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Featuring guest Leslie Wickman

Leslie Wickman | Bring on the Multiverse

Leslie Wickman talks about how she came to be designated a corporate astronaut and how her faith journey unfolded alongside her scientific career.


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Leslie Wickman talks about how she came to be designated a corporate astronaut and how her faith journey unfolded alongside her scientific career.

Description

Leslie Wickman first witnessed the expanse and majesty of creation through a telescope as a young child on one of those rare cloudless nights in the Pacific Northwest. She never could have guessed that it would lead her to working on parts of the Hubble telescope, training in space simulations and becoming designated as a corporate astronaut. In the episode, Leslie talks about her path through her many scientific endeavors and the development of her understanding of faith in relation to that science. We discuss the new Webb telescope, the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, the multiverse, and the significance of fine-tuning as a pointer to God. 

  • Originally aired on March 03, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Wickman:

My view of God is so expanded because of studying science that I say, bring on the multiverse. My God is big enough for a multiverse; if there is a multiverse, then God is the God of that too. There’s such a freedom for me in understanding that nothing that we study in God’s creation is going to pose a threat to who God is.

My name is Leslie Wickman. I am the director of the corporate affiliates program at Biola University, as well as the executive director of a nonprofit that just got started called Starry Nights Incorporated.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

Leslie Wickman has had a varied and interesting career in the sciences, from working developing equipment for spacecrafts and the Hubble telescope and testing that equipment in space simulations, to designing the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas, to teaching science at a Christian school. We’ll hear a bit about some of those moments in her scientific career, but we’ll also follow the faith journey that was unfolding at that same time. The intersection of those stories eventually leads us to a conversation about life elsewhere in the universe and the finely-tuned constants that make life in our universe possible, and finally how any of this scientific knowledge might help us better understand who God is. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump: 

Leslie Wickman, welcome to the podcast. We’re glad to be talking to you.

Wickman:

Likewise, it’s my pleasure.

Stump:

You’ve had an interesting and varied career doing things in the field of science. We’ll talk about some of those, but first, let’s hear what led to this: when did you first think you wanted to pursue a career in science?

Wickman:

Well, it goes back to when I was a kid growing up in the northwest. My dad was a forestry engineer, and he had a telescope and we would go outside on the clear starry nights, which were kind of rare in the Pacific Northwest. As you may know, it’s cloudy and rainy a good bit of the time, but on those clear starry nights we’d get outside and look through his telescope at the moon, and the stars and the planets. That really was my first introduction to what studying nature was all about. That was really my first interest, that interest in the stars and the planets and in space itself has stuck with me all these years.

Stump: 

So going through school, then it was like, yep, I’m going for a career in science, you knew that all the way along?

Wickman:

That’s a little more complicated, that’s a great question. I had actually grown up in the church, as well as having this interest in science. Growing up in the church and going to Sunday school and whatnot, I had always learned that God was the creator behind all of this. That was perfectly coherent with my worldview, until I hit junior high school, and maybe getting ahead of myself here, but in junior high school, I encountered my first atheist science teacher. He would go so far as to say, you might as well just kind of leave your faith at the door, because what we’re talking about here in biology class is going to almost certainly contradict what you’ve learned at church and Sunday school. That kind of set up this idea that there was a conflict fairly early on. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that, it’s probably all 12 or 13 year olds trying to figure out what he was talking about. It was a completely naturalistic explanation of how humans evolved from primates, and showed that classic diagram of all the way from early primates to modern hominids and human beings, and essentially implied that it was fully explained by naturalistic evolution. Like I said, I didn’t really know what to do with that. But that kind of set up this idea that there was this dichotomy between science and faith from a fairly early age. When I went through high school, my teachers always encouraged me to pursue math and science because I seem to have an affinity and aptitude for it. But when I got to college, I just wasn’t really sure how I was going to resolve that apparent conflict between science and my faith. So I took a lot of math, and didn’t take a whole lot of science. I took some computer science and some astronomy, but was kind of shying away from science and as an undergrad. I ended up majoring in political science of all things. It wasn’t until after I’d done an internship at the State Department in Washington, DC my senior year where I was basically looking to get into the State Department and international relations, I realized that I needed to get an advanced degree. Kind of putting all the pieces together of my young life I thought, it’d be really great to be able to bring something from the STEM fields into the conversation about arms control, because that was basically the Cold War era. I actually corresponded with a former Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, and ran my plan by him, and he actually wrote back, or at least somebody pretending to be him. I went from that experience now, with my bachelor’s degree in political science, applied to grad school at Stanford, and miraculously got in with nothing more than my bachelor’s degree in poli-science and decent GRE scores. I then pursued a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, and then a PhD in human factors and biomechanics through mechanical engineering at Stanford. There was a transition, a pretty sharp one, and with that grad school experience, I decided to veer away from poli-sci and into the aerospace world.

