November 17, 2019

A Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace

A Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace

We are going to review the book, “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace.  From the Amazon review: Paul Wallace teaches in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga, and is Pastor for Adult Education at First Baptist Church of Decatur. He teaches occasionally at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and at Columbia Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD in nuclear physics from Duke University and an MDiv with a concentration in historical theology from Emory.

Paul Wallace

For 10 years Paul was a professor of physics and astronomy at Berry College in Rome, Ga. He has twice been awarded a NASA Faculty Fellowship at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and has twice served on the faculty of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative in Dharamsala, India.

This is a very good book for the average Evangelical who struggles with faith and science issues.  Paul grew up in the south in a Southern Baptist church.  He was inculcated in the anti-science views that came from the strong anti-evolution viewpoints typical of churches in that geographical and cultural location of that time.  Paul’s dad was a civil engineer specializing in hydrology and nuclear waste.  He loved God and loved science and communicated those loves to Paul.  Paul’s parents took Paul and his siblings to church every time the doors were open and he was taught Bible stories in a way that plainly conflicted with evolution.

A second grade field trip to Fernback Science Center and their astronomy room ignited a life-long love of astronomy in the young boy.  Paul says:

After this, I learned all the astronomy I could.  From there, with Dad’s help, I familiarized myself with the basics of evolution and natural history.  I became the household dinosaur expert.  My parents supported my obsession, buying me astronomy books and dinosaur books and a large collection of plastic tyrannosaurs and stegosaurs and apatosaurus.  I slipped them into my pockets before leaving for school.  At recess, I played with them on an outcrop of rock, which looked pretty prehistoric to me, at the far end of the playground.

Eventually, as he moved through high school and into to college the cognitive dissonance of what he was taught in church and what he was learning in his science classes came to fruition and he abandoned his childhood faith and finally embraced atheism.  The book is about how he returned to faith in Christ and reconciled the faith vs. science issues for himself, and how others in a similar struggle might find the same path as he did.

The book is short, only 121 pages, and Wallace writes in a very personable style that doesn’t get too science-heavy.  He is big on analogy and metaphor which I think is absolutely essential to help Evangelicals over the faith vs. science hump, much more so than discursive argumentation and apologetics.  An example from the introduction:

Uranus

“Years ago, on a clear October evening, I saw Uranus with my naked eye. My lab assistant and I stayed behind at the college observatory after all the Astronomy 101 students had departed for the night, and we devoted ourselves to the project.  It took some effort, but we both succeeded in spotting the seventh planet amid the stars scattered along the Aquarius-Pisces boundary, with no help from binoculars or telescopes.

Uranus sits just this side of visibility and moves slowly, taking eighty-four years to complete a single lap around the sun.  For these reasons, it spent many years cataloged as a star.  Then in 1781, an Englishman named William Herschel observed it through his homemade telescope, thought it looked odd, and recorded it as comet.  Within a couple of years, however, astronomers overruled this assignment and announced the first discovery of a planet in recorded history.

Herschel named it George.  Non-British astronomers, uninterested in honoring King George III of England, weren’t having it.  Scientists haggled over the name for decades, and the planet was finally given its permanent moniker in 1850.  Uranus jokes began appearing in print shortly thereafter.

In order to see Uranus with your naked eye, you must meet certain requirements.  First you need to be under a truly dark sky.  Humidity, city lights, moonlight, or any combination of these brighten the sky so much that Uranus will be wiped clean out.  You must also have excellent vision, a star chart showing the exact location of Uranus among the stars at the time of observation, and plenty of patience.

With all this, however, you could still look and look and look and not spot it.  In fact, you could stare directly at Uranus for hours without knowing it.  The source of this puzzlement dwells not in the heavens but in your eye.  The human retina contains two kinds of light-detecting cells, cones and rods.  Cones respond to colors and bright lights and are concentrated at the center of the retina, opposite the lens.  Rods detect low levels of light and are spread out around the cones, but the planet glows too faintly to be detected by these cells.  You’ll never see Uranus by looking at it.

