One of the nice things about being a Big Shot science blogger is that sometimes people are willing to send you free copies of their books. One such person is John Farrell, who graciously sent me a copy of his book The Day Without Yesterday: Lematire, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press. He sent me the book some time ago, and I owe him an apology for taking so long to review it.
This is a really excellent book. It is a combination of biography, focusing particularly on the often ignored Georges Lemaitre, and science popularization. The book traces the history of various theories of cosmology, most notably the Big Bang, from Einstein’s first thoughts about relativity, through more recent developments like the measurement of the cosmic microwave background information and the renewed interest in the cosmological constant
The challenges of writing a book like this are obvious. On the one hand, if you try to delve too deeply into the science you end up with a book that most people will find unreadable. On the other hand, if you avoid the science altogether you end up with little more than a gossipy book focusing excessively on personalities without being able to provide any context for why people believed the things they did. Farrell has done an excellent job of balancing the science on the one hand with the personalities on the other. If you want a quick but thorough overview of an important chapter in scientific history, this is the book I would recommend.
The book’s early chapters focus largely on Lemaitre, providing an account of his early life and his foundational work on the Big Bang theory in the late twenties and thirties. Farrell provides interesting accounts here of the disagreements between Einstein and the Dutch physicist de Sitter (often overshadowed by the more well-known disputes between Einstein and Bohr over quantum mechanics), and of the correspondence between Einstein and Lemaitre.
In later chapters we meet people like Fred Hoyle and George Gamow. I confess to grumbling a bit at the kind treatment Hoyle receives. Granted, he did some fine work in physics despite his adherence to the steady-state model of the universe. But for me he will always be the fellow who, late in life, wrote an awful little book called Mathematics of Evolution. I came across the book early in my evolutionary studies. When I noticed the title mentioned somewhere I recall thinking, “Gosh! A prominent physicist writing a book about mathematics and evolution? How could that be bad!” Charming naivete, I know. The book turned out to be an attack on the Neo-Darwinian view of evolution based on some very shaky population genetics arguments.
The book’s final chapter addresses issues between science and religion, and this is where I have a few criticisms of Farrell. As a proponent of the eternal warfare view of the relationship between science and religion, I find Farrell entirely too conciliatory. For example, he writes:
The debate or clash between religion and science has been going on since the middle of the nineteenth century, when Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested origins to the human race that were undeniably disturbing even to complacent Victorians used to digesting their weekly sermons with a cup of tea after the local vicar had done his duty for the Sabbath. One could – and journalists often do – set the debate as far back as the Galileo affair, but that tragic misunderstanding between Pope Urban VIII and Galileo, which provided fodder for dramatists with an axe to grind, such as Bertolt Brecht, was more the result of an avoidable clash of egos rather than an unavoidable conflict between the increasingly confident realm of natural science and the supposedly nervous domain of religion. The Jesuits, for example, were already teaching Copernican astronomy at the time Galileo began reporting his telescopic observations, and they were not happy when the fracas encouraged the Vatican to suppress the Polish cleric’s classic book De Revolutionibus Orboeum Caelstium. It’s no little irony that not only was Galileo unable to actually prove the earth revolved around the sun, but also that for purely personal reasons he dismissed Kepler’s historic breakthrough on the elliptical orbits of the planets when the latter wrote to him, thus forfeiting a superb chance for the Italian astronomer to defend himself with a sound mathematical system of planetary motion that agreed with astronomical obervations. Newton would later derive Kepler’s three laws of motion from his own law of universal gravitation. Galileo would spend the rest of his life under ignominious house arrest for nothing. (Emphasis in Original). P. 200-201.
It is unclear to me how any of this mitigates the crime perpetrated by the Church against Galileo. The conflict between Pope Urban VIII and Galileo was not based on a misunderstanding. Quite the contrary, the Pope understood the situation very well indeed. He understood that if people were permitted to contradict the pronouncements of the Church based on their investigation of nature then the Church’s authority would be compromised. This realization had nothing to do with Galileo’s ego or his inability to recognize the worth of Kepler’s ideas. The fact remains the Church forced him to recant his beliefs for no reason other than their conflict with Church teaching, and subsequently held him under house arrest. That Galileo might have avoided this fate by not being so outspoken in his beliefs hardly reflects well on the Church.
And then there is this:
In any case, by the time Lemaitre had come to the fore with his expanding model of the universe, the opposition between science and religion had become fodder for journalists. And it’s interesting, for this reason, to go back to the early interviews with Lemaitre when he returned to California in 1933 and how he responded to the already typical question – just how did a priest-physicist reconcile his faith with his science?
The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or as ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors of historic or scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if errors relate to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them.
The idea that because they were right in their doctirne of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.
You can already detect a note of impatience with Lemaitre’s answer, as in, Why should this be a question? But it was. (Emphasis in original). P. 203
And I detect a touch of sympathy for Lemaitre’s answer. To which I reply that Lemaitre, a devout Catholic throughout his life and member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, has hardly bathed himself in glory for these rather insipid remarks. The whole question is whether the Bible is reliable with regard to its rather extraordinary claims about salvation and eternity. One way you might go about checking its reliability is by determining if it is accurate on matters that can be verified. If you find, for example, that the story of the Earth’s creation provided right at the start of the book is wrong at almost every point, that provides reason for doubting that they were, in fact, illuminated about much of anything. If you go on to find further errors and internal contradictions on mundane points, these are reasons for being skeptical of the Bible’s claims on more extraordinary points.
But these disagreements don’t take away from the overall quality of the book. Indeed, someone more conciliatory towards religion than I am may even like this chapter. Regardless, I think you would be hard pressed to find a more concise and readable exposition of the development of twentieth-century cosmology. Well worth reading.