What do the physics of modern cosmology and esoteric Jewish thought have to say to each other? A lot more than you’d imagine, according to Dr. Howard Smith. Smith is a Harvard astrophysicist, the former chair of the astronomy department at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, and an expert on the mystical doctrines of the kabbalah. In the interview below, he points out the surprising connections between ancient speculations and cutting-edge scientific discoveries and what they reveal about space, time, and the effort to reconcile the religious and scientific worldviews.
Octavian Report: The great Jewish thinker Maimonides says in his The Guide of the Perplexed that one must master the physical sciences before understanding the divine ones. Do you have any thoughts on that vis-à-vis your own career?
Howard Smith: I use that quote from Rambam all the time. Maimonides was a great rationalist. I think that he was maybe a little bit too egotistical for modern tastes. He was an elitist, but he was a great rationalist and a strong proponent of saying that the truly religious person needs to know science. I speak to a wide range of audiences, and when I speak to audiences where people are religious, they usually are open but a little skeptical about science. I use that quote to emphasize that science isn’t competing with or contradicting religion, it’s enhancing it. A spiritual point of view is strengthened by knowing astronomy.
Maimonides says religious people who have no awareness of science — he talks about astronomy in particular — are like people walking around the palace of the king who can’t find the gate. You really need science to enter the gate. In that context, I also tie it to Psalm 92. That’s the Psalm for the Sabbath Day, and it goes something like: ma gadlu ma’asekha, how wonderful are your works; ish-baar lo yeda, a simple-minded person doesn’t understand them. It continues in that vein. The import of that psalm is that these are the works of creation and a person who doesn’t appreciate these works, like the uneducated person, misses out on that splendor, the wonder of the universe. Those are tied together.
Science is a way to strengthen, not to threaten, your religious commitment. From that point of view, I agree with Maimonides. I use Maimonides in another way, too. After I talk about cosmology and modern science, and go through the universe as we know it, I often stop and ask the audience why they should believe what I tell them. After all, you might say, “Well, science is a temporary perspective, it’s what we think today, and things will come along and change it. It’s not really Truth with a capital T, so we don’t have to believe it.” So why should you believe what I tell you? That’s my question. What is the basis for thinking that human beings, a speck in the vast cosmos, have any clue what truth is about?
There are two answers. One answer is: it works. That’s a scientific answer. Newton’s laws are still accurate, they just have a limited domain of applicability. Science continues to make progress, and we use it all the time. It works — that’s one good sign.
The philosophical reason, and the religious reason, as Maimonides says, is that we are told to love God. “You should love the Lord your God” is the passage he uses to prove it, also in The Guide of the Perplexed. He asks: what does it mean to love God? It means to know God. It means to understand God and his world, in the sense of Psalm 92. To understand the universe and to appreciate it, to be aware of it. Maimonides says that because we are given that task of knowing God and his universe, then it must be that we can accomplish that task. It’s within our power to achieve it, or it wouldn’t be a mitzvah to do it. That’s the reason why we can believe what we learn. The gifts of science, of rationality, of the scientific method, are not random or arbitrary or mistaken. Reason may go off on tangents, but it’s grounded in a divine gift.
As for myself, the truth is I’m a scientist because I love it and have always loved it. That’s just who I am. I was very blessed to be able to continue to do it, and to make a career out of it, and to earn a living doing it. I was always curious about the world, and I also had a kind of a spiritual sensitivity to things that was nicely complimented.
I don’t do it because, as Maimonides might say, I’m walking around a palace looking for the gate. I do it because it happens to be my nature. I spent many years at the National Air and Space Museum lecturing to the public, and I teach at Harvard and do other things. I know it’s not for everybody; not everyone loves science the way I do. Not everybody is comfortable with mathematics like I am. Maimonides might deprecate those people — but I don’t. Everybody has a valid path.
I do think that everyone should love music, and everyone should read poetry, and everybody should know a little bit of science. These are all part of filling out your potential. Even if you don’t know the details, you have a certain level of appreciation for what’s out there and confidence that there are professionals who are doing great things and bringing them to the community.
