The Prophet and the Astronomer: A Scientific Journey to the End of Time

Marcelo Gleiser

New York : W. W. Norton and Company, 2002

Science and religion are two of the most powerful expressions of the human spirit, and they both have influenced the course of human history as few others. We live in an age when thinkers and commentators, scientists and theologians, are striving to build bridges and seek commonalties between the two. They analyze the relative importance of science and religion, and the role each has played in culture and history. Any book that brings the two together, no matter how, is bound to be a success, especially if it is well written by a trained scientist. Marcelo Gleiser and his book fulfill these requirements. Hence this is a very welcome book. The Publisher's Weekly  described it as challenging and brilliant. Another author has said, "Gleiser argues convincingly that [religion and science] dance to the same tune."

Religions may be based on revealed knowledge, but they need a prophet to communicate that knowledge. So the prophet becomes the most ancient representative of religion. In the sense of wonderment leading to coherent explanations, science started with astronomy, for where else do we find such a grand display of law and order if not in the skies?  Thus, a most ancient example of scientist is an astronomer. So the prophet and the astronomer symbolize, as it were, the twin motifs of religion and science that have enriched human culture and civilization.

Prophets speak about what is to come in the future. Some of them affirm in no uncertain terms about what will occur in the distant future, and how will affect us all as human beings. Astronomers too, at certain levels, proclaim what will become of receding galaxies and an expanding universe in the long haul, though they try to be as dispassionate about it as possible. After all, whether or not we complain about old age and certain death, they will surely come to pass. So, it is argued, there is something in common between prophesy and astronomy (more exactly, futuristic cosmology). Therefore, goes the reasoning, when it comes to the end of time, science and religion may not be that different after all. Except perhaps for the fact that, when the ancients - whether prophets or profane - gazed at the stars or spotted a comet, they also experienced a mystery and even a fright at times, whereas when astronomers of our age peer through a telescope, they are thrilled rather than terrorized. 

In any case, there is material enough here for a full length book. Herein is  inspiration for this work by one who, while being a scientist, has also delved into mythologies and ancient history, and reflected intelligently on these matters. Marcelo Gleiser is astronomer, scholar, and author,

The book has three different strands, not all of which are always tightly interwoven, but which form a fascinating whole all the same. First there is the strand of ancient mythology and Western/Christian history. I say Western/Christian because much of the history mentioned is of Europe . Even when the Crusade is mentioned, the author speaks with sarcasm (pp. 31-32) on Christian fanaticism and, perhaps wisely, is silent on what motivated Muslims in the confrontation.  His only reference to Hindu history is in the context of Sun worshippers. In this strand one also gets glimpses of various doomsday proclamations from the Bible and from minor astrologers. Gleiser paints a panoramic picture of a variety of contexts in which people's hearts were filled with panic and prayer as a consequence of Apocalyptic projections which have continued down to our own times. He says it all very knowledgeably and interestingly, and he is not judgmental in referring to these, as some moderns tend to be.

Gleiser describes ancient efforts to connect astronomical events with predictions and prophesies: comets and eclipses and their presumed impact on the curse of human events. The general reader will certainly find all this  to be informative in the recall, and it is difficult not to form an unfavorable impression of doomsday prophesies, especially  when one considers their power on the minds of the simple-minded. Whether this was his intention or not, Gleiser has done a good service in this regard,  because in our own times, there is often a tendency to romanticize ancient worldviews. In fact, the  vogue now is to call for a return to ancient lore and modes to resolve our problems, whether social, moral, or even scientific.

All the narratives in the book are well presented, and are clearly based on extensive and thoughtful reading. But at times one gets the impression that they ramble. While the reader may be amused  by some of the writings referred to, sometimes it is difficult  to fully understand what exactly the author is driving at. One cannot quite see  what scientific theory or concept is supposed to be illustrated. For example, the passing reference to the Bantu-Kavirondo people's recognition of cometary periodicity (p. 21) is left in the lurch without any reference, with no elaboration on why or how they came to that appraisal, and what impact it had on their science.  On the other hand, Newton 's theories on the comet, and his interpretation of their significance, even his inspiration from Revelation, are presented very persuasively. (pp. 64-68.)

