The Universe: As Seen by
Einstein, Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton
Science does not know its debt to imagination.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
cience and the scientific method are the means by which we have come to know much about the universe and our place in it. Through empirical tests and measurements we are able to describe natural phenomena with greater assurance than by any other method. So rigorous are the standards, and so demanding are the skills and talents needed to be able to produce quality work, that only those who rank among the most gifted are able to fulfill the academic requirements leading to credentials in science. They are the few best able to “reach for the stars” and bring the fruits of their labor to the rest of us.
In this chapter we call upon four scientists of such renown their names are instantly associated with intelligence, original thinking, and great distinction. Their achievements are all the more remarkable because each also was forced to deal with narrow-mindedness and the tyranny of powerful men who sought to silence them and all free thinkers. The scientists are Isaac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Albert Einstein. An assemblage of such talent today would likely attract a television audience so large it would be unprecedented in human history.
How might each of these men of science respond to a set of questions about God, the universe, or the state of science today? Indeed, just their interactions with one another would likely be followed with unparalleled interest. Such a setting might seem as irresistible to you as it would be irreverent and implausible to others, therefore, what have we to lose? Criticism is inevitable; yielding to it is optional.
Once again, imagine a television studio with our four guests seated in comfortable chairs, along with a rather ordinary but presentable interviewer holding a set of questions, some of them drawn randomly from a pool submitted by people from around the world.
The stage is set. Let’s begin.
Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543) was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. Copernicus' epochal book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published just before his death is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the scientific revolution. Copernicus was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classical scholar, translator, artist,Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist. Among his many responsibilities, astronomy figured as little more than an avocation — yet it was in that field that he made his mark upon the world.
Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations. His contributions to astronomy include the confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honor), and the observation and analysis of sunspots. After 1610, when he began publicly supporting the heliocentric view, which placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, he met with bitter opposition from some philosophers and clerics, and two of the latter eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615. Although he was cleared of any offence at that time, the Catholic Church nevertheless condemned heliocentrism as "false and contrary to Scripture" in February 1616, and Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it—which he promised to do. When he later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, he was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy," forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Albert Einstein (4 March 1879–18 April 1955) was a theoretical physicist who is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, and the "greatest physicist ever," according to a 1999 poll of leading physicists. His many contributions to physics include the special and general theories of relativity; the founding of relativistic cosmology, the first post-Newtonian expansion; explaining the perihelion advance of Mercury; prediction of the deflection of light by gravity and gravitational lensing; the first fluctuation dissipation theorem which explained the Brownian movement of molecules; the photon theory and wave-particle duality; the quantum theory of atomic motion in solids; the zero-point energy concept; the semi-classical version of the Schrödinger equation; and the quantum theory of a monatomic gas which predicted Bose–Einstein condensation. Einstein is best known for his theories of special relativity and general relativity. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” Einstein published more than 300 scientific and over 150 non-scientific works. He is often regarded as the father of modern physics.
Isaac Newton (4 January 1643 – 31 March 1727) was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian who is considered by many scholars and members of the general public to be one of the most influential scientists in history. His 1687 publication of the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (usually called the Principia) is considered to be among the most influential books in the history of science, laying the groundwork for most of classical mechanics. In this work, Newton described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. Newton showed that the motions of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies are governed by the same set of natural laws by demonstrating the consistency between Kepler's laws of planetary motion and his theory of gravitation, thus removing the last doubts about heliocentrism and advancing the scientific revolution.
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Moderator: Welcome, gentlemen. Please remain seated and make yourselves comfortable. This is indeed an historic occasion, and we are honored to have men of such distinction with us to discuss a variety of questions and issues dealing with the universe. I have a few questions of my own, and then we will be taking questions from viewers from around the world.
If you are ready, I’d like to begin by asking you a question about the nature of science itself. Many of your observations and discoveries have been called false and heretical by church officials when they stood in contradiction to church beliefs. The heliocentric universe described by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, plus the moons in orbit around Jupiter are two examples. Today, evolution is still under attack by many fundamentalists. What have you learned about such attacks, and what advice can you give us about how best to deal with them?
Copernicus: As you know I delayed publishing my description of orbital mechanics until my death to avoid conflict with the church. But the times were different then. Little was known about the world or the universe. Any cleric today would look foolish if he were to stand in opposition to almost any scientific finding, especially if he were to threaten imprisonment or worse for publishing your findings. What we have learned is that science and religion do not mix well. Beliefs are beliefs, while facts are facts. Memorize the definitions and understand their differences and most conflicts would tend to resolve themselves.
