THOMAS AQUINAS

“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

Thus spake the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas was a master of the syllogism, and his idea of scientific scrutiny was that conclusions had to be based on premises which themselves were either self evident or had been objectively demonstrated. I thought of Aquinas when I wrote a post yesterday about Albert Einstein, who was in the business of putting together premises and conclusions. In a sense, Aquinas and Einstein came at the question of the origins of the universe from opposite directions. Aquinas was a man of faith, but he believed — and sought to demonstrate in his “Summa Theologica” — that a person could arrive at the existence of a First Cause — God — through reason alone.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Einstein didn’t believe in God in the sense that Jews and Christians and Muslims do. In that sense, he didn’t believe in a god at all, no matter how hard religious folks try to hear him saying otherwise. However, Einstein’s  lifetime of inquiry into the physical laws that govern the universe did lead him to speculate — forgive me if I don’t express this precisely — that somewhere beyond the seemingly endless questions about the universe must lie some force that governs it.

I recently discussed all this — Aquinas, Einstein, God, the origin of the universe — with, of all people, the actress Sandy Duncan.

SANDY DUNCAN

By “of all people,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything surprising about Sandy Duncan discussing such things. In fact, I gathered she gives such things quite a bit of thought and has had provocative conversations about them with her two adult sons. I only meant that I would be unlikely to talk to Sandy Duncan at all, except that she was scheduled to appear in a new play that examines the outfall that can occur when science and religion collide head-on. The actress was to play the title role in “Creating Claire” by Joe DiPietro, but she took ill, withdrew from the cast, and was replaced by another talented performer, Barbara Walsh.

JOE DiPIETRO

DiPietro’s play begins previews tomorrow night at the cradle of new theatrical works, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The title character, Claire Buchanan, is a teacher but now works as a docent at the Museum of Earth and Sky in upstate New York. She leads visitors on the Origins of Life Tour, reciting a script that focuses on the evolution of species. The script is the brainchild of Victoria Halstead, museum director and friend of Claire – in that order, as things work out. Victoria encourages a docent to “personalize” the presentation as long as the glosses are innocuous, but Claire is no automaton, especially when a reference in the script to “random mutation” complicates her attempt to understand a fact of her own life. Claire and her husband, Reggie, have an autistic 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, and Claire has been considering how the process described by Charles Darwin could result in an individual such as Abigail. Eventually, Claire’s contemplation creeps into her talks at the museum as she suggests to visitors that the processes of nature may have been – gasp! – designed. Once that genie is on the loose, there is hell to pay, as it were.

LYNN COHEN

Victoria — to be played by Lynn Cohen — puts her own belief in science and her vision for the museum ahead of friendship when she learns about Claire’s transgression. Reggie – a high school teacher who has considered his bond to Claire a “mixed marriage” only to the extent that he is an atheist and she is an agnostic — is stunned by this change of Claire’s train of thought. Disagreements over Abigail’s status have already revealed strains in the couple’s relationship; Claire’s public speculation about a “designer” pushes those strains to the breaking point.

This play, however, is not a death struggle between science and religion so much as an examination of intellectual openness and honesty. Claire is willing to at least entertain an idea that had been anathema to her but does not insist that others accept that idea. Victoria and Reggie opt to defend their “rightness,” as Duncan called it, regardless of the professional or personal consequences. The implications for contemporary political discourse may be painfully obvious.

Believe in God or not, but in the end it is Claire, and not the more “scientific” Victoria and Reggie, who seems to have heeded Einstein: “Only daring speculation can lead us further, and not accumulation of facts.”

Em cee squared

May 17, 2010

A blackboard with formulas written by Albert Einstein, preserved in the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford.

Several decades ago, I began to make a point of reading several books each year on subjects about which I knew little or nothing — including subjects that I found repulsive. Among those subjects have been mathematics and physics, both of which bedeviled me when I had to study them in high school and college. As I have mentioned here before, at least with respect to mathematics, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from pondering these subjects when examinations and grades are not at issue, and I have found that those who claim that there  is beauty and wonder in these fields are telling the truth

That background explains why I grabbed the opportunity to review a popular biography entitled “Einstein: The Life of a Genius” by Walter Isaacson. This is a coffee table book that contains a limited amount of text in proportion to the number pages and illustrates its points with many photographs and also with facsimiles of several letters and documents. Among these are Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in which the scientist advised the president to call together a group of experts to study the possibility of developing an atom bomb — something Nazi Germany was known to be doing at the time. As it happened, Einstein — a pacifist whose work in physics  helped pave the way to such weapons — was considered too great a security risk to work on the project himself, what with him being a native of Germany, a socialist, and a Jew.

Isaacson records that one of Einstein’s early physics instructors described him as “an extremely clever boy,” but added, “You have one great fault: You’ll never let yourself be told anything.”  It wasn’t meant as compliment, but still, this tendency as much as anything else led to Einstein’s achievements in theoretical physics. Einstein — like Isaac Newton before him — would not accept anything as settled just because it was handed on to him by authoritative sources. He wondered and questioned and “experimented” with physical phenomena such as light and motion by forming images in his mind, and he changed the world.

Einstein is a curiosity in a way, because he was one of the most widely known celebrities of his time and his name is part of our language more than 50 years after his death, and yet most of us have little or no idea what he was up to. That doesn’t matter. He deserves his place in our culture if for no other reason than his persistence in questioning even his own conclusions.