The News from My Home Galaxy
By Walt Hearn*
Each “Beyond Science” column takes off from the theme of the current issue of God and Nature. I try to bring that theme to life with personal anecdotes, hoping that after some meandering I can find my way back to where I began. “The News from Lake Wobegon” has done that for decades on National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion. I'm not nearly so good a story-teller as Garrison Keillor was. On the other hand, he seldom started with a theme like “Cosmology and Theology.”
Cosmology is defined as “the study of the large-scale structure of the universe,” implying tht such study includes everything about “the nature and properties” of the universe. Theology is “the study of God,” usually adding a phrase like “and the relations between God and the cosmos.” Putting the two together pretty much covers everything that can be known by science—and everything that can't. A common feature of these two unimaginably vast “-ologies” is that both are called “studies,” the sort of thing that scholars do. Everyone in the U.S. has had, by law, at least some schooling, so we've all been scholars at one time or another.
I spent a good many years as a university scholar, absorbing what I could about my limited field, adding a bit to that knowledge, and passing it on to emerging scholars. At times I might gaze up from my lab bench or biochemistry journals to ponder the nature of the entire cosmos. As a Christian I almost continually pondered God's relationship to the part of the cosmos I grew up in.
In the early 1960s I heard retired astronomer Harlow Shapley give a visiting lecture at my university's chapter of Sigma Xi. I had read Shapley's Science Ponders Religion (1960), in which he couldn't get past agnosticism as his own religious inclination. Harlow Shapley had made various proposals about the large-scale structure of the universe, some of which proved to be correct. Long before I heard him speak, he had shown that our “Milky Way” galaxy was ten times larger than previously thought, and that our sun was not at its center. But he also argued that the “spiral nebulae” (a former term for galaxies) studied by astronomer Edwin Hubble and others were part of the Milky Way. Now we know that the galaxy we inhabit is only one of billions of galaxies scattered throughout a larger cosmos than Harlow Shapley had imagined. His “Great Debate” of 1920 with Heber Curtis was settled by Hubble's observations, forcing Shapley to concede that he had been wrong. The way I heard it, Shapley complained testily that Hubble had “destroyed my universe.”
The story of how Hubble's observations remodeled cosmology in the 20th century reminded me of the better-known story of how Galileo Galilei's astronomical observations had affected theology in the 17th century. Let's face it, in any area of scholarship, evidence trumps imagination, no matter how solid a popular image of reality may once have seemed .
After I left my university position, my wife Ginny and I moved to Berkeley, where I encountered the work of Charles P. Tart, then associate professor of psychology at U.C. Davis, now an emeritus professor there. I think it's accurate to call him a “parapsychologist.”I was jarred by Tart's 1972 paper in Science (Vol. 176, pp. 1203-10), titled “States of Consciousness and State-Specific Sciences.” In it he argued that scientists should enter altered states of consciousness (i.e., smoke pot or take LSD) to carry out investigations in whatever form of science might seem appropriate. Obviously Professor Tart practiced what he preached. He warned of “bad trips” that might disrupt a scientist's logical processes after the drug wore off, and of “good trips” that might produce experiences “so rewarding that they interfere with the scientific activity of the investigator.”
I followed Tart's career for some years after that. He seemed to touch bases with every “sensuous-intuitive” (read, “touchy-feely”) group somehow related to science, from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now Sofia University) to the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He collaborated with Harold Puthoff (evidently strongly influenced by Scientology) and Russell Targ in work on “remote viewing” at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International). A paper Tart, Targ, and Puthoff published in the British journal Nature was criticized by unstoned scientists as pseudoscientific at best or perhaps even fraudulent. Astonishing claims by parapsychologists reinforced my convictions about holding the line on scientific boundaries. I acknowledged that scholars like Tart might be right about some of their ideas but, like astronomer Harlow Shapley, wrong about others.
Recently I came across another effort to loosen up the boundaries of “normal” science, a proposal to convert STEM education into STEAM education by including “Art” in “Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics.” Through a website called “Mercado Central,” astrophysicist and “art-science researcher” Roger Malina is forming a community of scientists “who wish to have a hybrid career in the arts, design, or humanities.” Browsing Malina's blog, I discovered (Leonardo/The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology. Their journal Leonardo, published by MIT Press, is in its 50th volume. It makes me wonder what else I've been missing.
