Writing about gravitational waves and the fact that waves from the big bang might still be bouncing around the universe (see January 10th post) reminded me of an odd science-and-religion overlap that happened in one of my classes recently. We were studying a play about Ralph Alpher’s work on Big Bang nucleosynthesis and cosmic background radiation (the play is called “Background” and is by Lauren Gunderson).
Anyway, one of the questions on the exam about this play was: define “nucleosynthesis”. The answer is that Big Bang nucleosynthesis is the formation of several different elements (including deuterium, helium, beryllium, and lithium) from protons and neutrons during the first 2-5 minutes after the Big Bang. What was interesting was that one student gave exactly that answer, then added “if you believe in the Big Bang,” while another gave almost the exact answer but wrote “after creation” rather than “after the Big Bang”.
In Biology, we often have to deal with this duality in the evolution vs. creationism debate when we teach, but this was the first time I’d seen it in this context entirely outside of the evolution debate, and it was rather surprising. Now these were neither bad nor sloppy students. Both got A’s in the class, and both are in the Honors College.
While I find the reflexive, non-thinking espousing of creationism (aka “intelligent design”, and now, of course: “academic freedom”) to be incredibly frustrating and annoying, this more sophisticated double-think is much more interesting. It seems to me that these are people who are actively trying to reconcile two contradictory reality frames in their life. It seems to me that this is the shifting ground where religion and science will have to somehow eventually meet.