Recently I’ve been captivated by the PBS Nova series, “The Fabric of the Cosmos.” Seriously, it’s been twisting my mind. In fact, I was so intrigued, I went out and got a couple of books by the show’s host, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene.
Now, why would a priest read all of these books on theoretical physics? First of all, I find these ideas and descriptions of our world to be absolutely beautiful, or to use the same vocabulary as Brian Greene, elegant. I suppose that my own insatiable intellectual curiosity is being fed and challenged.
I’ve also been surprised at the connections I am making between Greene’s works and theology. Throughout the PBS series and in this book, I’ve come across language, vocabulary, and images that theologians have been using to describe our world for thousands of years. Now, I am not saying that if Mr. Greene had only read Thomas Aquinas, say, then he wouldn’t have had to do all this research. But what I am saying is that there are magnificent parallels between theologians and theoretical physicists that should be pointed out. For the purposes of this blog, I will make one observation today and another later in the week (I’ll get too wordy for one post).
There is a principle in physics called “entropy.” Entropy describes how things in the cosmos go from states of order to disorder. For instance, eggs always splatter, they never unsplatter. Dropped wine glass break, but they never come back together. A low state of entropy is the unbroken egg or wine glass, and the splattered or shattered are in high states of entropy. This phenomenon is how we know the direction of time. Time goes forward because we see things go from low states of entropy to high states of entropy.
Since that is how we see the world going forward, Greene figures that one could backtrack to the beginning of all things by thinking of the lowest possible entropy. (Entropy doesn’t only work with eggs or wine glasses. In fact, this seems to be how entire galaxies live and die.) Greene concludes that in some early moments of the universe, and I mean within billionths of a second within the “big bang,” there was the lowest possible state of entropy. From there, time goes forward with ever increasing amounts of disorder, or entropy.
Here is the first parallel with theology. Celebrated medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of God as the creator as the “Prime Mover.” Aquinas argued that since everything around us is in motion, then something, or Someone, must have been the first to set things this way. For Aquinas, this was God, the Most High, who first moved things into existence.
I find the parallel to be delightful. Aquinas speaks of a Prime Mover, Greene describes perfect order. Notice the path I am walking here. Physics and theology are working together, sharing ideas and information in our common awe and wonder at the magnificence of the cosmos.