Galileo: You no doubt read that church officials refused to even look into my telescope at the moons in orbit around Jupiter. It is of course absurd to deny that which measurements and observations tell you is true . We have also learned that religion does not mix well with governing. Those countries that haven’t yet learned to separate the two are the same countries with a host of internal as well as external problems. I was brought before the Inquisition authorities who demanded that I recant my own observations. With the image of my colleague Giordano Bruno burning at the stake fresh in my mind, I did so and was placed under house arrest for the remainder of my earthly life. To its credit, the Roman Catholic Church repealed its ruling against me and declared that I was right and they were wrong. Unfortunately, it came in 1992, just 352 years after my death.
Newton: I think it is fair to say that Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Halley, and I all came to the same basic conclusions about the solar system. And we were all correct. In contrast, the church was wrong in every instance. Today, philosophers have come forward to help. The logical positivists in the past 100 years gave us an important principle by which we can separate beliefs from facts. It is called the Verifiability Principal, namely, that which is verifiable belongs in the domain of science, and that which is not verifiable belongs elsewhere such as in the domain of the occult or religion. As recently as 1936, A.J. Ayer published his formulations of this principle. He likely has saved the world more agony than anyone knows.
Einstein: Fortunately, I was spared much of the misgivings of clerics and church teachings during my time on earth. I stated that I had a feeling of religious awe about the universe; that I could not conceive of a God who sat in judgment on creatures of his own creation; and that morality was of the highest importance for man—not for God. Since the death of my body, I have found that I was correct in all those beliefs. I also found that God does exist, and He rarely intervenes in the affairs of the world—but He can, if He chooses.
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Moderator: Let’s change the subject. What about time travel, namely, is it possible? Will we ever be able to travel forward or backward in time?
Galileo: Time travel is not possible. Indeed, it would be a contradiction to travel backward to an existence before your own existence, or to travel forward to a time after your existence had ended. You are thus constrained by the dimensions of your existence and your limitations within it. As Albert has already noted, matter cannot exceed the speed of light, which is your ultimate speed. Once you are removed from your worldly existence, time becomes irrelevant because you are no longer constrained by it.
Copernicus: Our learned colleague, Galileo, is correct, of course. While you may think of time as a constraint on travel, we no longer think in terms of time at all, hence, even travel is irrelevant.
Einstein: While you cannot exist in two places at once, we cannot not exist everywhere at once, therefore the answer for you is “no,” while for us it is irrelevant. It’s all a matter of your place in the cosmos, which is also a special case of relativity.
Newton: We do not cease to exist just because we no longer occupy a body in your time and place. That is a fact everyone learns soon enough. But we are also not in a position to instruct you in matters that you necessarily must learn for yourself. Time travel for you is not possible. Reason alone is sufficient to let you make that inference.
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Moderator: Let me see if I understand you correctly. Are you saying that you can travel forward and backward in time, but I cannot?
Einstein: Not at all. We are not constrained by your time dimension because we are no longer participants in it. You are constrained by your worldly existence while we are subject to an entirely different set of constraints. Thus time travel is impossible for you while it is irrelevant to us because time does not exist for us. The impossible is neither a concern to us nor should it be for you.
Copernicus: You may want to think of your question in terms of applying the rules of basketball to the sport of baseball. It makes no sense to do so.
Galileo: I once built a telescope and used it to observe moons in orbit around the planet Jupiter. I could not, however, have simultaneously observed Halley’s Comet while observing Jupiter’s moons. Now I can do both if I choose to do so because I am no longer constrained by your space and time dimensions.
Newton: I think that further elaboration on this issue would be a waste of time—today, tomorrow, or yesterday.
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Moderator: Thank you, gentlemen. I’m already beginning to think I don’t understand my own questions. But let’s go on. What changes would you make to improve the universe?
Einstein: I have a big ego, but it isn’t that big. The universe is perfect in every way. My task has never been to change it, rather to think about it, to consider what it means for human potential, and to report my findings to others. Beyond that, I have no role at all.
Copernicus: Albert is much too modest. Consider how he changed our way of thinking about the universe by modifying Isaac’s inverse square law as it applies to heavenly bodies. I would maintain that changing an entire domain of science improves our understanding of the universe, hence the universe itself.
Galileo: I once commented that the same God who endowed us with reason and intellect did not intend us to forego their use. I believe He would agree that Albert has made a huge contribution in how we think about ourselves and the universe, and such changes have led to many improvements in His own handiwork. This idea becomes clear when you think of the beauty of a polished diamond hewn from a rough stone, or the improved landscape when a beautifully manicured golf course replaces a chaotic terrain.
