Gratitude, Faith, And One Teacher

by AMAC, Robert B. Charles

Grateful. Forty years ago, I was in college, taking astronomy from Dr. Robert Jastrow, founding director of Goddard Space Institute. My hair was long. I had hair. Rock & roll was everywhere. Top 1980s movies included Rocky, Rambo, Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Top Gun, Ghostbusters, and ET.  Ronald Reagan was our President. And most Americans had faith.

When I say, “most Americans had faith,” this is not conjecture. In 1983, when I studied with Jastrow, 90 percent of Americans were Christian. Today, 63 percent are, more spiritual but “unaffiliated.” Back then, the interface between mysteries of the universe and faith was understood, if seldom discussed. Reality vexed astronomers, astrophysicists, and even Jastrow – although only by absence of discussion about the touchy topic:  How did the universe begin, how could it have, without God?

In class, origins of the universe were discussed in scientific, mathematical, descriptive, always elliptical terms, no reference to faith or the inexplicable nature of first causes. That was fine, as what was left unsaid also spoke to us, and the unspoken left an echo: The universe appeared from nowhere. If that sounds dramatic, it is dramatic, and fertile ground for endless speculation, wheel spinning, hand waving, lots of high math that never gets past the “Big Bang” – so it is also rather old news.

Interesting is how Jastrow understood all this, or tried to make sense of it – back then and later. He was the quintessential scientist, distinguished, famous, happy with numbers, and author of many books. He was a man given to wonder, not a blind reciter of facts, never at ease with the orthodoxy of ignoring what he did not know. He was good with words, too – which allowed him to give his wonder wing, get it up there, airborne for us to see and think about. He raised questions hard for scientists to answer.

Time passed, I left college, got a haircut, watched those great 1980s movies as reruns with family. I only barely thought about Jastrow’s class, and then only in the context of some interesting fact we thought we knew but did not – mysteries around blackholes, quasars, pulsars, dark matter, deep space, nebula like the human eye (Helix) nebula, then looking back in time with Hubble, and that vexing “Big Bang.”

We have to live. Things get in the way of wonder. We work, buy groceries, do laundry. We get ear-high in mundane. But one day I happened on later writings by Jastrow, unlike his consciously agnostic, bow-and-curtsey professional views. These new views were daring, a cage rattle for science, a decision – obviously conscious – to ask the uneasy questions, offer discomfiting ideas, look at the Universe as God’s Creation, not an accident, not an unexplained but humanly explainable event. Wrote Jastrow, confounding some colleagues: “Far from disproving the existence of God, astronomers may be finding more circumstantial evidence that God exists.” 

His past and present views merged. “Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation, to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on Earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover… That there are what I or anyone else would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact.”

Having spent time at Columbia, Yale, and Dartmouth, Jastrow decided to speak his mind. “It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in,” and “most remarkable of all is the fact that in science, as in the Bible, the world begins with an act of creation.” As if to reawaken wonder among peers, he reminded them: “There is no explanation in the Big Bang theory for the seemingly fortuitous fact that the density of matter has just the right value for the evolution of a benign, life supporting universe.” The universe could have been hostile to life, it is not.

Now famously, he wrote: “At this moment, it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason… the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Sometimes, you look back at those you looked up to, realize even they were filled with wonder, which in time matured to understanding, and – in Jastrow’s case – was finally, purposely shared. Grateful.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR), and is National Spokesman for AMAC. This article is published on AMAC.us and reprinted with permission from AMAC Action.

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