The physics of creation

How the universe came into being is a basic question for both science and religion. According to the account accepted by the vast majority of astronomers and physicists who specialize in cosmology – the study of the origin and nature of the cosmos – the observable universe originated in the “Big Bang,” a foundational event that happened 13.7 billion years ago. In an infinitesimal instant of time, all the matter in the universe, which had initially been extremely dense, began to expand. Despite the event’s popular name, the Big Bang was not an explosion in the ordinary sense, but rather the intense and rapid expansion of matter and space.

According to a number of scientists, the Big Bang model is consistent with a variety of religious and spiritual interpretations. The founder of modern physics, Albert Einstein, for example, though not a believer in a personal God or one concerned with human affairs, discerned divinity in the “orderly harmony of what exists.” Other scientists have also expressed religious views through the decades. Some point out that, though the Big Bang model differs from the biblical account of creation, it is compatible with the concept of creation ex nihilo expressed in the Bible. Some argue that the Big Bang allows for an intentional creator.

Recently these views have been gaining increasing attention. Several recent books by scientists at prominent universities explore the findings of cosmology in religious or spiritual terms. In The Physics of Christianity (2007), Tulane University physicist and mathematician Frank J. Tipler asserts that science can explain various events described in the Bible. In Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life (2007), University of Arizona cosmologist Paul Davies examines the anthropic principle, which is the argument that life is able to exist because the universe has various characteristics, including certain physical laws, that, if only slightly different, would make life impossible. In The View From the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos, University of California physicist Joel Primack and his co-author seek to connect the origins of the universe to the concerns of life on Earth.

Why it matters

Second only to evolution, the modern cosmological account of the universe’s origin has pitted modern science against supporters of the biblical account of creation. The fact that reputable scientists, while not accepting the biblical account as literally true, nonetheless argue for the compatibility of religious concepts and modern cosmological science, indicates a possibility of reconciliation between science and at least certain kinds of religious faith. Some scientists and others go further, arguing that the anthropic principle implies a cosmic intention to create an environment conducive to intelligent life.

Angles for reporters

What is the attitude of various faith communities in your area toward the findings of cosmology? Do they perceive the Big Bang account of the universe’s origins as compatible with their faith?

Do astronomers and physicists in your area who are knowledgeable about cosmology have views on the religious or spiritual implications of physics and astronomy?


National sources

  • Edmund Bertschinger

    Edmund Bertschinger is a physics professor and division head of astrophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. His research focuses on the formation and development of cosmic structure after the big bang. He has written articles on the structure and formation of the universe.

  • Paul Davies

    Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist and founder and director of Beyond: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in Tempe. His books include The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? In 1995 he won the Templeton Prize for work on science and religion. Contact via Skip Derra, media relations at ASU.

  • James Gunn

    James Gunn is a professor of astrophysics at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., where he is a leading researcher on the structure of the universe. His theoretical work in astronomy has helped establish the current understanding of how galaxies form.

  • Joel R. Primack

    Joel R. Primack, a professor of physics at the University of California Santa Cruz, is co-author of The View From the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos.

  • George F. Smoot

    George F. Smoot is co-winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize; a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley; and research physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His publications include, as co-author, the popular book Wrinkles in Time: Witness to the Birth of the Universe.

  • Paul J. Steinhardt

    Paul J. Steinhardt is Albert Einstein Professor in Science on the faculties of physics and astronomy at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. Along with Neil Turok, he coauthored Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang, which provides an outline of the foundation of the “Cyclic Universe” theory.

  • Frank J. Tipler

    Frank J. Tipler is a professor of mathematics and physics at Tulane University and author of The Physics of Christianity and The Physics of Immortality, which argues that basic Christian miracle stories such as the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth can be consistent with the known scientific laws of the universe.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Steven Weinberg is a noted atheist and professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas. He is a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics and the U.S. National Medal of Science, and is a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. Read his Jan. 17, 2007, review of Dawkins’ book in the Times Literary Supplement.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Richard F. Holman

    Richard F. Holman is a physics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He specializes in the intersection between cosmology and particle physics.

  • John P. Hughes

    John P. “Jack” Hughes is a professor of physics and astronomy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in Piscataway. He teaches courses on cosmology and astrophysics and can talk about the formation of galaxies.

  • Amber Miller

    Amber Miller is associate professor of physics at Columbia University in New York, N.Y. She leads the Columbia University Experimental Cosmology group, which studies “relic signatures from the Big Bang with the goal of understanding the origin and evolution of the universe.” She teaches a course titled “Physics for Poets” and is interested in the interface between science and politics.

  • Priyamvada Natarajan

    Priyamvada Natarajan is an associate professor in the departments of astronomy and physics at Yale University in New Haven. She studies cosmology and galaxy evolution.

  • Alexander Vilenkin

    Alexander Vilenkin is professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He is an expert on cosmic inflation, an emerging view on the evolution of the universe. Read an article he wrote about cosmic inflation. He is the author of several popular books on science including Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes (2007).

  • Eric R. Wollman

    Eric R. Wollman is professor and chairman of physics at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. His research focuses on conditions in the early universe.

In the South

  • Marco Cavaglià

    Marco Cavaglià is assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. His research interests include cosmology, string and M-theory cosmology, and quantum cosmology.

  • John F. Hawley

    John F. Hawley is a professor and chairman of the astronomy department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He co authored Foundations of Modern Cosmology (2nd edition, 2005).

  • Robert J. Scherrer

    Robert J. Scherrer is a professor and chairman of the department of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. His research focuses on cosmology and the structure of the universe. He also blogs about science and science fiction and is an expert on the big bang theory, dark matter and dark energy.

In the Midwest

  • Deborah Haarsma

    Deborah Haarsma is president of the BioLogos Foundation, a Christian organization that promotes the harmony of religion and science. She is a former professor in the physics and astronomy department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and has written widely on the relationship of science and religion.

  • Christopher S. Kochanek

    Christopher S. Kochanek is an astronomy professor and Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology at Ohio State University in Columbus. He is an expert in cosmology.

  • Barbara Sue Ryden

    Barbara Sue Ryden is an associate professor of astronomy at Ohio State University in Columbus, author of Introduction to Cosmology and co-author of Basic Astrophysics (2008).

In the West

  • Gregory Bothun

    Gregory Bothun is a physics professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene and author of Cosmology: Mankind’s Grand Investigation.

  • Neil J. Cornish

    Neil J. Cornish is an associate professor of physics at Montana State University in Bozeman. His is an expert on early universe cosmology. His research focuses primarily on Gravitational Wave Astronomy–observing gravitational ways to study different features of the universe.

  • Andrew J.S. Hamilton

    Andrew J.S. Hamilton is professor of astrophysicial and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He teaches courses on cosmology, astrophysics, and astronomy and is an expert on black holes.

  • Ina Sarcevic

    Ina Sarcevic is a physics professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson and author of The Edge of Infinity. Read an article she wrote on the fundamental nature of matter.

  • Virginia Trimble

    Virginia Trimble is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. She specializes in the history of science, including the history of human understanding of the evolution of galaxies.

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