Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Age of wonder

I have been reading "The Age of Wonder" by Richard Holmes - how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.

It is an extended series of short biographies of major scientists operating from the end of the eighteenth century to the early part of the nineteenth. These scientists were the contemporaries and often the friends of the romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Southey. The scientists include Banks, the botanist/explorer, Herschel the astronomer, the French balloonists Montgolfier, Charles and Blanchard, the explorer Mungo Park, the chemist Hunphrey Davy, the engineer Charles Babbage and the physicist Michael Faraday.

William Herschel was a musician from Hanover who emigrated to England in the wake of the Elector of Hanover who became King George the First. It was George the Third who befriended and funded him. Using a reflector telescope that admitted far more light the conventional refractor, Herschel meticulously scanned the night sky and discovered the planet Uranus. Although this brought him fame, more important was his discovery that the Universe was far larger than anyone had suspected and that light had apparently been coming from the farthest stars for millions of years.

This discovery upset the clergy who had determined that the world was created one afternoon in September in 4004 BC.

Actually, I think too many assumptions are made to set so precise a date on the creation, but one thing the Bible is clear on is that the world had a beginning and that it was created 'up-and-running'.

Thus Adam was not created as a baby, but as a fully grown man and Eve as a fully grown woman. The stars were visible at creation, they did not have to wait for millennia for the light from those stars to reach planet earth. The photons streaming from the stars were part of the Biblical creation.

This argument was put forward in the nineteenth century by Philip Gosse, whose memory has been traduced by his rebellious and unbelieving son, the critic Edmunde. Philip Henry Gosse (April 6, 1810 – August 23, 1888) was an English naturalist and popularizer of natural science, virtually the inventor of the seawater aquarium, and a painstaking innovator in the study of marine biology. Without a University position and without wealth or noble background, he was unusually made an FRS. He was also a leading light in the Plymouth Brethren and his evangelical beliefs led him to publish a book 'Omphalos' which stated that the only way of reconciling the immense age of the earth, implied by astronomy and geology, was to postulate that the earth as created had an implied history that in real life had never happened. Thus, Adam though never born in a conventional way (and therefore in no need of a navel - omphalos) did indeed have an umbilicus, implying that he had been born with an umbilical cord.

He was attacked for this 'outrageous' view. His friend, Charles Kingsley (The Water Babies), exclaimed that God would surely not deceive us in this way.

Yet since God has quite precisely had it written down how, exactly, he created the world, no deception is involved. It is merely a matter of believing what God has said rather than what man conjectures. Is it to be believed that had Adam taken an axe to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, that it would have had no tree rings?

Scientists have scoffed at Gosse but they can only do so for prejudiced reasons. However, Martin Gardner, in Facts & Fallacies (1957), agrees that Gosse "presented a theory so logically perfect, and so in accordance with geological facts that no amount of scientific evidence will ever be able to refute it."

Gosse's thesis is not, of course, "scientific." While it may be true, it is not testable, nor does it suggest future research projects. It is a dead end. Gosse recognized this. Nevertheless, he urged his fellow scientists to continue as if unreal history were real and to construct their theories independent of his thesis.

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