Dr. Karin Oberg, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University
The University Core (along with Catholic Studies, the Department of Religion, and Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology) proudly sponsored a talk last Thursday afternoon, October 24, by Dr. Karin Oberg, Astronomy Professor at Harvard University. The topic was "Cosmology, Creation, and Extra-Terrestrials." Dr. Oberg gave a fascinating lecture, punctuated by interesting questions, that was both inspiring and intellectually stimulating. I am an English professor, and I left wanting to read or watch videos on the topic of astronomy, and this is a small miracle in itself.
When I was in college, I was drawn to this topic and took a class in Astronomy as one of my electives. I was disappointed in that the huge lecture (about 400 students, I think) was very impersonal, and the professor was not engaging nor encouraging. I recall her snapping at a student, "You're in college and you don't know that?!" I didn't dare to ask anything after that. Identifying with Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer," I decided my way of entering into this subject would be either through poetry or, like Whitman, walking under the stars themselves.
However, Dr. Oberg's talk brought me back to what had attracted me to the subject in the first place. Astronomy and physics, in general, link science to the bigger picture – even venturing to the place where God and science meet. Karin was not afraid to go there, spending the first part of her talk describing her conversion from agnosticism to Christianity through reading C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity. Now here was a topic I did know something about! She started attending an Anglican Church (as did Lewis upon his conversion), but then she read G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and was influenced to join the Catholic Church. She went on to discuss how faith and reason go together, and while they are distinctive areas of study, there is no reason for them to conflict. She quoted from Saint John Paul II's encyclical, regarding faith and reason, entitled "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth." She referenced Saint Thomas' Aquinas's proofs for God, and noted how science does not in any way contradict them. She concluded this first part of her talk by going through the most common arguments that posit science against faith, refuting them logically and convincingly.
Next she moved into the main part of her talk on "Cosmology, Creation, and Extra-terrestrials." She discussed how logical and mathematical the universe is, and how it follows laws that are reasonable and consistent. She spoke about how the universe is so much larger than humans had once thought, with a wide plethora of possible worlds existing in the cosmos. Expanding and revealing more and more to us, as our ability to perceive grows with the instruments we create for observation and detection, the universe continues to reveal surprising truths. She mentioned (and showed a photo) three great scientists of the twentieth century, who helped to transform the way we view the universe—Albert Einstein (who needs no identifier), Msgr. Georges LeMaitre (the Belgian priest who discovered "the Big Bang"), and Edwin Hubble (the American scientist who proved LeMaitre's theories by showing that the universe was expanding). Einstein's theory of relativity showed that time and space were on a continuum, and neither was linear as had been thought. Now, with LeMaitre's and Hubble's further insights, it was clear that the universe was not static, but moving outward from its ancient origin. Dr. Oberg pointed out that, despite his deep faith, Msgr. LeMaitre was not quick to identify the "Big Bang" with the Creation by God, even when the Pope at that time would have liked that; instead Oberg pointed out that he honestly admitted that they should not necessarily be equated, though they clearly could be linked.
Oberg made the point that going back far enough to the origin of origins (before the Big Bang), the question of what started it, what caused it, remains one that science cannot answer. She mentioned that many scientists back away from this question, saying it is not something where their scientific skills can find definitive answers. Rather, she said, it is a question that one can answer by faith. For her the amazingly logical and mathematically consistent, though expanding and moving, universe attests to a creation by a loving and creative God.
The Milky Way.
Beyond this galaxy, in other potential places where life might exist, there could possibly be other rational beings. Oberg made the point that the idea of life, at least, in some form on other planets is not strange but highly likely, given the enormity of the universe and the fact that there are many planets that look similar to earth. However, she clarified that the fact a planet can support life does not mean that such life will be complex and rational as human beings are. Delving once again into theology, she brought up how the Incarnation of Christ (God becoming human) is shown to be even more amazing, more "scandalous" as it was first considered in the early days of the church, in light of what we now know of the enormity of the universe. She raised some interesting questions about how this important theological concept, the Incarnation, might connect with these other potential universes. The talk ended with a fascinating question and answer discussion time, with students and faculty, both, asking interesting and provocative questions, which Oberg answered respectfully and comprehensively, given the time constraints of the session.
Core I students study Exodus in the Bible, and Core II students study Genesis, chapters 1-11, which include the creation story and the fall of Adam and Eve. They also read Galileo's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. Oberg referenced this particular text, saying it shows Galileo's faith, which she suggested was a part of his scientific inquiry. The conflict with the church, though real, was rooted in personalities more than anything else and the Aristotelian view the church had adopted, which was not a correctly understood and intelligently applied biblical perspective. Oberg mentioned more than once that the idea that, when faith and science contradict one another, it is either bad theology or bad science that is the problem.
The Core involves the exploration of all kinds of subjects, including science, and Dr. Oberg gave Core students and others a wonderful view of how faith and science interact in an expanding and enlightening universe.