Stump: 

Let’s go back again, a little bit. As you were this junior hire who was nervous about science in the context of your faith. Do you remember having conversations with… So you said your dad was part of the Forestry Service, is that what you said?

Wickman:

He worked for a private company that had a tree farm and was kind of involved in road building and land surveying and that sort of thing.

Stump:

Okay. So not science proper, but something in the neighborhood. Did you have conversations… Do you remember any conversations with him or other people at your church, about this relationship of science and faith?

Wickman:

It was all kind of hush hush, it seemed. Looking back on it, I didn’t know who to talk to about it. My dad actually had a bunch of books on his bookshelf, from the Creation Research Institute, and ICR Institute for Creation Research, I guess. That is all coming from a young earth perspective and so I was exposed to that from a pretty early age, too. But it still was pretty foggy for me how to reconcile those views with what we were learning through science. It just was not clear to me. It’s interesting, too, because I just remember that being a very stressful situation, especially in that class, and not knowing what to do with what I was being taught and what I held in my heart to be true through Scripture. I express it as cognitive dissonance, it’s like, how does this information fit in with my worldview? What do I do with it? I can’t just ignore it, even to the extent of kind of walking away from science for a while. But I didn’t really know what to do with it. Then as time went on, especially in grad school, I would basically read whatever I could get my hands on that had anything to do with relating science and faith, and how they fit together.

I had started a job with Lockheed. We’re sort of working on the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station programs. It was interesting that people that I was working with, I’d occasionally bring something up that had to do with science or faith, or the intersection. And it was just interesting, because I felt like I was surrounded by people who just kind of took it for granted that science had all the answers. I figured it’s up to me, I have to figure this out on my own. Looking back on that time in junior high was, like I said, it was very stressful, but I’m actually really glad and thankful that it happened, because I think it set me on that kind of path of wanting to figure it out from a very early age. So I was kind of like a sponge in terms of reading whatever I could get my hands on and hearing from other people about different perspectives. In grad school I came across some of Hugh Ross’s writings and that helped tremendously. I mean, just getting over the hurdle of interpreting Genesis as being six literal 24 hour periods and just being freed up to understand that you could have a biblical interpretation that included the earth being old. That was a huge relief for me to start reading some other perspectives in terms of how that could be reconciled. Then as time went on, I finished my PhD right about the same time that Lockheed was merging with Martin Marietta. And I guess I didn’t mention: during the time that I was working on the Hubble and the International Space Station program, I was involved in a lot of different astronaut training, work. Spending time in the big water tanks, doing simulations for repair missions for the humble and assembly missions for the International Space Station. And along the way, upper management at Lockheed, kind of became aware of all the astronaut training experience that I was getting, and they designated me as a corporate astronaut. 

Stump:

What does that mean exactly? Does every corporation have an astronaut?

Wickman:

No, heavens, no. But I think they saw it as an opportunity to get some publicity out of it. In addition to starting to explore some of the possibilities with NASA, for actually sending me up on a mission that I had some expertise in. I guess it went from being kind of more of a happy coincidence that I was getting all this astronaut training to kind of being more intentional about let’s make sure that we get her all the training we possibly can. And start making inroads in terms of conversations with NASA about flying. Flash forward to finishing my PhD and this concurrent merger with Lockheed and Martin Marietta. All of a sudden, the path to my actually getting to fly on a shuttle mission starts getting more cloudy, because with this merger, it’s like, are we even going to stay involved in the human spaceflight business or are we going to just focus on our unmanned programs and whatnot. They kind of shuffled me around the company for about a year and a half with kind of these go nowhere jobs in my mind, they were nothing very exciting. Here I have my newly minted PhD in hand and I’m ready to get going on something exciting and meaningful, right? While that was all going on, I was getting recruited by a guy who had also gone through a Stanford program similar to mine, and he was trying to get me to come to LA and work on a contract that he had to design, develo,p and build the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas.