Leonardo da Vinci, born in Italy in the 15th century, is everybody's example of a true “Renaissance man,” partly because nobody like him has shown up since. By his time, art had a mature history, as did philosophy and theology. Science (in its modern sense) had not yet appeared on the scene. When it did, its characteristic combination of curiosity, rationalism, empiricism, and objectivity swept through other branches of scholarship.
Today almost every scholarly discipline seeks to be “more scientific.” But what distinguishes real science from pseudoscience? (For that matter, how does good art differ from bad art, or art from non-art?) Big themes like cosmology and theology compel us to ponder cosmic questions, yet our ideas―scientific, artistic, or otherwise―have a human dimension to them.
That leads to other questions: What makes us human? Our imagination? Can it be studied scientifically?
In The Selfish Gene, (1976) biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word meme as a sort of self-replicating unit of human ideas and cultural phenomena. He derived it from a Greek word for “imitation” that also gives us the word mime. Dawkins compared memes to biological genes, intending to work out a corresponding evolutionary pattern for memes. Other evolutionists, like philosopher David Hull (Science as a Process, 1988) and biologist E. O. Wilson (Consilience, 1998) took up the term. As I understand it, memes have not shown a clear-cut Darwinian pattern of mutation and natural selection. Perhaps human intelligence and imagination keep interfering. Dawkins refers to the study of memes as memetics, akin to genetics for biological genes.
Before The Selfish Gene, I learned about memes from the distinguished U. of Michigan linguist Kenneth L. Pike. At an ASA Annual Meeting, he explained that phonetics recognizes certain sounds that are different to an outsider but essentially the same to a native speaker. In phonemics, units of thought that mean the same thing may sound radically different to an outsider. It’s impossible to know exactly what another person means when they speak their mind to us—we cannot experience for ourselves what they might be feeling or imagining that compels their conversation, regardless of whether we speak the same language.
Scientific analysis of human imagination probably has a long way to go. Then there's all the imagined reality that may lie “beyond science.” All physical matter susceptible to scholarly study so far is said to make up only five percent of the universe, the rest being “dark matter” and “dark energy.” As a chemist I'm puzzled by that, but it reminds me of other lopsided ratios, like the fact that only six percent of the million animal species on earth are vertebrates―or Jesus' remark in Matthew 7:21-23 that when the jig is up, only a small fraction of those calling him “Lord, Lord” will turn out to be his actual followers.
Neighbors in my own little galaxy keep imagining such unimaginable things. Imagine that...
*Walt Hearn passed away on April 11, 2017, at age 91; he had been an ASA member for over 65 years. Before he died, Walt completed several original essays for God & Nature magazine. Please check back in the months to come to read Walt's thoughts on his own mortality at the end of life, on the purpose of peer review, and on scientific and Christian notions of "race" in biology/society. Walt is survived by his devoted wife and fellow editor, Ginny Hearn, and by their daughter Christine.
Walter R. Hearn (1926-2017) grew up in Houston and majored in chemistry at Rice University. He received a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Illinois in 1951. After doing research for a year at Yale Medical School and for three years at Baylor College of Medicine, he spent 17 years on the biochemistry faculty at Iowa State University. His research interests included peptide chemistry, hypothalamic hormones, and bacterial pigment biosynthesis.
For five years he was a Visiting Biologist to Colleges for the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He is a Fellow and Life Member of AAAS and an Emeritus member of the American Chemical Society. In 1972 he switched professions and moved to Berkeley to do free-lance editorial work with his wife Virginia. They have edited periodicals and some 200 books, largely for Christian publishers.
Walt joined ASA while he was in grad school and served on the Council in the 1960s. From 1969 to 1993 he edited the ASA newsletter. He was a coauthor of the widely distributed publication, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy (ASA, 1986) and author of Being a Christian in Science (IVP, 1997).
He has also contributed chapters to a number of books, the latest being "Creation Matters" in Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation (Penguin Academic, 2009), edited by anthropologists Richard Robbins and Mark Cohen. His articles, reviews, and poems have appeared in such publications as Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith and the Berkeley publication Radix, for which Ginny has been copy editor for over 40 years. Walt was once "poetry rejection editor" for Radix magazine. Walt and Ginny have strong IVCF backgrounds, helped to launch New College for Advanced Christian Studies in the 1980s, and are members of Berkeley's First Presbyterian Church.