The 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded Dec. 10 to three Americans responsible for a discovery that rocked the world of astrophysics two decades ago. Their discovery has major implications for how we understand the ultimate fate of the universe itself.
For Catholics, who believe God’s revelation has something to say about the end of everything, this raises many questions. Interestingly, the discovery builds on the work of an all-but-forgotten 20th-century Catholic priest.
Nobel winners Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess represent two teams of astrophysicists that reached the same stunning conclusion independently and almost simultaneously in 1989: The universe is not only expanding in size, but the rate of its expansion is increasing over time.
To understand the shock value, consider first that it has been more than 80 years since scientists first became aware that the universe is expanding. Extrapolating backward from that fact led to the conclusion that there was a time, almost 15 billion years ago, when all matter existed in an incredibly tiny, incredibly hot and incredibly dense space, before a massive explosion set everything in motion: the big bang.
Credit for this idea often goes to American astronomer Edwin Hubble. But it was a Belgian Catholic priest-astronomer, Georges Lemaître, who first proposed it in 1927, based mostly on mathematical equations (see sidebar). Hubble confirmed it two years later with astronomical observations. Since then, other evidence has further confirmed Msgr. Lemaître’s big bang theory.
Cosmologists — those who study the origins and history of the universe on the largest scale — have assumed that as the big bang’s energy dissipates and the power of gravity works on all the matter in the universe, the rate of the universe’s expansion would be slowing. The universe, it has been thought, will have one of two possible endings.
One theory suggests the universe will continue to expand, more and more slowly, until all of its energy runs down and all matter, every molecule of stuff that exists, is spread incredibly far apart across an unimaginably vast, nearly empty space. It’s not an “end” so much as a cold, dead stop, called “heat death.”
The other theory suggests that at some point gravity would actually reverse the universe’s expansion and begin pulling all matter back together again. The reverse expansion would pick up speed as the universe grew denser, with an ultimate reverse big bang — the massive collision of all matter in a final, intense annihilation of everything: a “big crunch.”
Then came Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess, who found in 1989 that the universe’s expansion is not slowing down at all, but is increasing. The conclusion came through observation of hundreds of examples of supernovae (exploding stars) that allow scientists to reliably measure their distance from earth and how fast they are moving through space.
The discovery led to new theories about previously unknown “dark energy” permeating the universe and fueling the quickening expansion. It also makes one theory of the fate of the universe far more likely than the other. Rather than a “big crunch,” the end of everything will probably be the “heat death” noted above.
Threat to faith?
But how does all of this square with Christian revelation and Catholic teaching? What does it mean to people who believe that the universe was created by God and that God has a particular plan for the end of the world that includes the return of Christ in glory and the final transformation of all creation?
Is this a threat to traditional and orthodox faith? A triumph of science over faith? A big scientific mistake? No, said Father Thomas O’Meara, a Dominican theologian whose research includes the intersections between cosmology and Christian revelation.
“What science is showing us is a more complicated and richly complex universe than anyone ever thought possible,” Father O’Meara said. “These discoveries don’t challenge the traditional idea of who God is. In fact, they reinforce it. He is very powerful and very surprising, a God with extraordinary plans for the universe.”
The Church’s stance toward science is a strong affirmation of its importance in the human search for truth. Anything that helps us better understand our world or ourselves is good. But the Church cautions that we not give science a role that it does not even claim for itself.
“There cannot be any essential conflict between what reliable science gives us and what the faith teaches us,” said Jesuit Father William Stoeger, a staff scientist for the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Tucson, Ariz. “If there are conflicts, they’re a result of misunderstandings or misinterpretations on one side or the other — misunderstanding the scientific evidence or misunderstanding the data of revelation. They won’t contradict each other.”
Father Stoeger cautioned against forcing scientific ideas to become proofs of religious ones. He pointed to the big bang theory as one way some believers have made more of the science than they should.
“The big bang is not necessarily a creation event. There’s a tendency to think that before the big bang there was absolutely nothing, and that God zapped the universe into existence at the big bang. It doesn’t mean that,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “It’s possible that there was a previous phase of the universe, which perhaps collapsed on itself, and that led to the big bang.”
Fate of the universe
When it comes to potential conflict between scientific theories about the fate of the universe and Christian revelation about the end time, Father Stoeger suggested that we can draw important parallels with our experience of death. We know we die. That is an observable, scientifically verifiable fact. But our faith teaches us that something comes after that — new and eternal life.
“Science doesn’t give us any clue about resurrection, afterlife. There are aspects of reality that science just does not deal with. We know from faith that there will be an ultimate transformation.”
Father Stoeger said this can help us understand what science has to say about the fate of the universe. The science suggests that the universe will ultimately end in “heat death,” when all energy is dissipated and matter is spread out to near nothingness.
“And yet, the universe will be transformed into something else. Matter will be transformed, perhaps in a way that science could never observe or comprehend. Certainly each person’s personal identity, love, relationships will be carried over into that,” he said. “It’s all deep mystery, beyond where we can reliably go using the means at our disposal.”
Father Stoeger noted it is important to keep in mind that science and history are about what happens in time. “God is outside of time. Somehow, our risen life will be outside of time, apparently. We can say the same about the transformation of the universe,” he said.
Father O’Meara pointed out that our growing knowledge about the size and complexity of the universe only increases the wonder of the core Christian message: God loves each of us individually, in a very personal and intense way. It’s a fact that is far outside the realm of science to explore, but one that faith teaches us with an unshakable conviction.
Barry Hudock is the author of “The Eucharistic Prayer: A User’s Guide” (Liturgical Press, $16.95).