OR: You’ve done a lot of work around extraterrestrial life. Can summarize your findings and explain why you think we’re alone?
Smith: This is a topic that people have been talking about since the time of the Greeks. Even before: there are Jewish speculations earlier than that. It’s not a new topic, but what we can say today that we couldn’t say 20 years ago is that we’ve now discovered thousands of planets around other stars. These are called exoplanets. It’s possible to begin to ask what the conditions are like on those planets. That’s what’s new. Although I have done a little bit of work in it, I am not myself an exoplanet researcher. I have many colleagues who are, and I follow it closely. I have thought about the issue of life, which is a separate question from the question of exoplanets.
The fact is that we always expected there to be planets around other stars. 20 years ago, before the first ones were discovered, scientists guessed that most planetary systems would be like our solar system. That is to say, a sun at the center, rocky planets close in like the Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Gas planets, Jupiter and Saturn, and giants would be further out, and things would come together in a way that vaguely resembles our solar system.
That was the assumption. What’s been discovered is that these other solar systems are deeply unlike our solar system. All kinds of strange solar systems have been found, with giant Jupiters very close to the star, closer than Mercury — so-called hot Jupiters — and all sorts of other things in between. Strange orbits; wonderful, complicated, unexpected, and remarkable planetary systems of all kinds. Including a few where there are rocky, Earth-sized planets at a distance from the star which would allow water to be liquid. The so-called habitable zone: not frozen, not evaporated, but liquid water. Some of those have been found, too.
So how do we now think about life on all of these planets? There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and probably all of them have planets. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe that we can see. And relativity has made us aware of the fact that there is a finite speed, the speed of light: you can’t go faster than that. So it takes a very long time for signals to travel. Even to talk to a civilization, let’s say, on a star in the field that the Kepler satellite is looking at in Cygnus — that’s about 1,000 light years away — would take 2,000 years, counting signal times going back and forth.
Secondly, the biological factor is still the predominant factor, and we have not made much progress there. We don’t know how life originates. We do know that nobody has made life in the laboratory, and that’s about as perfect a setup as you can get. We do know that life is really complicated. The simplest forms of life are capable of self-reproduction, and have thousands of atoms in them. For those to accidentally come together is not so easy, even if you have liquid water around. Your guess is as good as mine how many water-filled planets you need before one of them is able to have biological evolution and then for that process to lead to intelligence. Even on our own earth, many biologists would argue as Stephen Jay Gould argued: should evolution repeat it would not lead to intelligent life. Intelligence is a very expensive way to survive. Better to use that energy to have muscles and teeth, like the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were very successful for 100 million years, and they would still be here, presumably, if they had not been wiped out by an asteroid. This opened up, by accident, a little niche for the mammals to move into.
By alone in the universe I mean that we won’t know one way or the other for, say, 2,500 years. That’s a really long time. In that time, we could in theory communicate with life as far away as 1,250 light years. In the volume of space that’s 1,250 light years away from us, we can count how many stars there are, guess how many of them have planets, estimate their suitability for life evolving. It has to form, and then it has to form in an environment that’s stable. You need a lot more than water for there to be life; obviously you need to have carbon too, and carbon in the right form. The rocky planet can’t be covered with water, you would want to have some solid land to be able to develop life of the kind we’re familiar with. I say that in that volume we can count how many stars there are, about 30 million, and we can then use the so-called Drake method for estimating the likelihood of life developing and evolving. My conclusion is it’s unlikely that we will even know within a hundred generations whether there’s intelligent life capable of communication.
Now, there could be lots of life in the Andromeda Galaxy, or on the other side of our galaxy. But that’s even more than 1,000 light years away. Unless those civilizations spotted life developing on earth thousands of years ahead of time, and decided to send a signal to us to arrive about now (which seems unrealistic and a little bit impractical), then we’re not going to get a signal from them either. Unless it happens to be an accidental broadcast in all directions. We ourselves have recently switched over to cable and other much more energy-efficient ways of transmitting, so those sorts of broadcasts are also not likely.