Stump:

That’s something different.

Wickman:

Right? Exactly. It seems like a pretty hard 90 degree turn. It was funny — he talked to me pretty much that entire year and a half that Lockheed was kind of shuffling me around trying to figure out what to do. He just kept making the offer sweeter and sweeter and here I am not doing anything really significant, or at least didn’t seem very significant, at Lockheed. Finally, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I decided what the heck, I’ll go ahead and do it. That brought me from Northern California to Southern California and so I worked on the Bellagio project until we got the fountains up and running. And then I felt like I needed to do something meaningful. It was fun working on this Bellagio project. 

But after that, I kind of felt like I needed to do something that felt more significant. So I went to work for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica. During that time, I was going to church in Santa Monica, and serving on the worship team with a guy who was a professor at Azusa Pacific. He volunteered me to fill in for another faculty member that was going off on sabbatical. So I started a professor position at Azusa Pacific and it was really during that time that challenged me to really dig into the science and faith interface. Here I was now teaching students and not only did I really need to have a pretty good handle on science and faith integration for myself, I had to have a good handle on it so that I could help students who might be wrestling with some of the same issues that I did. you It was really during that time, like I said, that I dug into it. Then a position opened up at Azusa Pacific to become the director for the Center for Research and Science on campus, which had the charter to address and enable that science and faith conversation to come to campus in a very high level way. At that point, I was organizing this science faith and culture lecture series that I did for, I don’t know, 10 or 15 years. That was such a huge blessing for me, because it was kind of like another graduate degree in this and being able to sit at the feet of all these experts from all over the world. In fact, Deb came and participated in that at least a time or two. And we had Francis Collins on campus as well. That really helped me, over a long period of time, to hear different perspectives and kind of wrestle through some of my remaining questions. 

Stump: 

Interesting. This is such a common story that we hear, maybe not the part about astronaut training, and designing Bellagio fountains and such. But growing up with an interest in science, but one’s church community being nervous about that, the science teacher saying you have to be an atheist practically, if you want to do this. And I just lament for the kids who have gone through that, that never worked their way out of that the way you did. How many other kids are out there that just gave up on it, that they either gave up on the science side or gave up on the faith side? I think things are in a little better place now than they were then. Have you seen through your work at Christian colleges and such that the situation is different for kids growing up now and in similar circumstances that don’t have to go through quite the kind of turmoil that you did?

Wickman:

Yes, and no. I think there are a lot more resources out there and then there’s a lot more churches that are open to at least engaging in that conversation. But a lot of it depends on kind of the individual’s own story. Whether the student went to private school that might have been just a parochial church school for K through 12, versus public school. I think some in some cases, it depends, of course, on the parochial school, but a lot of them are still using that very young earth perspective on their curriculum for K through 12. All it’s doing, to my way of thinking, is putting off that crisis until the student gets out of K through 12 and encounters something in college. And you still see that. I taught a lot of Gen Ed science classes while I was at Azusa Pacific, and so many students would come into those classrooms and just be really worried, just the same as I was, about what am I going to do with science and faith? How am I going to reconcile the findings of modern science with what I was taught, K through 12, or in Sunday school, or wherever the case may be. You still see that. It’s interesting to me, because I’ve talked with so many different people about this and I think it just so depends on what your own experience has been. I still see that in higher education, but yet, I’ve also taught over the last few years, as a Pacific Honors College, with their science nature core class, and I see a blend, I see a mix of students who some of them have come a long way already, in kind of making their peace between science and faith. Others are at that end of the spectrum, where they’re still holding on to a young earth perspective, and a very literal interpretation of Genesis 1. And when I say literal interpretation, I’m talking about a literal interpretation from a 21st century English speaking Western perspective, there’s just not a whole lot of educated hermeneutics that goes into that. So you still see students, even in the honors college experience at Christian colleges, I don’t think Azusa Pacific is unique in this, but that are still kind of all over the spectrum — from the young earth, literal interpretation, to people who have done a lot of work on it and are fairly comfortable with accepting modern science and making their peace with their faith. But I do find that classes like that actually help students reconcile outstanding issues. Even in the gen ed science classes that I taught, I’d have students that would say, in their course reviews at the end… I remember one student that said that I came in thinking that science and Christianity had nothing in common and that God had nothing to do with science, and I’m leaving believing that God has everything to do with science. Those kinds of conversations and comments are just so gratifying.

