Overdoing Origins

In public controversies over science, there’s a lot of interest in questions concerning the origins of things. Evolution, cosmology, the origin of life—these are considered big questions. I see this in the classroom as well. I like to devote a fair bit of time to questions by students, which can range far beyond what’s in their textbooks. I often get questions about the big bang. This is good; I get to take them on a whirlwind tour of some interesting physics, starting with general relativity. I mess with their concept of time.

But I also wonder. I never get diverted into that sort of discussion because somebody asks me seemingly naive questions that can lead to profound thinking about physics. These are students who haven’t been corrupted by too much physics knowledge yet, so I keep hoping they don’t take too much for granted. Yet nobody asks why the Newtonian gravity equation they first learn is an inverse square law rather than something else. No one asks about whether we can have negative mass. They just take F=GmM/r2 as a formula to use in solving some idiot problems, no questions asked. It’s only when they get curious about the big bang—something about origins—that they give me the opportunity to shake things up.

So I have to ask if this is mainly an artifact of our intellectual culture, linked perhaps with theistic religious habits, that puts so much emphasis on “origins” questions. We seem to have the prejudice that if we sort out the events of creation—of the universe, of humans as a species, and so forth—that gives us some profound knowledge of what is to follow. Origin stories determine the important features of what we have today. God infuses his holy purpose into his creation as he creates it: all that matters is foreshadowed from the Beginning. Even if we start doubting the gods, secular echoes of the sacred Time of the Ancestors remain with us.

I shouldn’t complain about whatever excuse I get to talk about interesting science. But I also worry that emphasizing origins distorts our understanding of science. It certainly isn’t true to the physics. There are vast amounts of profoundly important physics that have little to do with the cosmology of the early universe. And it simply isn’t true that if you understand the big bang, you automatically know the important features of our universe, 13.7 billion years after the fact.

Intellectual nonbelief today is unavoidable deeply colored by its recent history, dominated by an oppositional stance. I suspect that if we were to achieve a truly post-theistic culture, things would be different. Physical cosmology would be a perfectly respectable and exciting subdiscipline of physics, but it would have less of an aura of Significance. Evolution would remain key to understanding life, but perhaps be less entangled in conceptions of a human nature fixed once-and-for-all by its origins. Maybe we would realize better that we live in the here and now if we did not feel compelled to ask how we fit into an Original Drama, with a script written by the gods in a sacred past.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University