Eric Lerner’s 1992 chronicle of plasma dynamics and plasma cosmology, “The Big Bang Never Happened,” perhaps surprisingly casts the science world’s reaction to plasma studies as something of a religious struggle. Ten years earlier, however, Fred Hoyle had outlined the elements of that struggle in his book “The Intelligent Universe.”
It was never apparent to me in the 1950s for example why the steady state theory was widely attacked by astronomers with an almost insensate fury. Mistakenly, as I now believe, I assumed the three of us involved in the origins of the theory, Hermann Bondi, Tommy Gold as well as myself, had somehow managed to irritate our colleagues in a serious personal way. Now I realize this was probably not so, at any rate, not largely so. The real issue was that we were touching on issues that threatened the theological culture on which western civilization was founded. At first sight one might think the strong anticlerical bias of modern science would be totally at odds with western religion. This is far from being so, however. The big bang theory requires a recent origin of the Universe that openly invites the concept of creation, while so-called thermodynamic theories of the origin of life in the organic soup of biology are the contemporary equivalent of the voice in the burning bush and the tablets of Moses.
This is why I am unrepentantly Greek in my attitude to science. The Greeks believed there was an ultimate, discoverable order in the Universe whereas western religion holds that science can only go so far in explaining it. It has been suggested by theologians that in their search for an internal logical description of the Universe, the Greeks were not real scientists, and that they failed to appreciate the importance of the experimental method. It is a suggestion that I disagree with. As far as we know, Eratosthenes was the first person to measure the size of the Earth. Hipparchus measured the distance of the Moon, and also the precession of the equinoxes. What of the Archimedes screw, widely used for irrigation even to this day, and what of the catapults and levers whereby Archimedes destroyed a Roman fleet? Indeed the style of thinking of the Hellenistic Greek scientists was so characteristically modern as to cause John Edensor Littlewood, the well-known Cambridge mathematician, to say that they seemed to him rather like “the fellows of another [Cambridge] College.”
The fiction that the Greeks were uninterested in experimental science comes in part from the fact that Greek science did not lead to any very profound advances of technology, but there were plenty of reasons for why this should have been so. It is a fluke of geography that no readily worked deposits of coal exist in the Mediterranean area, otherwise, with the Greeks and Romans in possession of plentiful coal, history would most likely have been very different.
I fear that the anticlerical bias of modern science arises from no very worthy motive. The basic issue is economic. In the past centuries the Church saw itself with a kind of divine right to a share of the productivity of the people. In modern times science sees itself with a similar kind of divine right. In return for the support which science gave to the development of nineteenth century industrialism, science has taken over the traditional “tithe” paid by society to its intellectual advisers. Far more than any re-organization of fundamental beliefs, this was what it was all about. It makes little difference to fundamental beliefs whether the Universe was created in 4004 BC as Archbishop Ussher asserted, or 10,000 million years ago, if indeed there ever was a creation, which as we have seen there are plenty of reasons to doubt.
I think that the fanciful trappings that are found in all religions have arisen because at our present level of sophistication we find it hard to interpret the distant voices that are guiding our development. If we were to attempt a new material representation of ourselves now, doubtless we would try for a grandiose solution all in one shot, an explicit new creature complete in itself, like the Greek story of Pygmalion, or like novices with a computer attempting to write a large complex program all in one go. The practiced expert, on the other hand, builds a large complex computer program from many subroutines, many individual bits, each one of which is separately tested for its great accuracy in detail.
Microorganisms and genetic fragments are the subroutines of biology, existing throughout space in prodigious numbers, riding everywhere on the light pressure of the stars. Because the correct logical procedure is to build upwards from precisely formed subroutines, we on Earth had to evolve from a seemingly elementary starting point. Yet so powerful was the onward surge, so urgent the climb up the great mountain, that on Earth a creature at last arose with an inkling in its mind of what it really was, a whisper of its identity: We are the intelligence that preceded us in its new material representation—or rather, we are the re-emergence of that intelligence, the latest embodiment of its struggle for survival.