"Origins": A Dialog Between Scientists and Humanists

For centuries, the origins of the universe have been the subject of sometimes contentious debate between philosophers, theologians, and scientists, and these debates continue today. A Google search for “creation vs. evolution” and “big bang theory” brings up 234,000 hits, and a random sampling of the sites shows strong opinions on both sides of this apparent divide between religious belief and scientific discovery. Attempting to bridge this gap is “Origins”, a course being taught this spring by Tommaso Treu, associate professor of physics and an astronomer, and Stefania Tutino, associate professor of religious studies and of history. They present “Origins” (Physics 43/Religious Studies 43) as a scholarly and methodological dialogue between science, religion, and history about the origins of the cosmos and the place of humans in the universe.
“Origins” began in 2007 as a freshman seminar taught by Treu, Tutino, and Richard Hecht, professor of Religious Studies. The course was so popular that it became an annual event open to all students. Freshman seminars are small courses taught by senior faculty which focus on topics of particular interest to them. In this case, the subject was a special passion of Treu and Tutino, who happen to be married, because it relates both to their own individual research and to the broader intersection between science and the humanities. Their professional collaboration also introduces students from different disciplines to texts and methods from areas outside of their own majors, sowing the seeds of the interdisciplinary work for which UCSB is known.

Tutino studies the history of early Modern Europe, focusing on the relationship between politics, religion and science, including the impact of science on intellectual debates. Her current research is on the political writings of Robert Bellarmine, an Italian cardinal and Roman Catholic saint who was involved in the Inquisition’s trial and banishment of Galileo for defending heliocentrism. In conversation, she stresses the importance of looking at events in their historical and political context. Discussing her approach to “Origins”, she says, “historians do not deal with the ‘Origins of the universe’ as ‘when does the universe begin?’ This is a question for your conscience and/or your telescopes and computers. Historians deal with the ‘Origins of the universe’ by dealing with the cause of the conceptualization of the origins of the universe.”

Treu studies the formation and evolution of galaxies, focusing in particular on the coupled evolution of their stellar, dark matter and black hole components. In the course, he presents scientific answers to the very questions the historian does not address, about the formation, evolution and age of the universe, and of galaxies, stars and planets, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the Universe. “How much the motivation behind these questions are historical and cultural versus perhaps ‘biological’ is not for me to answer,” he says, “and my segment of the course deliberately does not address questions about the purpose and meaning of the universe.”

Using these different methodologies, the seminar aims to answer three fundamental questions: Is Earth a special or unique place? What is the universe made of? And how do we understand time and the concepts of beginning and end? During the course’s 10 weeks, Tutino and Treu will present methodological introductions to history and to science and use these as a lens to approach the three questions. At the end of each module they will hold roundtable discussions to connect the different points if view.

In past years, they have taught the course with Professor Richard Hecht, who provided a religious studies context for the discussions. Because he is on leave this year, guest lecturers will present different religious viewpoints and traditions to the students. José Cabezón, XIV Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies, will speak about Buddhist cosmology. Ann Taves, Virgil Cordano OFM Professor of Catholic Studies, and Uffe Schjødt, a visiting scholar from Denmark who studies religious behavior using neuro-imaging techniques, will present an introduction to evolutionary theories of religion.

Even as it covers complex issues and concepts, the course is designed to be accessible to students from different disciplines. The readings cover a broad spectrum in terms of style and content and include a history of the cosmos, texts about the historian’s craft and scientific logic and method, history, philosophy (Aristotle and Saint Augustine), and a 2005 United States District Court decision about creationism. In addition to the lectures, the students meet in smaller sections with graduate teaching assistants. Treu says that “one of the great things of this class is that we are able to attract extremely versatile and motivated graduate students to be our TAs. Ken Henisey (physics), Andrea Neuhoff (Religious Studies), and Cat Newell (Religious Studies) in past years, have been doing a great job and are a big part of the success of this course.”

April 2010


News Date: 

Thursday, April 1, 2010