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Strange Fire and the Big Bang: Religion Science and the Cosmos

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With all the big stories being covered by the news in recent days, one news item out of the South Pole may have fallen through the cracks. However, this item may turn out to be one of the most significant moments in several decades and mark a major step toward understanding the origin of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago. A project called BICEP2 was designed to look for what amounts to evidence of ripples in the space-time fabric of the universe that can be detected against the Cosmic Microwave Background, a spread of weak radiation that is distributed throughout the observable cosmos. And that's exactly what was discovered by the BICEP2 team this week. These ripples were predicted in some sense by Albert Einstein, but in a more specific way by others since him, including a Russian American professor at Stanford named Andrei Linde. 

Chao-Lin Kuo, a co-leader on the BICEP2 project made a surprise visit to Linde and his wife, fellow physicist Renata Kallosh to tell them the incredible news in person. Linde's reaction is stunning, touching and the very picture of simcha, joy. While the scale of this discovery ranges from the almost undetectably infinitesimal to the unfathomably large, the moment captured in this video can only be measured on a different scale -- the human scale.

At the same time as news of this admittedly esoteric discovery spreads, partly through the desire to share this beautiful video, a more commercial venture has been launched with a lofty mission. Astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, has revived the series Cosmos, the brainchild of his mentor Carl Sagan. Using state of the art graphics, inventive metaphors and gripping storylines, Tyson lays out in rich depth what undergird the current scientific understanding of the nature of our cosmos touching on the mechanisms behind the Big Bang, natural selection, and the increasing dangers of life on Earth. Each of these theories touch on the very limits of human comprehension and feel impossible to explain without resorting to a Higher Power, but Tyson brings them home by explaining the complex interplay of forces that operate without intentional agency in language that is compelling and accessible. His goal is to reconnect a large audience with the basics of scientific method and principles, while at the same time stoking the fires of wonder that power imagination and the engine of new discoveries. .

Science is our best means of deepening our understanding and encounter with the fabric of the universe. The stuff of which even we are made. However, we also seek to know what is meaningful about our encounters with each other, our world and even ourselves. Religion and religious traditions provide us with frameworks to respond meaningfully to the mysteries before us. 

There is an enigmatic Jewish tradition that teaches that God rejoiced on the day on which the holy sanctuary was dedicated in equal measure as God rejoiced on the first day of creation. What is the connection? Linguistically the link is found in the word Vayehi, "And it was" with which begins both the verse introducing the sanctuary dedication and the phrase "It was evening, it was morning" which marks the first day of Creation. But why joy? Why not simply teach that the sanctuary is linked to creation by its purpose, or analogous structure or some other measure of its properties? 

In a strange way, the focus on the joy of this day is highlighted by a great tragedy that also took place on that day. This was the day on which Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's sons, perhaps inspired by seeing the fiery acceptance of the offerings in their proper way, offered God what is called "strange fire" and were, without warning consumed by flames that descended from the heavens.  Moses relays cryptic words from God, but their father Aaron stands stunned and silent. A day slated for joy is shattered by suffering.

There are and have been many ways to read this story, many centering on the obvious question of why these children of Aaron meet this tragic end? Straightforward lists of their possible sins are Enumerated just as expressions of their preciousness to God are put forward.

However, although this story is firmly in the realm of a religious worldview, I believe it is possible to see it also through the gravitational lens of what we are learning about our cosmos. Calling Nadav and Avihu's fate a mystery is neither a surrender, nor a justification for what befell them.  Rather, it is a sensing of a truth that reverberates through our lives in a way greatly more detectable than what was measured at the South Pole. Terrible and wonderful things occur. We seek explanation in the form of agency. We are programmed to seek cause and effect, decision and result. However the forces at work in the cosmos partake of a deeper process of agency -- an infinitely expanding, ever transforming landscape that drives creation, sculpts matter and Its diversity, and leaves its calling card like waves upon a beach. Like dark matter filling out the vast dimensions of the cosmos, the chaotic, unbidden "strange fire" burns side by side with the joy of celebration and discovery. 

Linde in the video, moved to tears of joy calls out, "This is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms... Let us hope it is not a trick. I always live with this feeling. What if I am tricked? What if I believe in this just because it is beautiful?"

In this question is hidden the link between the way the Torah imparts the story of Nadav and Avihu and the moment captured in the video above. Relationship. The cosmos, whether approached religiously or scientifically do not exist in a vacuum, do not unfold by detached cause and effect, and cannot be read and understood without context. Only in relationship -- with each other, with our own transitory selves, and with the echoes of our origins -- can our encounters with the cosmos be meaningful.