October 10, 1999
Science vs. the Bible: Debate Moves to the Cosmos
New Mexico Bars Creationism From State Curriculum (Oct. 9, 1999)
By JAMES GLANZ
cientific lessons about the origins
of life have long been challenged in
public schools, but some Bible literalists are now adding the reigning
theory about the origin of the universe to their list of targets.
Nearly overlooked in the furor
over the Kansas school board's vote
in August to remove evolution from
its education standards was a decision on the teaching of the science of
the cosmos. Influenced by a handful
of scientists whose literal faith in the
Bible has helped convince them that
the universe is only a few thousand
years old, the board deleted from its
standards a description of the Big
Bang theory of cosmic origins, the
central organizing principle of modern astronomy and cosmology.
The Big Bang theory, based on
decades of astronomical observations and physics research, suggests
that the universe originated in a colossal explosion of matter and radiation some 15 billion years ago.
But "young Earth creationists,"
as they are generally known, have
come up with their own theories to
explain how cosmic history could be
condensed into mere thousands of
years. They are making this case in
books, pamphlets and lectures, as
well as on a number of Web sites.
Mainstream scientists consider
their theories to be wildly out of line
with reality, even though books describing them are often liberally
sprinkled with references to authorities like Albert Einstein and Stephen
As a result, physical scientists now
find themselves in a fight in which
they have seldom played a public
role. They have responded with a
mixture of disdain, disbelief and consternation, and the reactions have
not been limited to physicists and
cosmologists in Kansas.
"It's the denial of what understanding we have of the origin of the
universe in terms of modern science," said Jerome Friedman, a
physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was awarded
a Nobel Prize in 1990 for collaborating in the discovery of the subatomic
particles called quarks and is the
president of the American Physical
Society. "That's a terrible loss,"
Hume A. Feldman, a cosmologist
at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who has worked at Princeton
University and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics,
called the matter "frightening."
"When I went into cosmology,"
Feldman said, "I never
thought I would get involved in anything like that."
Feldman said that developments in his state bore a distant
resemblance to the difficulties of political scientists under Communist
regimes in Eastern Europe, and that
he feared that such pressures could
impair the educational system.
But advocates of the creationist
view say alarm over their theories is
overblown. Steve Abrams, a member
of the Kansas board and a veterinarian in Arkansas City who was among
the leaders of the push to make the
changes, said there were legitimate
scientific doubts about whether the
universe was more than several
thousand years old.
"There is sufficient data to lend
credibility to the idea that we do not
have all the answers for teaching the
origin of our universe," he said.
That sentiment was echoed by
John W. Bacon, a board member
from Olathe who also voted with a
narrow 6-4 majority for the changes.
"I can't understand what they're
squealing about," Bacon said of
scientists who oppose the board's
action. Millions or billions of years
ago, Bacon said, "I wasn't here,
and neither were they. Based on that,
whatever explanation they may arrive at is a theory and it should be
taught that way."
Those objections closely mirror
criticisms leveled at evolution by its
opponents. Alabama biology textbooks, for example, must carry a
warning that reads in part: "No one
was present when life first appeared
on earth. Therefore, any statement
about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact."
The Kansas challenge to the teaching of the Big Bang is not the first
public objection to the theory on religious or political grounds. Three
years ago, the school superintendent
of a conservative county in western
Kentucky ordered two pages that
explained the Big Bang in grade-school textbooks to be glued together. The superintendent said that the
Big Bang should not have been explained without including the biblical
version of creation as well.
The change in the Kansas standards does not preclude the teaching
of mainstream biology, physics or
cosmology, allowing teachers to
present alternative viewpoints if
they choose to do so. But because the
standards are used as the basis for
state tests, the changes will probably
have a practical effect on what is
taught, said Bill Wagnon, a professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka and a board member who voted in the minority. Students' scores on those tests help determine whether a school receives
accreditation from the state.
"The curriculum standards describe that process of what needs to
be covered," Wagnon said.
So radical were the Kansas
board's recommendations that it has
been unable to publish its own standards, or even to display them on its
Web site. That is because the standards include long extracts from a
book on education standards that
was published by the National Research Council. Because of its disapproval of the board's revised standards, the Council has refused permission for them to be reprinted.
