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Apollo XI and the physics of God

Forty-five years ago this month, Neil Armstrong uttered perhaps the most unforgettable words ever spoken, as he stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module and became the first human being to set foot on the Moon.

As he said, it was “… one small step for a man”; though in fact, of course, many thousands, if not millions, of steps had already been taken in the long and winding road that led to Apollo XI‘s landing. So many technological achievements, arguably dating back to the invention of the wheel and beyond, had fuelled that jaw-dropping expedition.

On the one hand, as Armstrong put it, it was as though our species had taken a “giant leap” in its evolutionary journey; on the other hand, the landing can be characterised as simply the product of the cold, level headed application of scientific knowledge, technological advances and computer power.

As an atheist, I’ve always been fascinated by the part played by God in all of this. When John F. Kennedy made his “We choose to go to the moon” speech, he was careful to ask for God’s blessing for the “adventure”. And when the Apollo VIII astronauts entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1968, they took turns in reading from the book of Genesis.

It seems to me that these statements of faith were probably a lot to do with pandering to assumed public sentiment in the US. (buzz_aldrin_EVA_selfieThough not entirely: it’s interesting that Buzz Aldrin‘s personal communion service on the surface of the Moon was held in secret – see Buzz Aldrin selfie, right, taken during his EVA). But having in mind the experiences of Galileo, Darwin and others throughout history who’d made giant leaps previously, the finance department at NASA knew that offending religious sensibilities via revolutionary discoveries would not necessarily stimulate increased budgets for future missions.

Nonetheless … with all the analytical and computational power at their disposal, I’m surprised that true believers at NASA and other scientific bodies have never sought to establish the physical nature of God. If they’re as convinced of his existence as the statements of the astronauts and certain space scientists suggest, it would surely be worthwhile undertaking some kind of work to buttress their belief with empirical evidence? To my mind, there is a very curious contradiction in the way they can spend so much of their lives rigorously searching after solutions to the most difficult problems in physics, harnessing cutting edge knowledge and equipment to chase down fine details which may produce further giant leaps, whilst at the same time blocking out of their mind any thoughts of questioning the nature of this supposed all-powerful, all-seeing super being.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an extensive body of scientific, metaphysical and/or philosophical literature exploring ideas around the physics of God. For instance, James Redford, in his 2012 book The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything, available via links here, seeks to use theories about the ultimate collapse of the universe into a final cosmological singularity – the “Omega Point” – as a proof for the existence of God.

Rather than try to explain the origins of the Big Bang, of which “The Omega Point is a different aspect”, Redford places his trust in a projection of generally-accepted quantum gravity theory into the most distant imaginable future, to describe God as a state of being which will come about following the development of infinite computational resources. (So for “God”, read “Science”; or “If you can’t beat them, join them”). We can all take comfort in knowing that scientists will one day be able to explain absolutely every aspect of the “multiverse”; but, with a nagging worry that, as the state of singularity approaches, scientists may have other things on their minds than increasing computer power (and also that scientific theories themselves evolve), I find very little of value here.

Darwin's_finchesThe truth of the matter is that, just like Darwin’s finches, religious beliefs tend to be modified to respond to changes in their habitat. With each new “giant leap” made by Man, some of the bonds that hold together the DNA of religious beliefs are broken and re-form to adapt to the changing climate of opinion and the social and scientific environment.

For absolutely explicable reasons, many people (some astronauts included) need to hold onto a religious belief as they take their all-too-short, wondrous, worrying ride on and around this planet, as it processes through the inexplicable heavens.

To that extent, the scientific basis for the existence of God is to be found not in physics, but in psychology.

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Dust – doesn’t it seem to just get everywhere?

“Brazil, get up, dust yourself off and move forward”.

To whom was the Brazilian President speaking, when she said those memorable words? Personally I don’t think they were necessarily addressed to the country as a whole but rather to the Brazilian players. Having already been flattened to the tune of 7-1 by Germany’s steamroller, they could quite easily find themselves hitting the dust fairly frequently in the coming months, if irate fans decide to seek vengeance for their dreadful performance.

According to the papers, the words of o Presidente were taken from a Brazilian song, though they sound remarkably like the lyrics of a certain 1936 Jerome Kern classic (words by Dorothy Field), from the days when melody was king. This Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers version is not so dusty – must admit I’ve recently come to admire the sheer artistry of these two.

But to digress for a moment: “Dust yourself off” … how would you go about that? You’d probably use your hands, though there’s always the Hoover/Dyson option, I suppose. Apparently Mr Dyson, who has quite cleverly made his billions from dust, has now developed a hoover (lol) that doesn’t need a filter. “It has taken six years and cost £7.5 million to perfect the filter-less vacuum with 2,000 prototypes used to suck up two tonnes of dust“.

The main problem with dust is that most of it tends to float about, of course, so you never actually get rid of it, filters or no filters. And where does it all come from? According to an article in the latest issue of Open Minds magazine, up to 40 tonnes (and, by the way, is that the same as tons?) of space dust rain down on the earth every day.

Astronauts go up in planes fitted out with special pads to collect sample cosmic specks (like you do) before they get contaminated with other dust. The reason they have to be so choosy about the type of dust they collect is that the higher up it is, the purer it is. I’m thinking that that rather contrasts with the structure of British society at the moment, but let it pass.

If you’re unfortunate enough to get a bit of dust in your eye, take my tip. Roll your eyelid over a matchstick and catch it on the end of a wedge of tissue paper – works every time. There’s nothing worse than having Something in your Eyes. Which did make me wonder how anyone could find such an experience an appropriate subject for a song; but someone did – and actually it’s quite a wistful ballad, best version by Dusty Springfield. Here she is, singing it with Richard Carpenter, who apparently often wears goggles (no he doesn’t, I made that bit up).

One unintended legacy aspect of the World Cup in Brazil really ought to be a memory of the poor people who live in the People’s Camp, just two miles from São Paulo’s World Cup stadium. Abject poverty often seems to live cheek by jowl with obscene wealth.

It’s something Charles Dickens frequently referred to, dickensjpgmost memorably via the image of the dust heaps in his last novel, Our Mutual Friend. I wonder if James Dyson has ever read it?

‘The man,’ Mortimer goes on, addressing Eugene, ‘whose name is Harmon, was only son of a tremendous old rascal who made his money by Dust.’

‘Red velveteens and a bell?’ the gloomy Eugene inquires.

‘And a ladder and basket if you like. By which means, or by others, he grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,–all manner of Dust.’

A passing remembrance of Mrs Veneering, here induces Mortimer to address his next half-dozen words to her; after which he wanders away again, tries Twemlow and finds he doesn’t answer, ultimately takes up with the Buffers who receive him enthusiastically.

‘The moral being–I believe that’s the right expression–of this exemplary person, derived its highest gratification from anathematizing his nearest relations and turning them out of doors. Having begun (as was natural) by rendering these attentions to the wife of his bosom, he next found himself at leisure to bestow a similar recognition on the claims of his daughter. He chose a husband for her, entirely to his own satisfaction and not in the least to hers, and proceeded to settle upon her, as her marriage portion, I don’t know how much Dust, but something immense. At this stage of the affair the poor girl respectfully intimated that she was secretly engaged to that popular character whom the novelists and versifiers call Another, and that such a marriage would make Dust of her heart and Dust of her life–in short, would set her up, on a very extensive scale, in her father’s business. Immediately, the venerable parent–on a cold winter’s night, it is said– anathematized and turned her out.’

No doubt she too got up, dusted herself off and moved forward.

And let’s just hope her dreams, unlike those of the Brazilian fans and footballers, didn’t turn to dust …


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