Reasons to Believe

Refinements in the Laws of Physics

Some Christians are critical of science whenever it comes in conflict with their interpretations of the Bible.

They argue it is dangerous to hang any part of our theology on the “quicksand” of changing and uncertain science. Of course, the very nature of science is uncertainty. No scientist worth his salt will claim he knows anything with absolute certainty. However, there are degrees of certainty. Some claims are very well tested and consequently are referred to as laws of nature. Other claims are only tentative in nature, and are called theories that require further investigation and testing.

Newton’s description of how bodies move in response to external forces has been so well tested that we now refer to his work as laws of motion. On the other hand, we refer to the latest attempt to describe the physics of our universe, super strings, as a theory because it is probably incomplete and only beginning to be tested. But even Newton’s laws have been discovered to be incomplete. At the beginning of the 20th century scientists realized that these laws could not fully explain what was going on at the atomic level or in the realm of velocities near or at the speed of light. Hence quantum mechanics and relativity were born. Newtonian physics is adequate in the normal spheres of our experience, but these new refinements were necessary to deal with the extremes.

While Einstein’s general theory of relativity (GR) has been one of the most well tested theories in science, and should be classified as a law of physics, it is now being stretched to its limits. In the last few years astronomers have discovered the expansion of the universe is accelerating, implying that there is some additional force that must be accounted for. This can be achieved by modifying the equations of GR, either by adding an extra term, the so called “cosmological constant,” or by changing the form of the equations themselves involving higher-order curvature terms or extra dimensions, or by inventing some new exotic theory that approximates GR in the limit.

A recent paper published in Nature by L. Guzzo and colleagues presents observations that offer a test for the nature of cosmic acceleration that may be able to distinguish between its possible causes. They have made observations of more than 10,000 faint galaxies, all having redshifts on the order of z = 0.8 (a distance of 7 billion light-years). The team obtained the galaxies’ expansion and peculiar velocities (velocities clustered around their expansion velocities) to derive a growth rate parameter for the formation of galaxy clustering. They then compared the results with similar observations of galaxies and their clustering in the local area of our universe.

The astronomers created models for what they would expect from these comparisons, based on each of the different explanations for the cosmic acceleration. They concluded that the data are consistent with the standard GR including a cosmological constant, but not sufficiently accurate to distinguish between it and the other models. However, by extending their measurements over volumes about ten times larger, the astronomers expect to be able to tell which model best fits the data, thus gaining insight into the best theory of gravitation.

What we see here is the scientific method in action. A theory, no matter how much it has been tested, will make predictions that can be further tested. If the theory doesn’t fit the new observations, then the theory must be refined, or possibly completely replaced if some new paradigm is established. However, any new theory must be able to account for all the observations that were correctly predicted by the old theory. This process has proved to be slow and deliberate and tends toward refinements in existing theories rather than major paradigm shifts.

As scientists pursue the scientific method, they should be able to arrive closer to the truth about the physical aspects of God’s creation. Assuming this same process of testing and reflection is also applied to Scripture, we need never fear that science and faith will be in conflict. The work RTB expends on building a testable creation model is intended to faithfully apply this process to both science and our interpretations of the Bible.

Subjects: Universe Design

Dr. David Rogstad

Dr. Dave Rogstad received his PhD in physics from Caltech and worked over 30 years for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Though now retired, Dave continues to serve as an RTB board member and participates regularly in several RTB podcasts.