15 May 2011

Cosmology and Hymns

I'm a professional scientist, and as such I slowly and rather tediously gather and analyze data, and home in on a number of different kinds of truth:

  • Where is the water located within Mount St Helens, and what is the source of its extreme conductivity?
  • How does water saturation figure in why did Mount St Helen’s north face fail so dramatically in 1980 - and failed so far back into the south wall of the stratocone volcano?  
  • How can a surface effect physics principle called induced polarization be used to map placer heavy mineral deposits beneath the sea floor?  
  • Where is the water beneath the San Pedro Basin of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and how does extracting that water affect the San Pedro River and the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area - one of four major North American migratory bird fly-ways?
  • How much undiscovered potash lies within economic limits (three kilometer depths) beneath Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?  
  • How did a 10-meter-diameter asteroid create a stratospheric mushroom cloud, and what were the mechanics that formed "Insta-Rock" from sand dunes in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia?

I’m also a Mormon.  The LDS Doctrine that I buy into is contained in many different sources, both ancient and modern, including the Standard Works, Statements of the First Presidency, General Conference talks, and Hymns.  At least two very interesting concepts are found ONLY in the LDS Church Hymn Book.

A case in point: (Two stanzas extracted from Hymn #284):

1. If you could hie to Kolob
In the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?

2. Or see the grand beginning,
Where space did not extend?
Or view the last creation,
Where Gods and matter end?
Methinks the Spirit whispers,
"No man has found 'pure space,'
Nor seen the outside curtains,
Where nothing has a place."

William Wine Phelps penned this hymn nearly two centuries ago.  The first time I sang it, I liked the music but the words didn't make a lot of sense.  Later I earned advanced degrees in physics and geoscience, an asteroid was named after me, and a childhood interest in stars and galaxies gave way to an abiding interest in astrophysics and cosmology.  I avidly read everything I can find on the subject in Nature, Discovery, and other science journals.  The field just fascinates me.

While physics has stagnated in many respects over the past 30 years, there have been huge advances in biology and cosmology.  That is NOT cosmetology, by the way, though there have undoubtedly been advances there also.  My skin couldn't prove that, however.

Recent advances in cosmology have included an improved understanding of the Big Bang - how matter and energy expanded (in incomprehensible violence where the laws of physics didn't work like they do today) from a single point in empty space.  Some other advances include additional understandings and implications of the speed of light, quantum entanglement (which appears to prove that information can be transmitted faster than the speed of light), and an awareness of something called vacuum energy - that there is an underlying energy field in what might appear to be empty space.  This vacuum energy is manifested by pairs of particles and anti-particles (e.g., electrons and positrons) just “popping up” out of nothing, and shooting off in opposing directions.  There is an interesting side implication of this observation: if the sudden appearance of paired particles occurs next to the Event Horizon of a Black Hole (the 'point of no return' for light and anything else that falls in), one particle will fall into the black hole and one will not.  This means, among other things, that Black Holes without additional matter drawn in will fade with time (although extremely slowly), and that information that passes the Event Horizon may NOT, in fact, be lost.  Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, two of the greatest theoretical physicists alive, had a long-standing bet on this (Penrose won the case of beer).

I rediscovered W.W. Phelps’ hymn a few years ago and was stunned.  I read it several times to make sure I understood the implications.  Phelps died in 1872, and during his lifetime he did NOT have access to Nature, Discovery, or the Phys. Rev. Letters - but he did have another source of information: direct personal revelation.  This is a doctrine that most people on the planet instinctively understand and believe in (an aspect of it is called “mothers intuition”), but it is NOT preached by any other religion that I'm aware of.  In fact, it draws the vociferous ire of a number of fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims.

This hymn, for me, is yet another tangible and reassuring piece of evidence that all truth comes from a single source.  Phelps was interested in something, thought and prayed about it, and quietly penned words to a hymn with content that cosmologists and astrophysicists finally figured out with several billion dollars’ worth of instrumentation - a century and a half later.

1 comment:

  1. Cool! This kind of stuff fascinates me, too. And I bet I can guess what the other concept is that you refer to as being found only in the LDS hymnbook, and it is in a certain hymn written by a contemporary of W. W. Phelps, a poetess named Eliza R. Snow. Am I right?

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