My basic conclusion, which I call the misanthropic principle, is that it’s harder than we think for intelligent life to form and develop. Not to say that it isn’t abundant throughout the universe, but we’re probably not going to know because it takes such a long time for signals to travel. Therefore, humanity is not irrelevant. Humanity is special. Life is special. We are not a dime a dozen. There may be life elsewhere in the universe, but we’re not going to know.
There’s a certain amount, then, of appreciation for the fact that as far as we are likely to know we are special. Even more than that, the Earth is special. Even though there are planets around probably most stars, and even though there are many Earth-sized planets, and possibly even some Earth-like planets. The Earth is still a rare and special case, and so we need to protect it, and we’re going to have to take care of it by ourselves.
OR: What’s your view of the space program and the future of manned flight? Should we be trying to get to Mars?
Smith: I am very supportive of these programs. I’m supportive of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. There are lots of amazing reasons to explore Mars, even to have manned exploration of Mars. The exploration of the universe is part of the human drive to understand, to venture out. To go where no one has gone before. It is so important, it seems to me, for the public to appreciate the tremendous spiritual and psychological benefits of what NASA accomplishes. We are doing things that previous generations could scarcely imagine. These are the spiritual drivers for our motivation.
It’s true, there may be technical benefits. We learn all the time that science has spin-offs that go unexpected ways. My thesis supervisor, Charles Townes, invented the laser. Who knew that there would be a laser in my CD reader or at the checkout counter? He certainly didn’t imagine that. There are lots of practical benefits. But I think the biggest benefit is our ability to take pride in ourselves.
So I don’t care what we find on Mars. It’s human nature to want to explore, and I am a strong supporter of exploration. Now, one can explore robotically, as well as with manned missions, so there’s a balance, and we need to strike that balance. I happen to be thrilled to pay taxes to support my government’s efforts in these inspirational ways. I absolutely think that the government has a leadership role to play in doing it. I think there’s also a role for private enterprise. It’s wonderful to see SpaceX and all of the ancillary other projects that are trying to become active in this. I have a post-doc who got a wonderful job at SpaceX. He was a great astrophysicist in computer modeling, and they needed a computer modeler, so he’s out there doing great things for them.
It’s part of the spiritual aspect of exploration. The folks involved with it are excited about it, they think it’s worth doing. Just please, as with all science, don’t misrepresent possibilities. People should appreciate that even small steps are fantastic and amazing. Think about the discovery of gravity waves. Decades of hard work and modest investment year after year by the NSF produced unbelievable technology and an extremely dramatic discovery. You just have to be patient, and have small investments, and be thoughtful about it, and support the community that debates it and criticizes it and solves problems. I think that’s also the method that your readership uses in seeing any kind of success: a process of open give-and-take.
“Science is a way to strengthen, not to threaten, your religious commitment.”—Howard Smith
OR: Are you concerned at all about the threat of a near-Earth object or an asteroid?
Smith: As it happens, I am involved in near-Earth-object research. My particular specialty is infrared astronomy: wavelengths longward of visible emitted by objects that are not so hot that they glow like the sun. One of those categories of objects are near-Earth asteroids. In fact, when the Spitzer space telescope was launched by NASA more than 10 years ago, I proposed that these would be very detectable by our infrared cameras. Last week I was at a meeting in the Netherlands of our team. We’re just preparing for a new set of Spitzer observations.
But yes, there is a danger, absolutely. As we saw in Russia a few years ago, these things do pose a danger. Is it the greatest danger that we face? No, I don’t think so, but it is a danger, nevertheless, and it’s one that is — I won’t say it’s easily addressed, but it’s certainly easy to address the first step, which is counting them. We have been engaged in a program to try to detect them, and have succeeded in doing a pretty good job of detecting most of the very large ones, and we’re now working to get down to below 150-meter size, and even some below 100 meters in size. Those are small, and they’re faint, and so we’ve been working away at it. We are actually also members of Ed Lu’s Sentinel team, which has proposed as an independent entity to launch with Space X a mission to detect something like 90 percent of all the small near-Earth asteroids by 2020. That has stalled a bit in its fundraising effort. NASA has a separate mission that they are currently studying, the so-called NEOCam proposal, that would do something similar.