Newton: I am tempted to say I’d change the warp in time and space that Albert noted which causes light to bend, hence the need to modify my inverse square law with a gravitational constant. I am privileged to be in the presence of such genius. Looking forward there is so much more to be discovered in the universe, that your tasks ahead will consume all of your energies. Forget about trying to change the universe. Discover it!
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Moderator: I will try to reduce the scope of my question a bit so that I might better understand your answers. When do you think men will build and occupy a colony on the moon?
Copernicus: You already have the technology and the resources to accomplish that goal. The answer really depends on whether you have the desire, the reasons, and someone who can articulate the vision. Those are managerial skills and skills of persuasion. Since I do not bring those abilities to the task, I will defer to Galileo who possess more skills than any one person I have ever met.
Galileo: Thank you, my friend. Flattery is not one of my skills, but I easily fall victim to it especially when it is presented by someone that hold in such high esteem. My guess is that you will begin to colonize the moon when you actually feel threatened by the effects of global warming, when you realize that the costs of ignoring the moon outweigh the costs of going there, and after you achieve an unexpected but spectacular accomplishment in space. Those events should all coalesce sometime in the next 200 years.
Newton: Colonizing the moon is an engineering challenge. It will also be very expensive. Neither set of skills is in my area of expertise.
Einstein: I will be there awaiting your arrival.
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Moderator: Here is a question from China. This person would like to know "When will China become a world leader in space science?"
Galileo: I can only tell you about the ingredients in such an endeavor. The rest is up to you and to your government. To begin, imagination and innovation have no nationality or geographical limitations. They only need the creative space, the freedom to ask, and the resources to transform. China clearly has the potential to develop a first rate science program. Science, however, can neither serve a repressive government, nor a false agenda. Reform yourselves and the stars will belong to you.
Einstein: Science also requires solitude. I left Germany in 1932 just a few months before a tyrannical dictator took control. I became a virtual recluse on the campus at Princeton University. I had no laboratory, no exotic equipment, no computers. What I had was the freedom to think, to ponder, and neighbors who were kind enough to leave me alone with my thoughts. Well, not entirely. A little girl once knocked on my door and offered me some fudge if I would help her with her arithmetic assignment. I was delighted by the attempted bribe, but I could not in good conscience help her. I did offer her some cookies instead.
Newton: I agree with my colleagues. Science requires freedom to flourish. China must undergo fundamental change in order for it to become a leader in space science.
Copernicus: My work was also theoretical and it was limited to the movement of celestial bodies. Just like my three learned friends, I lived in a time when it was dangerous to your health to publish anything that was counter to the positions of the state or the church. Fortunately, I was able to earn a living from a variety of other pursuits. As a result my ideas were not published until my death some 45 years after I first formulated them. Repression and science are incompatible. The outlook for science in China is not good for the same reasons.
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Moderator: Here is a question from Italy. The writer has directed his question to you, Galileo. He says “The Tower at Pisa is still leaning where you once proved that the acceleration rates of falling bodies are not affected by their weight. How long will it be before it falls?”
Galileo: The authorities will not allow you to climb up its steps today for safety reasons. That should be answer enough.
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Moderator: This question is from Brazil. “Scientists today have given us at least 10 different ways in which planet Earth could be destroyed. They are: an asteroid impact; solar flare; by a super nova; gamma ray burst; by a black hole; from an alien attack; by the death of the sun; from an ice age; death of the universe by collapse; galactic doom via radiation. Which one is most likely to happen?
Newton: I am aware of those speculations. All such occurrences are extremely remote. There is also virtually nothing you could do to either prevent them or to take evasive actions should they come to pass. I could add nothing to those issues or to their probabilities of coming true that has not already been discussed. My best advice is this: You should never live in fear of the improbable.
Einstein: Some things are known only to God. This is one of them. I once noted that He does not roll dice with the universe. Trust Him.
Copernicus: The power and the magnitude of phenomena such as black holes can be studied and contemplated. They cannot be overcome by force or removed by choice. Science moves you in tiny steps to more knowledge. It cannot solve all mysteries.
Galileo: The universe is immense and magnificent. I am in awe of it. Your time is better spent in tapping its potential than in planning for the day when it might kill you.
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Moderator: Here is a question from a boy in Arkansas: “Football players, basketball players, even golf pros are paid lots more than scientists. Why should anyone want to become a scientist?”
Newton: Sports are for the able while science is for the curious. It doesn’t pay well to be curious until you see the results. Sometimes the results are so big we all benefit from them. You can’t take your sports winnings to the grave, but scientific achievements can last for a thousand years or more.
