Scholars speak on cosmology

For centuries, science and religion have been drifting farther apart. But new discoveries may link the two once again.

Before an audience of about 200 in the Yale University Art Gallery auditorium, lecturers Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams argued that people have a special place in the universe. Because of man’s unique place in the cosmos, they said, humans should pay greater attention to global warming and other major issues.

Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams spoke at the Yale University Art Gallery on Tuesday.
Nathan Laughton
Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams spoke at the Yale University Art Gallery on Tuesday.
They spoke as part of a lecture series funded by Dwight Terry.
Nathan Laughton
They spoke as part of a lecture series funded by Dwight Terry.

“For the first time in history, science has given us a story of nature and the origin of the universe that might actually be true,” Primack said.

Primack, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Abrams, a cosmology scholar, are this year’s Dwight H. Terry lecturers. In 1905, Bridgeport resident Dwight Terry endowed a series of lectures at Yale on the relationship between religion, science and human welfare.

In this year’s lecture, Abrams provided a history of how man’s view of the universe has changed throughout history. While the ancient Egyptians believed that their religious rituals literally held up the sky and the ancient Greeks placed mankind at the center of a spherical universe, Newton’s conception of the universe shattered man’s belief in his own uniqueness, Abrams said.

“According to the Newtonian picture, no place is special, least of all ours,” Abrams said.

But in the past 10 years, Abrams and Primack said, advances in physics have shown that although man’s place in the universe might not be unique, humans are the perfect size for thinking beings.

If humans were much larger, Abrams said, the speed of light would limit how fast thoughts could be processed. But if humans were much smaller, she added, there wouldn’t be enough material to construct a creature capable of complex thought.

Abrams also used the limits of how big or small objects in universe can be to show man’s unique place. If sizes of objects in the universe are measured in powers of 10, Abrams said, mankind is right in the middle.

Ultimately, Abrams and Primack said, man’s unique place in the universe means that humans must consider the long term-implications of their actions. Solving crises such as global warming and deforestation, they said, will only benefit man.

Five audience members interviewed were divided on the effectiveness of Abrams and Primack’s lecture. New Haven resident Elaine Viseltear said the lecture was scientifically informative and engaging. Hartford resident Dan Olson, however, said the two lecturers did not offer an adequate answer to the question of why humans have a special place in the universe.

For Nick Simmons ’11, the lecturers’ argument was necessarily limited by the human experience, which made it hard for him to believe all of what Abrams and Primack said.

Tuesday’s lecture was the first of four in this year’s Dwight H. Terry lecture series. The next lecture will be held Wednedsay at 4:30 p.m. in the Yale University Art Gallery auditorium.


  • ProfBob

    If we are to keep our place on the planet, we had better take care of the primary problem first. But our leaders won’t lead.
    According to an article in Science Daily (April 20, 2009), a survey of the faculty at the State University of New York, which has a very strong environmental science department, the planet’s major environmental problem is overpopulation.. Climate change is second. This echoes the theme of the popular free ebook series “And Gulliver Returns” –In Search of Utopia—( As one professor at SUNY said “With ten million or even a hundred million people on the planet there would be no warming problem.” It is both the technology and the number of people using it that create so many of our planetary problems.

  • jvpyale

    Hello, this is a 4-part lecture series. To expect to gain the entire value after the first necessarily introductory segment is somewhat brain-dead.
    I think the publicity provided by the Terry Lectures Committee makes clear that the point of the lecture series is not to re-establish the link between science and religion, but rather to present a cosmological model derived from the freshest and soundest scientific findings that presents an accurate picture of the place of life generally and humanity specifically. That would seem a necessary precursor to a reconciliation between science and religion, but the rest of work will depend on both science and theology continuing their respective pursuits–not for the purpose of that reconciliation, but for their own purposes–their respective searches for truth–which if valid should provide the solid ground for a relationship in which both derive from and are encompassed in common by shared truth.