These are interesting objects not only because they’re threats. They represent material from the pristine solar system, when the Earth was still forming. We don’t quite know how that happened and what things were going on back then. It begins to overlap the discovery of exoplanets, because we’re trying to figure out how those exoplanets got there. Especially those solar systems that I mentioned with strange orbits, or hot Jupiters, or other combinations of things. How did they happen to get that way? NASA would like to visit a near-Earth object to really do a closer investigation. So they are scientifically interesting, and not simply threats to be avoided.
OR: How do you reconcile the Biblical narrative of time with what science tells us?
Smith: With my audiences, I talk about the fact that sometimes you think of yourself, if you’re a religious person, as perhaps being irrational. Nobody wants to be irrational. But science today is discovering things that were fantastically — how shall I put it? — unexpected. They all are subsumed under the label of the anthropic principle, which states that the universe appears to be fabulously precisely tuned to support intelligent life.
For example, I could say: “Aren’t we lucky that we live here on Earth where we have delightful water and sunshine and plants, and it’s just a great place to be?” Of course, the answer would be: well, if there is an Earth-like planet anywhere in the universe, that’s where we would be. We are where we can be. We are found in a place that permits life. It’s not that we are lucky, it’s just that we are where we have to be. It’s just a simple consequence.
The anthropic principle is the opposite. The universe is fantastically tuned for life, and there is no place else to go. What are some examples of this fine-tuning? The universe is ruled by laws, and there are four fundamental forces. The gravitational force, which we’re familiar with. The electromagnetic force, which we’re pretty familiar with. Then come the two forces that dominate at the scale of atoms and particles, the strong and weak force. Those four forces control everything that goes on in the universe. Those forces are associated with numbers that determine their relative strength.
Gravity, for example, is the weakest of the forces. It’s easy to show that: a tiny magnet that you hold in your hand can lift up a nail as the whole world pulls down on it.
Similarly, there are constants like the speed of light and Planck’s constant that control how the world works. We have no idea why these constants take the particular numbers, the values that they do. Why is the speed of light 3×1010 centimeters per second? We don’t know why. It could be anything — much bigger, much smaller. What we do know is that if these many values changed by a little bit — a tenth of a percent, even less — then intelligent life couldn’t exist.
Intelligent life relies on carbon. Carbon is the only atom that can form complex chains, and no matter what strange lifeform you might imagine out there, I think everybody would agree that if it’s going to be intelligent, it’s going to have to be complex. It’s going to have to be able to make complicated chains of molecules. Right now, only carbon does that. Carbon is essential, and probably any life form will be carbon-based for that reason.
Carbon is made in stars. If the strong force had a slightly different constant, then the protons that come together to form the nucleus of the carbon atom wouldn’t hold together. That’s just one instance of many. Or consider the universe itself. If the universe when it expanded in the Big Bang had expanded more slowly than it did, then eventually the gravity from all of the matter in the universe would have slowed it down and made it collapse. Life takes time to evolve; it took us several billion years here on Earth. If the universe had not lasted a few billion years, life wouldn’t form. On the other hand, if the universe had expanded much more quickly than it did, then in those first moments after matter was created from energy things would have moved apart so quickly that atoms would not have been able to form and neutrons would not have been able to form. The universe that we see, of course, is expanding at a rate that seems to be just right. How perfect is that rate? It seems to be something like 1/10120 — fantastically perfect, much more perfect than any of the other things that I mentioned.