Copernicus: In my day I could not earn a living as a scientist. That is why I studied so many different specialties. Scientists deserve a fair income but not riches. They must be motivated by the sheer joy of discovery. If you substitute wealth for discovery you will encourage bad science, false reporting, and eventually disaster.
Galileo: I agree with my colleagues. Science should never be influenced by personal rewards. Greed is a powerful human emotion. It really has no place in any discipline but especially not within the sciences. The consequences from research that are driven by money are big enough to frighten me, and I am not easily frightened.
Einstein: I was once awarded a large sum of money along with the Nobel Prize. I gave it to my wife who gave me something even bigger in return—my freedom.
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Moderator: We have a technical question from a viewer in Russia. He asks the following: “Professor Frank Drake from the University of California gave us his equation for determining the probability of intelligent life in the universe. How can this equation best be used?”
Copernicus: Professor Drake offered his equation, not as the solution to the inquiry about life in the cosmos, but as a way to start a discussion on that topic. There are, of course, too many unknown variables in his equation for it to be useful as a predictor of intelligent life. But the more you ponder its implications, the more likely that you will arrive at a better way to address the issue. That is its usefulness.
Galileo: The Drake Equation is a wonderful way to think about possibilities, and that is what science is mostly about. At the risk of repeating myself, God gave us brains, and He intended for us to use them.
Newton: A brilliant teacher and colleague, Carl Sagan, showed in his television series, Cosmos, how to think about Drake’s Equation. In particular, he showed us that the last term is the most critical one, namely, how long civilizations are likely to last before destroying themselves. The lesson from this, of course, is that you need to learn how to live together without resorting to all the ways that lead to your own destruction. Otherwise, you will need to search for life on earth, not out in the cosmos.
Einstein: I agree that the lesson from Drake’s Equation is not in its predictive power, but in its instructive power. Intelligent life on earth as well as throughout the universe depends on how long you choose to make life worthwhile for each other. If you do not learn how to live together in peace and harmony, you risk everything. That is Drake’s lesson.
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Moderator: A viewer from Japan would like to know: “When do you think space travel to Mars will happen?
Newton: It will happen when all the different participants come together and decide to make it happen. Technically, you have the means now. The difficulties are mainly financial. When you decide that the benefits outweigh the costs, you will proceed. From the perspective of science, there is no urgent reason to go there now because there is little to be learned that you do not already know. Your current program to continue unmanned probes makes sense. When you have learned enough to make bolder moves, that will be time enough.
Copernicus: We do not have the ability to see into the future except on a limited basis. Travel to Mars makes no sense except as a potential planet to occupy. To make it habitable will require a major program for changing its atmosphere, assuring the survival of plant life, finding or producing more water, and many other human needs. If those are your goals, your time horizon is likely one thousand years or more.
Galileo: Space travel is not inevitable. Space colonization is even more difficult to foresee because it would involve huge expenditures that could go to other more earthly needs. All that could change with new discoveries and new technical developments. Ask me again in another 100 years and I will very likely give you a very different answer.
Einstein: Making the most of space, time, inventions, and money does not always mean that man has to be at each new frontier leading the charge or at the controls of a space ship. Perhaps you would be better advised to learn how to move about, protect, and make wiser use of the planet you occupy first.
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Moderator: And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, we must bring this incredible roundtable session to an end. What a conversation! And what superb insights!
By way of summary, we learned tonight that these men of science are passionate, humorous, religious—at least in the sense that they know many things about the afterlife that we do not—and they are genuinely concerned about us. We also learned that knowledge is something that we must discover for ourselves no matter how painstaking or lengthy the tasks involved in finding it may be. And for all of that, we are most grateful.
In the next chapter we come face-to-face with each of the four popes who signed the papal bulls that initiated the Inquisitions, a time in history that spanned 684 years. Perhaps as many as 6 million people were put on trial, and subsequently imprisoned, tortured, or put to death as a result of the accusations made against them. The issues for inquiry are these: Did the Inquisitions occur at a time when Catholicism faced extinction, or a loss of control over its members?; Were its assets in jeopardy?; Was their authority being challenged?; or, Were the tribunals just a convenient means for stamping out heretics and dissent, thus clearing the way for making the rest of their believers fearful but obedient observers of papal command and control? These are pivotal issues for investigation, and they demand clarity and incisiveness. Unless we can reach reasonable conclusions about the proper role of religion in our lives as well as the authenticity of what is said, who says it, and on whose authority, religion itself is in doubt. In addition, we need to decide if the legal barrier between church and state is sufficient to assure that history does not repeat itself.