Nelson McCausland, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland, has caused a bit of a political storm by criticising a new Ulster Museum exhibition on the origins of the universe. Here it provides only one storyline - 'Evolution Facts'. While the news story will follow predictable lines, his criticism is valid.
The late 20th century has witnessed a reluctant revolution in the scientific world which appears to have left the museum behind. The idea the the universe was infinite and absolute - that neither it nor time itself had a 'beginning' - was a stubborn tenet of scientific faith that has not been dispelled until this generation.
In 1915 Einstein introduced his General Theory of Relativity. He postulated that the universe exists in a space-time dimension that is neither linear nor absolute. Time and the universe had a simultaneous beginning. To talk of the time 'before' the beginning of the universe is like asking what is south of the south pole.
The discovery in the 1920s by Edwin Hubble (by measuring light from distant galaxies) that the universe was expanding in all directions led to the calculation that the entire matter of the universe must have been at a single point some 15 billion years ago - if the speed of expansion had been constant. Was this the 'beginning'?
In the 1940s, a group of scientists (unhappy at the prospect of having to accept a 'beginning') came up with the concept of a 'steady state' universe. This theory was abandoned by most scientists in the 1960s when a study of weak radio waves proved that the universe did not have a constant density in the past, and so a 'steady state' universe did not appear to exist.
Since the 1960s - largely through the work of Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and others as described in Hawking's best-seller A Brief History of Time - there is now almost universal acceptance in the scientific world of a 'singularity': a point of infinite density and spacetime curvature where time has a beginning. With this comes general scientific acceptance of the 'Big Bang' theory. Hawking is only concerned with events following the first microsecond of the 'Big Bang' - not with before or with its cause.
"The universe expanded by a factor of a million trillion trillion in a tiny fraction of a second. ... It produced a very large and uniform universe, just as we observe."The speed of expansion of the universe as observed today is unlikely to be anything like the speed imagined a micro-second after the 'big bang'. A 'day' of those first 24 hours would have been a spectacular light show.
'Creationists' - by definition anybody that believes in a Creator God - have to contend with the assumption by atheists that they must believe in the 'Aunt Sally' of a literal 7-day (or more accurately, a 6-day) creation, where each day is 24 hours. The paradox is that many Christians are in denial about being 'Creationists' because of the implications that the label brings. So Nelson McCausland may not find much open academic support.
The debate about whether the six 'days' of creation as described in Genesis were intended to be interpreted as literal or figurative is for another 'day', but the greatest discrepancy of scientific versus literal-biblical estimates of duration (amounting to billions of years) mostly relate to the 'first day' when, according to Genesis 1. 1-6:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.A couple of things seem obvious to me. First, in the creationist debate about the meaning of 'day' (where a considerable body of Christians do accept this as figurative for 'age'), I find little recognition of the fact that these verses actually define 'day' as the presence of the 'light' just created. The creation of the sun, moon and stars to establish (govern) the seasons and day and night as we now experience them (depending on the relative positions of earth and sun) was not until the 'fourth day'.
And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light 'day', and the darkness he called 'night'. And there was evening and there was morning - the first day.
The second thing that appears obvious to me is that the biblical account of the first day of creation and the current scientific theories of the singularity event at the beginning of time and the universe are in greater harmony of cause and effect than ever before. It is 'evolution' that has no place in the debate.