Today I have been at Festival della Matematica 2009 here in Rome to listen at a discussion with Arno Penzias and Nicola Cabibbo. The moderator was Riccardo Chiaberge, a journalist of the italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. Chiaberge wrote a book with an interview to George Coyne and Arno Penzias (in Italian, see here). Cabibbo is currently the President of the Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze and is a believer. This evening he took the role Coyne had in the book in a confrontation between scientists with different beliefs. Asked by Chiaberge if the Pope listens Accademia, Cabibbo said “Sometime.” and cited the case of cerebral death.
Penzias has been put by Chiaberge on the Einstein side, a “non-believer deeply religious”. But what Penzias said has been sometime astonishing revealing a kind of faith elevating humankind well above its nature. Of course, themes like string theory and multiverse were also touched upon in the discussion. Cabibbo said that we should give time to the theory to develop before to conclude anything about, being now too early to draw any conclusion. Stringists will say but surely “mathematics is truly beautiful”. When he said so I thought to Perelman that, copying a functional from string theory, achieved one of the greatest goals of modern mathematics. Penzias is more skeptical about and does not think it should be considered science yet and, on the same line, multiverse is not falsifiable and so to be dismissed. Cabibbo said “till now!” letting us think that the future will deserve some surprise about as always happened in matters like these.
This point was quite entertaining as Cabibbo defended multiverse as the most elegant idea to explain the foundations of quantum mechanics but, as Chiaberge emphasized, this is an escape for atheist to claim the non-existence of God. On the other side, Penzias said that our current understanding of Universe and all this nice fine tuning of its constants appears a serious support for believers.
Galileo, Copernico and Kepler were discussed and the Galileo question, with his trial and abjure, was declared by Cabibbo as a severe error by the Catholic Church that cost too much to Italian science. He said that “Bellarmino, notwithstanding was a fine cultured man, failed to recognize that these were completely new matters” and should have been carefully treated.
About the question of intelligent design and Darwinism, Penzias put forward a nice metaphor. He remembered the last scene of The Wizard of Oz where a dog moves a curtain unveiling the wizard pushing around buttons all the time and this appears to be the god of intelligent design. On the other side, human beings are really cousins of chimpanzees but there is something more, that kind of inexplicable that makes us believe that something like love and free will are real as the rest of our physical world. Cabibbo added that the idea of evolution should enter into the certainties accepted by the Catholic Church as the Copernican system and all that. Evolution is an assessed fact but still some embarrassment is seen from clerics, the same that happens when one talks about the possibility of intelligent life in other solar systems. Giordano Bruno has not been fully digested by Catholic Church yet.
Cabibbo also put forward a nice analogy between phase transitions and the appearance of intelligence in human beings that completely overwhelmed previous animal species, a threshold effect.
Chiaberge gave a nice summary of the discussion by saying:”Science has limits but no authority should impose limits on it”. All agreed about this but Penzias remembered horrors of some experiments and Cabibbo emphasized that for medicine some kind of limits should be eventually considered or, better, self-imposed.
Tomorrow I will be there to listen Edward Witten. Stay tuned!