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Spring Books

The adventure story of the universe

By David Toolan
Orbis Books, 256 pages, $25


David Toolan has good news for us. The poetry is back in nature. Until quite recently scientists shared a static concept of the earth and the universe. Physicists saw nature as mechanistic and deterministic. Astronomers looked at the heavens and told us that the universe was basically eternal and static, confined within the limits of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Then in 1924 Edwin Powell Hubble, looking through a new telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, discovered that the nebulae he saw were not just dust and gas sprinkled about the Milky Way. They were separate galaxies. Four years later, studying the “red shift” in the light from these galaxies, he established that they were moving away rapidly in all directions, the most distant ones moving the fastest. A Belgian priest-mathematician, Abbé George Lemaître, calculated that a “primeval atom” of unimaginable compacted energy exploding some 15 to 20 billion years ago would explain this phenomenon. Someone called it the “big bang,” and the name stuck.

Do not think of the big bang, however, Toolan warns us, as a TNT blast, starting from a definite center and then engulfing the pre-existing container space around it. “No, it is more useful to imagine it as analogous to the first fortissimo chord of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” occurring simultaneously everywhere -- except that here you have to imagine that vibratory chord expanding, and as it does so creating the ‘everywhere’ of space-time itself.”

Even more recently, the physicists have repudiated the scientific materialism that had developed out of the ideas of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Adam Smith. “What we think of as matter, whether it be a subatomic quark, a yellow star like our sun, or a bee hive, must be thought of as bound and condensed energy, captured in an eddy out of the torrential, buzzing flow set loose by the first chord of our cosmic symphony.” We human beings are “quasi-stable turbulences in the field and flow of information stretching back to the big bang.”

The presentation of our new understandings in physics and astronomy is both erudite and fascinating. It is, however, merely a prelude to Toolan’s real purpose, which is to explore the implications for the believer. No more mechanistic explanations of creation. God as clockmaker and engineer is out. Instead of the philosopher’s God -- infinite, unchanging -- our current understanding of the cosmos fits only with the Biblical God, whose identity consists in self-constancy rather than in sameness, who is faithful to his promises.

This God, says Toolan, is a revolutionary, not nostalgic for an Edenic past but constantly making all things new. “The Holy One is a gambler, plays the odds, takes chances. Don’t count on a safety net. That we hope in God and the promising world we have been given does not mean that the world is not a dangerous, risky place.”

Our new knowledge imposes on us new duties. In the 21st century we have literally become the authors of ongoing creation. We as a world community now determine if life is to continue on the earth and in the oceans, if rainforests continue to sustain their millions of life forms, if the land will continue to be fertile, if the air is to be breathable.

The universe, as presented in this book, is full of diversity, promise and risk, one that enables us to fulfill our dreams and ambitions. “We have no further reason to feel estranged or alien. We can be at home and treat nature as our home. The old Cartesian dualism between the domain of matter and the domain of mind has given way, replaced by a new sense of continuity, interrelation, kinship. Life and mind are no longer to be considered alien anomalies in nature. There are grounds for discerning a subtle teleology running through all creation. Suddenly, after the hiatus of the Cartesian-Newtonian world, we have a material world that unfolds, as human life does in the form of a great experiment, an adventure story.”

An experiment and an adventure story. That is what it is. There are no guarantees in this cosmos of controlled chaos. “How will it all turn out? What will happen? Will it be nightmare or curse? Will space-time mean something beautiful? Be a passage to life? The earth awaits the decisions of Homo sapiens, our science, our wisdom. I dare say even God may await our decisions, not knowing what we will do -- and hoping that this time creation will work.”

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001