Where the Bible meets the Big Bang

Publication: The Jewish Chronicle
Date: October 5, 2007

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Tomorrow in the synagogue we read the Torah account of the first six-day working week. The world and all life was created in that time, so the story goes, seemingly at odds with the current scientific estimate of 13.7 billion years. Yet Dr. Gerald Schroeder, an MIT-trained former professor of nuclear physics and advisor to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, believes that there is no conflict between these two time-lines. Both are to be taken literally. We might well ask: "What is the great man thinking?"

Schroeder, the author of the best-selling book "Genesis and the Big Bang", maintains that in many ways the Torah was scientifically three thousand years ahead of its time. Its insights begin with its first word: Bereishit, "In the beginning". In a 1959 survey, two thirds of leading American scientists believed that the universe had no beginning that it always was. Then in 1965 came the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, the echo of the Big Bang. There was a beginning, the scientists were wrong, Bereishit was right.

The Torah writes of the end of Day One, "Vayehi erev, Vayehi Voker, Yom Echad" "There was evening and there was morning, one day". Divine_Hand02According to Schroeder these words can equally be translated "There was disorder and there was order, one day." One can verify his translation with a dictionary; for example, in the Torah, the "erev rav" is the "mixed multitude" that accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. The Torah reinforces this theme of progression from disorder to order by describing the earth as initially "unformed and void", and by telling on five occasions that God "separated", for example between the lower waters and the upper waters. In modern thermodynamics, a movement from disorder to order, (scientifically speaking, a decrease in entropy), cannot occur without an external cause. For Schroeder, this cause would be the Almighty.
Schroeder notes a difference in construction between "Yom Echad", "one day", and the subsequent "Yom Sheni", "Yom Shlishi" "second day", "third day" etc. The Torah does not talk of "Yom Rishon" "the first day", but of one day, then the second day, then the third day. Time is looked at from the outset forwards not in retrospect from a later time, when there would have been the first day, then the second, then the third.

Scientists also see an important distinction between looking at time from the outset forwards and from a later date backwards. This is because, since Einstein, we know that time is different for different people it is relative. For example, a holiday at the Dead Sea really can make you younger. General Relativity asserts that the stronger gravitational pull at this, the lowest spot on earth, causes time to pass more slowly. You could return home a tenth of a second younger than you would have been if you had never travelled.
Perhaps it's not worth the effort for such a meagre rejuvenation effect. But if you were at a place or a time where relativistic effects were REALLY strong like on the spot at the Big Bang, the time-stretching effect would be more impressive. It all depends on where and when you start your clock.

Schroeder quotes Nachmanides, writing in the 13th century, "Misheyesh, yitfos bo zman" "from the moment that matter formed from substance-less substance, time grabs hold." The Biblical clock starts when matter first condenses out of energy. Nachmanides also pointed out the difference between Yom Echad Day 1 and "a first day". He pointed out that Day 1 is absolute, not comparative, and learned from it that time was created on Day 1. And Einstein taught the same thing in the Laws of Relativity that time was a creation in the same way as was matter and space.

Taking Nachmanides' start-point for time, and applying modern knowledge of physics, Schroeder computes a time-stretching factor of one million million. Six days of twenty four hours each, from the viewpoint of an observer present when matter first formed (in science-speak, the moment of quark confinement), would appear to an observer looking back on it from the end of the period, as a million million times longer or fifteen billion years. Not only that, but the breakdown is: The first day as viewed from Big Bang corresponds to 8 billion years looking back, second day from Big Bang corresponds to 4 billion years looking back, and so on.

So Schroeder believes that the Torah uses two clocks. The first, placed within the frame of reference of the Almighty, recorded Creation from the moment within the Big Bang when matter first condensed out of energy. The second clock, placed within a human frame of reference, started at Rosh Hashana with the birth of Adam and has so far ticked away 5768 years. In support of the 'two clocks' thesis, Schroeder quotes Midrash Rabba from 1500 years ago saying that the six days of creation are separate. He also references Nachmanides' commentary on Deuteronomy 32:7. In his last address to the people, Moses exhorts them to "consider the days of old, the years of the many generations." For Nachmanides "the days of old" refers to the six days of Creation, and "the years of the many generations" to all the time from Adam onwards. One might note that "Yemei Olam" "the days of old" could be translated as "the days of the universe".

As Nachmanides interprets the verse, Moses says that one can see G-d's fingerprint on the universe in two ways. The first is the miraculous creation of the universe in six days. The second is all human history from Adam onward. Through either perspective one can see the imprint of G-d.

To summarise, Schroeder argues convincingly that the Torah account of creation is strikingly close to our modern scientific understanding. He finds ancient interpretations to explain apparent contradictions between the Torah and science, such as the stars being first mentioned on a later day than the earth. However, one could perhaps uncharitably note that rabbinic literature is so extensive that one could find an ancient interpretation to support any proposition one wanted.

Schroeder starts from an axiomatic belief in the literal truth of the Torah. In this he departs from the scientific method whereby one postulates an explanation only after gathering evidence, and one accepts an explanation only after experimental testing. In short, faith is not science.
However, Schroeder does well to point out that we presume too much when we ask the question: "Did it take six days or did it take 14 billion years to bring about the universe, life and mankind?" The question assumes a Newtonian universe where time is the same for everyone, whereas Einstein showed we live in a relative universe. Even Stephen Hawking might have no problem with Schroeder's invoking 'time dilation' to reconcile six days of creation with billions of years as viewed from today.

George Gershwin memorably wrote, "Whatever you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so". But Gerald Schroeder has put up a spirited argument that it ain't necessarily false, either.