Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I hope you remembered to send a card

I saw a tweet today that read, "Congratulations, the universe is 6017 years old today!", after a bit of Googling I discovered that Bishop James Ussher, a 16th Century theologian worked out "based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ" that the universe was created by God (presumably Yahweh and not Zeus?) on 23rd October 4004 BC. This is an interesting calculation not only is it incredibly precise it seems that Yahweh never bothered to tell the Chinese who were busy building community centres, cemeteries, and kilns around this time, he also neglected to inform the Sumerians either who by 4000 BC had already invented beer, writing and multiplication tables, essential ingredients for student life ever since. For a supernatural being who can create universes by willing them into existence Yahweh would appear to be a hopeless communicator on all other fronts.

Thanks to some rather more rigorous work done by generations of scientists living since Usshers time we now know that the universe is around 14 billion years old and our own planet some 9.5 billion years younger than that. For the first billion years of planet Earth there was no life at all, then for the next 2.9 billion years there was nothing but bacteria, then, around 600 million years ago things got a little more interesting and the slime started to evolve legs, teeth and fins. Since then we've seen cycles of expansion and extinction, many times over across billions of generations of creatures; modern humans only appeared on the scene a few hundred thousand years ago and recorded history started a mere 70 centuries ago all of which make the Christian creation myth believed by intellectuals of his time like Ussher considerably less interesting and awe inspiring than reality, I wonder what Ussher would have made of it?


Archdruid Eileen said...

Wasn't just the Archbish, of course. Isaac Newton spent more time on dating the World from the Bible than he did on gravity.

Steve Borthwick said...

AE, Quite true, he was a creationist as most people of his age were, more astoundingly quite a lot of creationists today still quote Newton as a source of authority on the subject. Newton spent a lot of time on the subject of Alchemy too, although not many actual chemists would defer to him on that today.

Archdruid Eileen said...

Being that kind of nerdy scientist might well have inclined him to literalism. As a Chemist myself I'm happy to regard him as a great Physicist and Mathematician.

Steve Borthwick said...

AE, The teleological argument had no serious rival before Darwin and lets be honest about it in Newtons time people were still being flogged and having red hot pokers inserted into them for blasphemy; who wouldn't be a creationist!

Being generous, Newton may not have suffered from literalism per se but simply that purposeful creation was the only explanation for life available to him? Since Darwin and Wallace we have more rational explanations; or perhaps he was just your run of the mill eccentric genius, a great mathematician and experimentalist I agree.