That’s the anthropic principle. The question it raises is: why? The answer proposed by scientists comes from another somewhat recent development, and that is string theory. This is still a theory, it’s not proven, but it’s making progress. String theory, which is an explanation for the nature of elementary particles, posits that in fact there could be as many as 10500 universes — and thus a near-infinite number of different ways for the fundamental constants of those universes to take shape. As a result, string theorists claim we really live not in a universe, but in a multiverse. That in fact there are a near-infinite number of universes, and we just happen to live in the one universe where things are perfect. Just as before I said we live on the planet where we can because things are perfect, so we exist in the universe that happens to be perfect. That’s the nutshell argument from the anthropic principle presented by scientists.
What I say is: what do you think is more rational? That we live in an infinite multiverse or that we live in a purposeful universe? I think that the idea of a multiverse is actually a rather irrational thing to imagine. I tell my scientific colleagues, “You believe in a multiverse in order to explain this fine-tuning of the anthropic principle. You believe in a multiverse, but recognize it’s an irrational belief. You only do it because you don’t want to recognize the alternative — and there’s only one alternative. Namely that it’s not an infinite universe, but that it is a single universe, and it’s purposeful.”
I think people are uncomfortable with accepting responsibility. The consequences of the idea of Copernican mediocrity took humanity from being special to being a random accident. People have come to feel comfortable believing that we are just a random accident, and that therefore everything is meaningless.
I say that what we’ve learned in the last 20 years — about exoplanets, about quantum mechanics — shows rather the opposite. That it’s much more rational to imagine that we live in a purposeful universe, that we are special, that the Earth is special. That we are not random accidents, and our neighbors are not random accidents. We all have some kind of purpose.
Now, science doesn’t say what that purpose must be. That’s where religion comes in. I like to quote from the Song of Songs on this subject: I was sleeping and my lover knocked at the door; wake up, wake up, open up to me. That is the passage for religious people, and it’s the passage for scientific people. Open up, wake up, be aware that things are much more wonderful and special and interesting than maybe you ever imagined. We’re all seekers. We’re all seeking to know more, we’re seeking meaning, and we can follow that path together. A path on which we take responsibility.
OR: What was there before the Big Bang? What lies outside of the universe?
Smith: People shouldn’t feel those are unaskable scientific questions. They are also askable religious questions. Religions did ask them. When God created the universe, what came before? Where is God? Where was the universe? Where is God in the universe? Is God everywhere? Is he not everywhere? These questions of space and time are fundamental questions, and they’re natural questions, and they’re important questions.
The first thing that I usually try to tell people when we talk about this is that it is not intuitive. What you have to do is open up and let things wash over you. That’s certainly one of the great things that Einstein was able to do. Einstein pioneered this with relativity. I describe this non-intuitive aspect of things in the context of a self-referential system. The universe is a self-referential system because space and time are intertwined, they’re interwoven with one another. Space and time are woven together with matter; gravity is a geometry of space and time. Just in the last year we have detected and confirmed the most mind-blowing part of relativity. That space can be warped and bent — that’s what matter does. I am referring to the detection and measurement of gravity waves.
So we live in curved space, just like the surface of a balloon (to use a very famous analogy). We live on the surface of a balloon; like ants walking on the surface of a balloon, we live in our space. The balloon can get bigger and bigger, so all of the ants watch as their neighbors get farther and farther away from them. They might have originally thought: “I’m at the center of the expansion, because I see all of the other ants moving away from me.” When they have the full picture they say that every ant (or human) sees the same thing, no matter what galaxy we’re in: we see all the other galaxies receding from us. We’re not in a special place. Every place is special, and it’s because of the curvature of space.
Of course, the analogy breaks down. The balloon itself is a two-dimensional surface, and it’s expanding in a three-dimensional space. What is the space into which our universe expands? The balloon does have a place from which it’s expanding, it has a center — so where is the center from which our universe is expanding? The analogy breaks down there. In fact, the center of the universe, the place where the Big Bang occurred, is right here. Right where we are. It just got bigger. It’s everywhere.
