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.
“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.