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Sleepless in Oakland: Big Bang Gives NCSE Staffer Insomnia

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Minda Berbeco, Programs and Policy Director for our friends at the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education (NCSE), complains of insomnia. Over at the Science League of America, she writes: "This past month I've slept terribly and it's all because of the Big Bang."

Sleepy Ms. Berbeco recently spent some time with Brian Kruse, Lead Formal Educator with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific where the NCSE is hosting some educational programs. Berbeco admits that the Big Bang is not a top issue for the NCSE, but it does pop up on their radar now and then, mainly because of "academic freedom acts" -- acts that Berbeco thinks are "inappropriately named anti-science bills that attempt to bring science denial into the classroom under the guise of 'critical thinking.'" (I recently discussed one such bill in Oklahoma, and my friend and colleague Sarah Chaffee wrote about one in Mississippi last week.) Leave aside for now the continued campaign of disinformation waged by the NCSE over bills like these.

After spending some time with Kruse and discussing the Big Bang, she says:

The more I learned about the Big Bang, the less I slept. I think that, as a biologist, I'm allowed to say the Big Bang is freaky. It breaks rules that I'd always thought couldn't be broken and stretches your brain in weird ways. Thankfully Brian has been very patient with me, although many of his responses force me to rethink the very basics of my understanding of science...[I]t is freaking me out. But it's also made me think

...

The Big Bang means confronting Big Questions. How did the universe start? How will it end?... It's the sort of questions that make you start thinking not just about time and space, but your own mortality, the mortality of the Earth, the mortality of the Universe! And that is scary. It's keeping me up at night and I'm not afraid to say it: I REALLY, REALLY don't like the way this makes me feel. In fact I hate it, and as a result, I sort of hate the Big Bang.

What's so "scary"? Could it be the thought of an absolute beginning to the universe has implications of a kind that Ms. Berbeco and her NCSE colleagues prefer not to consider? Could it be that the Big Bang runs counter to the idea that everything, including the universe, can be explained through the blind, purposeless forces of matter and energy interacting over eons through chance and necessity?

I can see how that would be distressing for someone who has built his or her career in science and education on the idea that such a material explanation explains everything. The Big Bang suggests that such a view may not be right at all. The really scary thought is that intelligent design might be the actual explanation.

Whatever the reason Ms. Berbeco finds the Big Bang so scary, it's a startling admission that the very thought of it could be so unsettling as to cause sleeplessness. In a moment of philosophical honesty, Ms. Berbeco does not blame science itself for this disquiet. She says it's

not science's fault. And this is a truth that we often shy away from: science is not there to make us feel good. Science is there to answer questions. And sometimes those answers suck. This is something I talk a lot about when talking about climate change. Climate change is bad news. We are in serious trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it, the worse it will get. Understanding that can lead to disillusionment, despondence and yes, people waking up in the middle of the night, terrified at what the future might hold.

Note the comparison with fears people have about climate change. She seems to be suggesting that, for her, the Big Bang is "bad news" of the sort that might have some people "waking up in the middle of the night, terrified." Yes, finding that your philosophical presuppositions come in conflict with the evidence of nature can be unsettling.

Ms. Berbeco is in good company. The evidence of a beginning to the universe didn't sit well with British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington who once wrote, "The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me ... I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang. ... The expanding Universe is preposterous ... incredible ... it leaves me cold."

You can see Sir Arthur lying awake at night in a cold sweat over the implications for his own materialistic worldview. Astronomer Robert Jastrow, founder of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recognized the tension between the prevailing materialistic view and the evidence of science. In his short but seminal book God and the Astronomers, Jastrow, a self-proclaimed agnostic, noted how the implications of science are upsetting to many astronomers.

Their reactions provide an interesting demonstration of the response of the scientific mind -- supposedly a very objective mind -- when evidence uncovered by science itself leads to a conflict with the articles of faith in our profession. It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper it over with meaningless phrases.

The late Sir Fred Hoyle, who coined the term "Big Bang" while at the same time denying the idea in favor of Steady State Theory, once admitted: "A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."

Perhaps what Minda Berbeco is coming to realize is that despite all the effort she and her NCSE colleagues expend on promoting a materialist view of nature, nature itself points in a different direction. For someone who has staked her professional career on that insistence that intelligent design is illusory, I see why that would lead to some sleepless nights.

Image: Galaxy 1068, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roma Tre Univ.