The light from that tremendous explosion — which eventually cooled enough to be detected as the cosmic microwave background radiation — filled the universe back then when things were tiny. It fills our space as well. It’s everywhere. Where you’re sitting and where I’m sitting, where we’re all sitting. We are sitting in the place of the Big Bang, and we’re surrounded, we’re bathed by the light of creation.
There are many other examples of non-intuitiveness in modern science. It’s not intuitive that matter and energy are equivalent — where does that come from? Quantum mechanics is non-intuitive. What does it mean that something is a wave? What does it mean that things are a little bit here and a little bit there? What does it mean that particles can be called “entangled,” that pairs of particles can be part of the same system, and even if they’re far apart, they’re related to one another? What does it mean that wave functions collapse or don’t collapse?
Scientists have come to understand that even though they don’t always have intuition about it, or they gradually learn how to be intuitive with these strange things, they can rely on mathematics to sort things out. Mathematics works fabulously well — and that’s the great mystery, right? That mathematics is so wonderfully successful in explaining the universe. But though it’s fantastically powerful, we also learned in the last hundred years that mathematics is limited. From Gödel’s theorem and from other theorems about the fundamental unprovability of some mathematical systems, like arithmetic, which are intrinsically incapable of proving even true theorems from within themselves. Some things are not knowable: that’s pretty non-intuitive, too. All of it, to me, says, “Let’s be humble about this as we explore. Let’s try to keep our perspective, and appreciate that we’ll take what we know as far as we can, but there’s a lot of things that we don’t understand, and there’ll be more of them, and that’s not bad.”
OR: Can you talk about the basic tenets of kabbalism and how they reconcile with your broader philosophy? Can you explain the division you propose between the concepts of “awareness” and “consciousness”?
Smith: The kabbalah is pretty spacey and far out. It was spacey and far out from day one, or even day minus-one. Its tradition goes back to rabbinic times, but it became public in Spain at the beginning of the 14th century. It’s spacey and far out because it thinks about things in a completely new way. What is so interesting to me is that 600 years later, it’s still spacey and far out. Anybody who picked up a translation of the Zohar and tried to read it would probably put it down in 10 seconds.
That new way of thinking about things, that vocabulary that it introduced, I think, helps people approach problems from a different perspective. That’s why it’s useful. The kabbalah happens to ask questions that can be seen as quasi-scientific questions. How was the universe created? When was the universe created? Where was the universe created? What happened when it was created? These are scientific questions, and kabbalah answers them in its strange, indirect, metaphoric way.
I’ll give you some examples. What might it mean for God to create the universe? Where was that? From the thought of Isaac Luria we have the concept of contraction, of tzimtzum. This states that when God decided to create the world, he contracted himself to make a place for the world to be created. But the kabbalists’ difficulty is that they did not know relativity. Relativity provides the language of self-reference for these curved spaces that they were striving for, but they didn’t have. If you understand relativity, and if you understand what we talked about before — about space being curved and that relationship between matter and space and time — then a lot of things the kabbalah was trying to say could have been said in a way that we would understand better.
In my talks I start off by describing how big the universe is, and how amazing it is, to try to get people to a certain emotional state. That sense that I want them to get is in Psalm 92. How wonderful: that’s not an intellectual statement, that’s a tingling. The more you know about it, the more amazing it is.
That sense in the kabbalah is called yirah, awe or wonder. The kabbalists, in their description of the Big Bang, have it starting from a tiny point, and then unraveling in this series of the ten sephirot. The kabbalists prove from Biblical and midrashic (and other kabbalistic) texts that that point of expansion, that Big Bang event, is intimately connected to yirah, sense of wonder. In fact, they say that point of the Big Bang is yirah. What does that mean? It means that that sense of awe that we had was what got things going. The universe was created so that this sensibility would ultimately be realized. An idea not so different from quantum-mechanical ideas about the collapse of the wave function and the role that the conscious observer plays therein. That when you see things, and you recognize them, and you become aware of them, they become real (in a quantum-mechanical way of thinking about things).
