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The fruit, dear Brutus, is in our stars

04 April 2014

I HAVE always been fascinated by space, stars, and galaxies. My father had been at sea, and knew how to navigate by the stars. He showed me the constellations from our back garden in north London.

Even now, I find thinking about the beginnings of the universe far more interesting than answering emails or doing the ironing.

So I was intrigued by the recent report of findings from a telescope in the South Pole, which appear to have confirmed an extraordinary theory about the birth of the universe. The theory is known as inflation, and it suggests that, in a fraction of the first second, the universe blew up like a balloon from something smaller than an atom to something the size of a grapefruit. This provided the conditions for the expansion of the universe which is still going on today.

Years ago, I met the founder of inflation theory, Alan Guth, at the Massachusets Institute of Technology. He told me that most of the scientists he knew had a built-in prejudice towards what used to be called the steady-state theory of the universe, because it did not require a beginning, and was thought free of any religious implications. The actual evidence pointed away from the steady-state theory towards the Big Bang, however, and inflation was a way of explaining how the Big Bang produced our universe.

Cosmology is important for faith, not because it proves or disproves the existence of God, but because it gives us a picture of the kind of world we inhabit.

The world suggested by inflation is one in which time travels in one direction; it is a place where genuine novelty can occur. Things happen to us because things happen. This means that our human lives are not anomalies in an eternal sea of indifference. We belong because we are going somewhere, just as the universe is.

I personally find the idea of the universe as a kind of grapefruit faintly comic. But it is not so far away from the mystical insight of Julian of Norwich, for whom "everything that is" appeared in the form of a hazelnut, held in God's hand.

The thought that everything that this universe would become was once smaller than an atom, contained within one infinitely dense point, is awe-inspiring. The fact that we can, through science, unravel time, and catch a glimpse of its beginnings, should transform our moral vision, and help us, at least, to "use aright the time that is left to us on earth".

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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