The statement in the prologue to the effect that "our scientific ideas are very much a product of the cultural and emotional environment where they originate" (p. xiv) is, of course, not an entirely new thesis. Modern scholarship has established the often subtle role of cultural, social,  and traditional religious factors in the formulation of scientific theories and explanations. Gleiser has developed this thesis very well in the context of astronomy. And yet, one should be careful not to overstate the case. Nor should one equate prevailing worldviews and thoughtful reflections with scientific ideas.

Thus, for example, in his desire to show that "science, in its thematic development, incorporates trends from popular beliefs and religions," (p. 117) Gleiser states that "the end of the earth, prophesied by several apocalyptic texts …. found its expression in a scientific analysis of the possibilities of future collisions with asteroids and comets." (ibid.) Is one to conclude that  such possibilities have scientific validity because they are extrapolations of Biblical texts? Indeed, this is where the  thesis of  the cultural-roots-of-scientific-theories becomes questionable. Do electrons actually go around nuclei because Kepler had studied planetary motions and Rutherford had studied Kepler? Does Darwin 's evolution have a standing of its own, or does it have validity because, as some have argued,  it arose in the social-cultural context of nineteenth century Europe ? Does the theory of relativity have universality, or is it, like the Nazis used to say, just Jewish physics?

Geiser  emphasizes  with clarity the fundamental goals of, and differences between, science and religion as human activities. His three page statement (45-48), "Thus Spoke the Science Apologist," though self-evident to practitioners of science,  is  succinct and well-articulated on what science is all about, it scope and its goals. He calls science a human invention. Perhaps he could have described it as a human enterprise. Students and non-scientists would do well to read and re-read these pages in the book.

The second strand in the book consists of the author's personal involvement with science and scientists. He recalls a number of anecdotes from his own life: his sitting near Steven Weinberg at a meeting in London, his elation at being quoted by a Nobel laureate, his experiences in Sheldon Glashow's birthday party,  his daughter's kissing Robert Frost's statue, his observation of a solar eclipse, Abdus Salam's interest in helping out young physicists from Third-World countries, etc.  Whether these are relevant or not to the theme of the book, he says it all with very interestingly, infusing the book with a personal touch. Such reminiscences certainly humanize the narrative. Geiser also makes numerous references to other physicists, from the ancient and the medieval to the modern and the contemporary. These are all  apt and informative. Perhaps because Theodor Frantz Eduard Kaluza was born in Raciborz which is now in Poland , he describes him as Polish. (p. 206.)

Gleiser also weaves in what he calls a Fantasy. Entitled Descent into the Maelstrom, this is actually a charming piece of science fiction which explains to the non-specialist such technical concepts as the Einstein-Rosen bridge and the wormhole, and brings out very effectively all the excitement associated with doing conceptual physics. 

The third strand in the book is pure science: more exactly, astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. Here is where Geiser does a truly superb job. His presentation of the results and worldviews of astronomy, of current developments in the field, and of other technical matters in language that should be accessible to the average educated reader, is  admirable. He is clear, absorbing, and illuminating when he presents the fast-changing theories of cosmology of the past few years. In this context he is inevitably drawn to an exposition of the standard model of current high-energy physics (pp. 204 et seq.). Though one still thinks in terms of the Big Bang, there have been a number of modifications and refinements of the original Cosmic Egg idea of Lemaître, and these are explained here concisely and intelligibly (pp. 218 et seq.).  Considering the frequent changes in the physicist's world model,  the non-technical reader might wonder how close the latest theory is or is not to the real world.

Gleiser's epilogue on Celestial Wisdom is another finely written section. He points out that  "by learning more about the world around us, we will be able to see beyond our own differences and to work together for the preservation of our planet and species (p. 236)," though morality doesn't always depend much on scientific knowledge. The terse comment that "there is much wisdom in the sky" (p. 236) may need some elaboration. But these points are made in a sensitive and enlightened manner which add poetry and dignity to science.

It is impressive that Gleiser has been able to pack so much sound science in such a readable format, in a book that is enriched by much history and culture. The strength of the book lies precisely in this: that while the extra-scientific discussions constitute, in a sense, the meat of the book, the average reader can also learn a lot of current science from it. This adds considerably to the book's intrinsic value. Indeed, even if Gleiser had decided to write a purely popular exposition of current astronomy, without any mention of Daniels of the Bible and Giotto of Bondone, he would have made a good contribution to general science education.