But if you look just to the side of it, its light falls on your rods, and the planet pops into view.  Once this happens, you instinctively move you eye back toward it and poof, it disappears again.  Resisting this reflex feels weird at first, but with practice, the technique becomes natural.  Experience star-gazers are accustomed to using this so-called averted vision to see dim objects.

Much as some things can be seen not by looking at them but by looking at what is next to them, some things can be understood not by thinking about them but bye thinking about what is next to them.  The more you think about these things or try to figure them out or nail them down, the more elusive they become.  They can’t be grasped by head-on thinking.  But if you relax a little and think to the side, you might come to know what you could never comprehend directly.”

I like his this way of not coming at a subject directly, but by approaching it “from the side” so to speak.  It reminds of the C.S. Lewis quote:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

There is something very Eastern Orthodox in Paul Wallace’s way of thinking and writing.  He writes with both humility and wit.  I think your Southern Baptist (or other Evangelical) friend will find it engaging and informative.

Comments

  1. ” We belong in the universe no less than electrons and galaxies, after all, and we simply cannot stop living our lives as if love is real and as if it matters ultimately. So maybe it is real and it does matter ultimately.
    We are not freaks. Instead, we express a core cosmic reality when guided by love, we make even the tiniest of choices. We are drawn by love toward a world we can’t quite see but occasionally glimpse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a world Jesus called the kingdom of God.” (Paul Wallace)

    those glimpses of unexpected kindness

    . . . yes, this resonates

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    Surely this review has omitted the lede: Does he thread the needle of reconciling science and Young Earth Creationism, or does he conclude that YEC is not as essential to his faith as he had once believed? Or does he discreet dodge the issue?

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      He has written a lot for Huff post. He is not a creationist, as is evident in his writings there.

      I have heard of a few religious-turned atheist-turned religious people. I have never heard of a creationist-become credentialed scientist-turn back into creationist. Maybe there is one. But that should tell us something…

      • Richard Hershberger says

        My impression, based on no evidence whatsoever, is that the religious-turned-atheist-turned -religious people tend not to return to the same church they came from. They turn into Episcopalians, or at least some “progressive” church, in the sense of “Evangelical, but sometimes votes for a Democrat” sense of “progressive.” Hence my curiosity.

        • Michael Bell says

          My response, also based on no evidence whatsoever, is that it would probably depend on what turned you off your church in the first place.

      • –> “I have heard of a few religious-turned atheist-turned religious people. I have never heard of a creationist-become credentialed scientist-turn back into creationist. Maybe there is one. But that should tell us something…”

        Good observation. That seems like a valid and telling point to me, too.

    • I think the review is reflecting on Wallace’s exploration of the ‘Uncreated Light’ in a way that connects up with a scientific phenomenon about viewing a certain kind of light that can only be seen ‘from the side’ . . . . . and in doing so, I believe Mike the Geologist has got it right that Wallace is very much in tune with the Eastern Orthodox who hold to a very deep respect for the need of mankind to have humility before God.

      If that is the case, I should very much like to read this book.

  3. Mike, thank you for your article. I just ordered the book as it seems to address some issues I struggle with. I am impressed , perhaps too much with those who have a good grasp of science and math which I am sorely lacking.

  4. Great title. Sounds interesting.

    There are some forms of belief that ARE irreconcilable with science. Something tells me Wallace is not a YEC. Nobody tell Ken Hamm.

  5. I found this interesting talk by Wallace. It may answer some questions people here are asking, or at least ‘put some light’ on them. 🙂

    https://youtu.be/h62tASK6RLM

  6. –> “…a good grasp of science and math which I am sorely lacking.”

    All I ever learned about math and science came from these three songs.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HqyEHqEYho

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZSHr5E7fZY
    (Some of you probably didn’t know this song existed. Give it a listen!)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ev-EIcCfjlY
    (Yeah, maybe too obvious)

  7. Sounds like a good book, Mike.

    In other news, electricity came back to us yesterday afternoon. We were okay, as we have gas stove, water and heat; some very unlucky more rural folks had their gas shut off, too. Fire in Santa Rosa is 60% contained, many evacuees allowed home, ***no loss of life*** due to the widespread early evacuations.

    Dana