Sunday, May 29, 2005

Foo and the Big Bang

More on Judaism, Physics, and God:

Though Nelson's approach to the whole physics-and-Judaism thing is different from mine, they have more in common with each other than either does with the other books I've read that explore this intersection. Here are a few words about the others. (I read these books a long time ago, so my memory isn't fresh. And anything that puts religion and science in opposition to each other is so far gone that it doesn't even get mentioned here.)

Genesis and the Big Bang by Gerald Schroeder is a fun read, but shouldn't be taken too seriously. He matches up each line of the creation story in Genesis 1, as well as some commentators, with a piece of current scientific understanding of the origins of the universe and life. For example, the RaMBaN (if I recall correctly; I read this book a long time ago) says that the universe started out smaller than a mustard seed, a claim obviously shared by the Big Bang model. The "ruach elohim" ("wind from God" or "spirit of God") in Genesis 1:2 is identified with the period of cosmic inflation, a fudge factor stuck into the Big Bang model to prevent the universe from collapsing under its own gravity within the first fraction of a second. This is an amusing parlor game, just like showing that Adam Sandler's "The Goat Song" presents a pessimistic view of Jewish history. But Schroeder's agenda becomes clear later in the book when he starts talking about Bible codes and equidistant letter sequences, trying to prove that the Torah is the literal word of God. Schroeder is a physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT, but these days he gives lectures for Aish, designed to proselytize to the scientifically minded with a literalist understanding of Torah. Finding these connections between Genesis and the Big Bang is interesting (along with pointing out that the 26 dimensions in one version of string theory corresponds to the numerical value of the tetragrammaton), but ultimately unnecessary. Science and religion can complement each other, but do not need to prove each other's validity.

Nelson and I are both less ambitious than Schroeder in what we are setting out to achieve, and we are therefore more successful. We are not making any strong claims about what is; we are just juxtaposing ideas to find new ways of looking at things.

Another book with a similar title but very different content is God and the Big Bang by Daniel Matt. Despite its title, most of the book actually isn't about physics. If you're looking for a book primarily about physics, this isn't it, but it's great as an introduction to the ideas of kabbalah. Real kabbalah, not the trendy thing that Madonna/Esther is doing. (It has been said that the Kabbalah Centre is to the study of Jewish mysticism as Barney the purple dinosaur is to paleontology.) Matt is a scholar who is working on the definitive translation of the Zohar. He draws a parallel between the broken symmetry in the first second of the universe (as the universe cooled and the single unified force separated into four forces) and the shattered vessels of Lurianic kabbalah.

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