On the second day of Lent, a scientific announcement made it into the TV news headlines, right to the top. It has to be quite something to dislodge the junior hospital doctors, the EU referendum, the state of the financial markets and Syria. It was of course the discovery of gravity waves.
I'm sure I don't need to explain to the readers of this blog what gravity waves are and do. The question their existence answers is very simple: how is the force of gravity transmitted through space, the force that makes Newton's apple fall to the ground and Kepler's planets to stay in their elliptical orbits round the sun. Einstein had predicted them, but it has taken a century to spot these elusive carriers of cosmic information. It was the collision of two black holes and the colossal energies it released with the consequent distortions of space-time for gravity waves to leave a trace.
No wonder the scientific community is excited. I share it, insofar as I understand these things. I suppose I am a superannuated scientist in that I read maths for my first degree, though it's debateable whether mathematics is a science or an art. I've always enjoyed reading that genre known as 'popular science' to help me wander round the foothills of scientific enquiry and be able at least to ask sensible questions when talking to scientists. When I was studying A-level physics in the 1960s, I learned about conjectured 'grand unified theories' of the universe (GUTs we called them). One of the clues, I remember, was going to be the proven existence of gravity waves. At that stage no-one had heard of 'dark matter'. So presumably we are one step closer than we were to mapping the GUT-instinct of the cosmos. (Sorry.)
I was fascinated in the reaction on social media. It ranged from the excited to the baffled. There was a lot of exhilarated chatter: 'wow! this sounds amazing even if I haven't a clue what it means'. And there was some sighing with disbelief that such things were occupying valuable news time: 'what's all the fuss about?' grumbled one tweeter 'when it cost a fortune, makes no difference to anyone & most people don't understand it anyway'. Or words to that effect.
So here's my take on why all the fuss is worth it.
First, we should celebrate curiosity. It's a fundamental aspect of being human, this instinct to probe and explore and discover. It's inconceivable that humanity might one day give up on pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. When I was a child I had a big and much-cherished book about how the continents were progressively discovered. Each chapter was introduced by a coloured map entitled 'The Unfolding of the Clouds' (or was it unfurling?). The known world as it was down the centuries was mapped in colour with dark grey clouds lapping the edges. By the end of the book, the clouds were gone, banished by the sunshine of knowledge. A classic case of imperial optimism striding out to conquer ignorance? Maybe.
But it left a lasting image. Even aged eight or nine, I could see that it was a metaphor of other kinds of progress: understanding the past, overcoming disease, devising technologies to better the human condition. In the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon is remembered as a man who was curious about the animal and plant life that surrounded him. It was associated with his legendary wisdom. I think that remains true of good science, wherever we find it. And to me, one aspect of scientific curiosity is the very capacity we discover in ourselves to articulate such extraordinary concepts. It's as if we are helping the universe to come to a kind of consciousness through our very ability to understand and articulate its mechanisms.
Secondly, discoveries like this enhance the sense that we live in an amazing universe that is 'fearfully and wonderfully made' as the psalm describes the human person. Every so often, there are breakthroughs that make us stop and think about who and what we are, maybe glimpse aspects of our life that we are normally too much in a hurry to notice. The first man into space was one such moment, the first moon landing another ('one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind'). For a moment, we saw ourselves in a new way. In some ways these are as significant as the taming of fire and the discovery of the wheel, and a lot later on, depth psychology, relativity, vaccination, anaesthesia, the splitting of the atom and antibiotics. The human genome may be another parallel. The invention of the internet is another likely candidate, as is the promise (threat) of artificial intelligence. Crossing these thresholds changes the nature of human consciousness. Or it should.
But how? Once upon a time, scientific and technological research might be justified in terms of the mandate given to humanity at creation in Genesis: 'be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.' Back to that imperial (not to say imperious) domination of things. But I'd like to think that each threshold we cross as a human race ought to make us more reverent before creation, more humble towards it. Mother Julian of Norwich spoke about 'courtesy' in our relations with the natural world. The more complex the cosmos reveals itself to be, the more we should regard it in this way. That too is an aspect of wisdom, to be able to contemplate the created order and recognise our place in the grand scheme of things. The cosmos was here when we arrived, and it will still be here when we have gone. How many other sentient beings has it seen come and go in 14 billion years?
Of course so much depends how science and technological advance is put to use. I am not so naïve as to imagine that it will inevitably do us good. Science can have a dark shadow as we know from its being harnessed to destructive ends such as the capacity to make nuclear and biological weapons, engage in genetic manipulation, allow digital pornography to enter every home. Nor do I imagine that being exposed to the wonder of the universe makes a person religious (though avowed atheists like Brian Cox do convey an almost mystic sense of ecstatic awe in the face of the beauty of the cosmos and the physical laws that govern it).
But for people of faith, natural science has a religious aspect. The borderlands between knowability and unknowability straddle both science and theology: there is that which is disclosed to us, and that which remains mysterious and hidden whether we are talking about the universe or its Creator. 'Truly thou art a God that hidest thyself' complained the prophet, giving Luther his beloved phrase Deus Absconditus. Yet at the same time, the monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all affirm that God desires to be known as well as remain mysterious, and has revealed himself to humanity in his prophets and in sacred texts. For Christians, the supreme and final revelation is in Jesus, the incarnate Word of the Father in which he utters his decisive Yes to the whole created order for time and for eternity. Ultimately, a theologian believes, the scientific enterprise is a way of honouring that divine Yes.
So to me, gravity waves have a religious as well as a scientific aspect. It's another activity in which faith is always seeking understanding. Which is why this latest penny that's dropped is a moment of recognition in a theological sense. To that act of seeing and knowing and loving God in all his works, the human heart as well as the human head will echo: Amen!
(For an acclaimed physicist's view on science and religion, see Tom McLeish's recent book Faith and Wisdom in Science.)