Beyond the expunging of evolution,
the board also took out references to
the hundreds of millions of years of
Earth's geologic ages and modified
sections on using the slow decay of
radioactive elements to measure the
ages of fossils and other rocks.
Among the most striking changes
was the removal of passages in the
original standards dealing with the
Big Bang. Cosmologists see ample
evidence for that explosion in the
present expansion of the universe, in
a diffuse afterglow in space called
the cosmic background radiation,
and in the precise abundances of
light elements like hydrogen and helium that were left over from the
Cosmologists have also calculated
the way in which stars, galaxies and
clusters of galaxies coalesced from
slight ripples in the primordial soup
that emerged from the Big Bang. To
date, the results of those calculations
match the precise observations of
such structures in the heavens. Of
course, for all its success in accounting for observations, the Big Bang is
indeed just a theory, although it is
one with few scientific dissenters.
The biggest problem for the young
Earth creationists is explaining the
time that has apparently passed
since the light we see from distant
galaxies was emitted. Given the constancy of the speed of light and estimates of the distance between Earth
and faraway galaxies it is difficult to
explain how Earth and the cosmos
could be young.
But D. Russell Humphreys, a nuclear weapons engineer at Sandia
National Laboratory who is also an
adjunct professor at the Institute for
Creation Research near San Diego,
thinks he has an answer. In an interview, he said that Einstein's equations of relativity, the basis of the Big
Bang theory, could be used to construct a universe in which the Earth
is only a few thousand years old.
Abrams said that in thinking
about the Kansas standards he had
been struck by Humphreys's
book, "Starlight and Time: Solving
the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a
Young Universe" (Master Books,
fifth printing in 1998).
Humphreys's ideas "seem to
be right there on the cutting edge, so
to speak," Abrams said.
But most cosmologists say they
are simply out of left field.
The theory relies on a peculiar
feature of Einstein's equations,
which predict that powerful gravitational fields can speed the progress
of time and, in effect, make clocks
run at different rates in different
places. So Humphreys assumes
that the Earth is close to the center
of a structure related to a black hole,
in which gravity is especially intense, so that billions of years could
pass in deep space while only a few
thousand years went by on Earth.
Such a universe "has clocks clicking at drastically different rates in
different parts," Humphreys
said in an interview.
Edward L. Wright, vice chairman for astronomy at the University
of California at Los Angeles, said
that there is no evidence that the
Earth is at the center of the universe,
or that such tremendous gravitational fields exist outside of ordinary
Moreover, Wright said, the acceleration of time would alter the
vibrations of waves of light, shortening its wave length and turning it into
deadly gamma rays. Bombarded by
such radiation, he said, "the Earth
would be sterilized."
Humphreys, whose research in
cosmology is unrelated to his work at
the lab, said other features of his
model would prevent the frequency
Abrams also cited a theory
that the speed of light was almost
infinitely fast in the past, meaning
that the light from extremely distant
galaxies could have reached Earth
quickly and would not be billions of
He referred to writings on this
subject by Danny Faulkner, a
professor of astronomy at the University of South Carolina's Lancaster campus and an adjunct professor
at the Institute for Creation Science.
In a telephone interview, Faulkner cautioned that he had merely
been describing ideas put forth by
other scientists in the creationist
movement and was not certain that
the changing speed of light was correct. Indeed, high-precision measurements of the speed of light and
other crucial physical constants
have revealed no detectable change
in their values over recent time.
The debate over the age of the
universe has exposed intense disagreements not just in schools but
also among evangelical Christians.
"Often young-universe and old-universe creationists focus more energy on defending their respective
positions than on reaching out to
nonbelievers," wrote Hugh Ross,
a former radioastronomer who is an
evangelical Christian, in "Creation
and Time: A Biblical and Scientific
Perspective on the Creation-Date
Controversy" (NavPress, 1994).
Ross thinks that a literal reading of the Bible can be reconciled
with the Big Bang, but says that his
views are distinctly in the minority
among evangelical Christians. The
six days of Genesis could stand for
"six consecutive long periods of
time," Ross said.
The importance of the issue for
many Bible literalists means that
cosmologists could face the pressures that biologists have dealt with
since John Scopes was convicted of
violating a Tennessee law against
the teaching of evolution in 1925, said
Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science
Education Inc., in El Cerrito, Calif.
"I don't think physical scientists
are going to be immune to this,"
Scott said. "It would be very unwise
for them to brush this off."