There’s some connection between perception and reality, and that notion is both present in modern quantum mechanics, with some controversy, and in the kabbalah. You experience yirah, you are awed by something when you learn about it and you get it. That is the trigger for the Big-Bang event that set the creation into play.
OR: What do you believe happens to people when they die?
Smith: We’re in this world to make it better. That’s the idea of tikkun olam. The world to come we can talk about, but it’s not a motivator, it’s a mystery. From a scientific point of view, I think it’s the same. I would say we’re not simply an accident, and that the Earth is special and that we need to take care of it. There are, I think, reductionists and atheists among scientists who would say that if everything in this world is just an accident, then nothing has any value. If we blow ourselves up, and we don’t take care of the Earth, it doesn’t really make any difference one way or the other because it’s all meaningless. I think what we are learning from modern science is that things are a little bit non-intuitive. Stranger and more mysterious and wonderful than we had imagined 100 years ago, and maybe even 50 years ago.
There are some discoveries, like exoplanets, that are completely not surprising. Nobody thought that there were no exoplanets. Everybody thought that they would be everywhere, so their discovery didn’t change that. In contrast, nobody imagined that there would be dark matter, and yet most of the universe is dark matter. Nobody imagined there would be dark energy. It was a total surprise to find that there was dark energy. There’s those two kinds of discoveries.
The gravity waves are like exoplanets. It’s an amazing discovery that everybody expected. Yet it gives us an opportunity to appreciate again the strangeness of relativity. Here we have these little ripples in space coming by. That’s just weird and amazing. The other really exciting thing about it, the most exciting thing, is what produced them: two intermediate-mass black holes.
Where did they come from? Nobody knows. We know, more or less, where supermassive black holes come from. They’re at the nuclei of galaxies, including our own galaxy, and we have some sense of how they grow and form. We know how small black holes form: they form in supernova explosions. To get something that’s 20 solar masses is really hard to figure out. And this was two of them, so even more super-strange. What was exciting was that the theory is right, as we knew it had to be — and then whoa, there are these intermediate-mass black holes. There must be a lot of them, too, because the fact is they just turned on the experiment, and bingo, there it was. I guarantee that wasn’t luck, there’s a lot of these things going on, and we’ll be hearing about that in the next months for sure.
There’s so much to do, and things are strange. The issue of life in the universe has prompted a lot of theological discussion from the time of the Greeks onward. Speculating about this was something that got Giordano Bruno in big trouble with a Catholic church which was working hard to preserve its specialness. It’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about at a time when the whole world thought about things in that way, and meaning came from being special in the old-fashioned sense that we were created in God’s image. We were given these privileges, and nobody else was. Then, with Copernicus, people were eventually happy to relinquish this specialness, and in fact rather preferred not having any responsibility — even if it meant that they were accidents. As non-intuitive as it may be today, you might have thought 500 years ago that in order to be special we had to take the Bible literally, and we couldn’t have life elsewhere. The Earth had to be the center of the universe, and that’s what it meant to be special, and if you didn’t have that, you had nothing.
Today we have a much more mature, sophisticated, interesting, and productive way of thinking of ourselves as being special. We are special not because the Earth is the center of the universe, but because the universe has no center. We are special not because we are the only life in the universe, but because we don’t know and we’re not going to know. I think it’s very much in tune with all of the changes that we see in our world, thanks to electronics and communication. It has changed the way we think about ourselves and our neighbors. Some people then get protective and defensive about it. I think the message is that we are moving into a world that opens up more and more.
We, as in the Song of Songs, need to open up to the unknown. We should not fear it, we should welcome it. Science isn’t independent of it, and science doesn’t contradict it. Science, rather, is part of it. As science makes progress, we make progress in how we think about ourselves, in how we think about our place in the world, in how we think about the world and how it works. We feel good about our being able to do that, fully aware of the fact that there’s more to know. We’re always opening our eyes to new things.
Howard Smith is a lecturer in the astronomy department of Harvard University and the author of Let There Be Light.