Penzias on a Meaningful Universe

We were privileged to have Dr Judea and Ruth Pearl at our Shabbos table a week ago. They left us a copy of their book, I Am Jewish, which collected reactions of several scores of Jews to some of their son Daniel’s last words to his killers: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” (What I did not know, until I looked at the book, was that they were not his very last words uttered freely. Those in fact were “Back in the town of Bnei Brak, there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town.” Daniel, on his father’s side, came from stock aligned with Kotzk and Ger.)

In the course of Shabbos, I found myself sampling the contents, looking for familiar names to see how they distilled the essence of their Judaism. Predictably, I loved the contribution of former Chief Rabbi Lau. Less predictably, I was taken by the response of Arno Penzias, a Nobel laureate whose eavesdropping on the “background noise” of the universe provided the confirmation of Big Bang – and of a beginning to our universe – that its backers had been hoping for.

Big Bang was Big News. One writer at the time wrote that it was as if scientists had taken thousands of years to climb the mountain of ultimate knowledge, only to find when they got to the top that a band of theologians had preceded them there.

In time, those who could not share the summit with such people developed their responses. Penzias deals with one of them, another laureate in physics, Steven Weinberg. I excerpt a few lines from the essay. While I suspect that Penzias and I would not see quite eye to eye regarding the extent of Hashem’s Providence and micromanaging of the universe, there is much to think about in the way he takes on Weinberg.

For me, being Jewish means seeing the creation of the world in terms of the creation of laws – with its creator as the law-giver…Like most scientists, I see the entire physical world – all of it, down to its smallest detail – to be governed by a powerfully precise and all-encompassing set of laws. Unlike many scientists, however, I don’t agree with Stephen Weinberg’s assertion, “the more I study the universe, the more meaningless it becomes.”…With everything, as far as we can see, following the same blueprint, small wonder that Weinberg – and many others – sees no room for a Supreme Being. For me, on the other hand, the all-encompassing perfection of the world’s physical laws reflects the power of the creative force that brought them into being…

Confronted with compelling observational data that showed our universe to have begun in a discrete event [i.e. Big Bang – YA], theorists have now responded with a new scenario. Instead of maintaining that creation didn’t happen, their new theories postulate a meaningless creation, just one of an infinite number of similar events happening at random. In a current version of this line of thinking, our four-dimensional universe emerged from a random ripple in an eleven-dimensional “false vacuum.” As higher-dimensional objects collide with one another, this theory maintains, they sometimes produce nascent bubbles of time and space, each with its own randomly produced set of physical laws.

Meaninglessness, in other words, requires a theory so complex that most scientists can’t even understand the mathematics that underlies it. [ Stress added – YA]

What then does it mean to be a Jew? The Rambam gives us an answer. In his Guide to the Perplexed he writes, “In these matters, take no notice of any man, for it is the foundation of our fathers that the Holy One created the world from nothing, that time did not exist before, because it depends upon the motion of the Spheres, and that too was created.”

Many have made the point before that atheism (as opposed to agnosticism) requires a leap of faith, no less than any religious belief. Many have also observed that G-d has always left evidence of His role in the universe – while giving Man enough free will to be able to reject the evidence. Those with the will to find Him will be buoyed by the evidence; those who choose to reject are given enough leeway that they need not feel like the village idiot. Let it be noted that at least insofar as the Beginning goes, the mathematics of disbelief is more cumbersome.

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3 Responses

  1. Jew Speak says:

    The writer you quote was Robert Jastrow and here is what he said:

    “This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth… [But] for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; [and] as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

    – Robert Jastrow
    (God and the Astronomers [New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978], 116. Professor Jastrow was the founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute, now director of the Mount Wilson Institute and its observatory.)

    Take care.

    Jew Speak

  2. Barry Simon says:

    I dunno – your boldfaced reason is a pretty weak reed on which to dismiss something. After all the standard line for many years was that only four people in the world understood relativity (never true I suspect) although we now standardly teach special realtivity to freshmen and general realtivity to grad students.

    A more compelling argument is that even string theory itself has no experimental confirmation and is somewhat speculative and random ripple with a false vacuum is regarded as VERY speculative even by string theorists. So while the parallel universe stuff in this (and other forms has had enormous “press”), it lies on a Rube Goldberg house of cards.

  3. Edvallace says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    Appreciate the article. On a side note: One of the things mentioned in Penzias’ words has been the four-dimensional universe. Would you mind providing me references if they’re readily available for understanding that better? I still struggle with it and it impacts how we understand the letter Daled, always acknowledged as the expression of Olam Hazah.

    Thank you,

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