I hope your readers will also.

  • Scot:

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful review. I had a lot of fun working on this book. It was my first with pictures and my first in a while that focussed on something other than the evolution controversy.

  • Rick

    Is there a way to better clarify who writes the posts to help avoid confusion (#5 & #6)?

  • RJS


    Perhaps just including initials is a little too subtle. I’ll have to think about it. But, of course, Scot didn’t write this post – I wrote the post.

  • dopderbeck

    Maybe the context is fleshed out more in the book, but I’d take issue with this line: “The ancient understanding of the world was entirely empirical – the natural appearance was assumed to represent reality.”

    Yes and no, I think. Yes, the disc-shaped world and so on seems to have been a common ANE view. BUT, at the same time most ANE cultures believed the physical universe stemmed from the body, blood, tears, semen, etc. of the gods or other celestial beings (e.g., the Enuma Elish’s description of the earth as the rent body of Tiamat). They also of course had a thick view of the “spiritual” realm — indeed there was no firm distinction between the “physical” and the “spiritual.”

    To call this “empirical” is anachronistic. It’s more like they believed in an observable frame that participated fully in mystical / spiritual frame. They weren’t doing what we would call “empirical science” at all.

  • RJS


    Good point – there were certainly other things read into the mix as well. Although perhaps more often these were explanations for how or why things are rather than descriptions of the world.

  • D. Foster

    To bounce off of Dopperdeck (#9), I’m confused by that phrase as well. How is the ancient understanding of the world more empirical than any other age at any other time? Their view of the physical world integrated impressions that modern people call emotional or psychological, and they saw these impressions as both objective and external realities, not internal and subjective projections. So I don’t think it’s right to call this way seeing the world “empirical.”


  • RJS


    What do you mean by empirical? From your comment I am not sure we mean quite the same thing.

  • D. Foster


    “The ancient understanding of the world was entirely empirical – the natural appearance was assumed to represent reality.”

    I’m a little puzzled why Giberson (?) would frame their view of the world as “entirely empirical.” I’m just not sure what that means. The ancients believed in things in the world that were not perceived with the five senses, non-empirical realities. If they believed in a dimension of the world that was not empirical, then we couldn’t reduce their world to “entirely empirical.”

    I’m just confused on that point.


  • RJS


    Fine, I am willing to stand corrected on details here.

    All I really meant – and this phrase was mine, not Giberson’s – was that they didn’t and couldn’t describe things like a spherical earth, the vast expanse of the universe, planets, supernovae, black holes and such because there was nothing in their “data” to lead them in this direction. These “finer” observations came much later.

    Empirical was probably the wrong choice of word.

  • D. Foster


    Gotchya. That makes more sense. I thought you were implying that empiricist philosophy led the ancients to believe in a flat-earth cosmology. That was really throwing me off LOL


  • @RJS #14

    Your choice of “empirical” threw me too. I wonder if you meant “sensorial” or “immediate”?

    I will note that Democritus was contemporaneous with the post-exilic Jewish scribes who were writing the final notes of the Jewish Bible, yet he developed a much more advanced skill of analyzing the world (from which we still benefit). And that Eratosthenes predated the Maccabees and Herod the Great by at least a century, and he measured the diameter of the Earth with rather stunning accuracy.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS, thanks. I think I would say their view was “phenomenological” — in other words, they simply described the phenomena they observed, and tried to put those phenomena into the context of their overall view of the world.

    Today we can directly observe much, much more of the world. Equally as important, we have developed mathematical and other empirical models that can place those observations into a more consistent picture of the universe.

    It’s very interesting, though, that precisely those mathematical models yield conclusions that directly challenge our phenomenological descriptions of what we can observe. If 80-90% of the mass of the universe is “dark matter” that so far seems to be unobservable — that is a staggering conclusion!

  • C

    Interesting. I understand the temptation to love controversy for its own sake. To try to get people upset (let’s admit–it’s fun to push people’s buttons and trample all over their sacred cows) rather than to build bridges of understanding and have a meaningful conversation.