Stump:

Those success stories stick with you, right? Keep you going.

Wickman:

Exactly.

Stump:  

Well, let’s talk about space a little bit. You mentioned some of the things you’ve done, but let’s hear a little more. You said you worked on projects related to the space station and the Hubble telescope, what did you do with those?

Wickman:

I was involved primarily with the astronaut interface side of things. I was the astronaut interface engineer and it was my job to make sure that all of the hardware that we built and developed for flight could be used by the astronauts in space. That was essentially why we did all these weightless environment simulations and training exercises to make sure and verify that they could use the hardware in space. You had to have the astronauts handle very delicate equipment and try to make sure that they were trained well enough that they didn’t break the cone off of a communications antenna. And it was really interesting.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Listeners! On this podcast we hear a lot of stories of young people who consider leaving the church because of the tensions they find between science and faith. It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why we developed Integrate, a teaching resource, designed for classroom teachers and home educators. It seeks to equip the next generation of Christian leaders to be faithful, informed, and gracious voices engaging with the hard questions raised by science. To learn more just go to biologos dot org slash integrate. Alright, back to the conversation. 

Interview Part Two

Stump:

So you worked with the Hubble telescope. But right now as we’re recording a lot of news has been about the new Webb Space Telescope. Maybe first more generally, what is it that we’re about space and peering into the darkness that we’re so endlessly fascinated about? What is it that’s so intriguing about space, do you think? For the general public, but maybe for you in particular, too?

Wickman:

Yeah, I can certainly relate to that fascination with space. As I talked about earlier, my dad having the telescope that we were able to look through and gaze at the moon and the stars and the planets as a young kid really intrigued me. And I think it’s just that innate human curiosity about, what is this place that we live in? And how big is it? How long has it been here? Is there anyone else out there? I think all these questions are questions that go back to the beginning of the human race. In Scripture even they have it. Clearly we’ve got so many passages that reflect that same sentiment, and I think it is that kind of otherness, right? It’s like, what else is out there? And what’s it all about? And how can we learn more? I think one of the things I think about as an astronomy professor in talking with students about this, just the idea that so many of the planets in our solar system that have any kind of an atmosphere, are cloud covered, and what an amazing thing just that our planet has a transparent outer sphere that allows us to see the night sky. It would be such a different human experience if we could never see the night sky, right? If all we ever saw were clouds overhead and kind of the sun shining through the clouds, what a different experience that would be. 

Stump: 

People in West Michigan are a little closer to that than you in Southern California, I’m afraid.

Wickman:

Even growing up in the northwest, but we got clear nights once in a while.

Stump:

Tell us a little bit more about what this Webb telescope is. I’ve seen it billed as a kind of upgrade on the Hubble telescope. What’s different about it?

Wickman:

There’s a lot of differences, but I think probably the primary thing is the fact that it will be able to see farther. And as such, being able to see farther means being able to see farther back in time. I think a lot of us forget that light takes time to travel. The Webb telescope will be able to see back about 13.5 billion years, to very close to the Big Bang creation event, and to really the formation of the first galaxies and stars, which is really exciting. Hubble was able to see back to some of the first galaxies after they were quite a bit older, but to be able to see back to the time when these galaxies and stars are just forming is kind of an amazing concept.

Stump: 

And this isn’t just that it’s bigger, like a bigger lens or something. Isn’t there very different technology of some sort going on, which is why we have to send it so far away from Earth too?

Wickman:

Yeah, there’s kind of two things that make it able to see farther back in time farther into the universe and farther back in time. Those are the fact that the primary mirror is well over two and a half times as big as the Hubble primary. So it is much bigger. But it also has extensive infrared sensing capability. And because of the fact that the eye is looking so far away, and that the light that is coming from those distant stars and galaxies is traveling so far, there’s a significant red shift in the face. That’s due to the fact that not only is the light traveling a long distance, but the universe is also expanding. 

Stump:

The Doppler effect?

Wickman:

Yeah, the Doppler effect is exactly what’s happening. So just as when you hear a siren on a police car change in pitch as it passes you, the frequency of the sound waves are stretching out as that siren moves away from you into the distance, same thing with the source of the light in these distant galaxies, that object is moving away from you. Therefore the light waves are being stretched, and red shifted toward the longer wavelength end of the spectrum. That’s just below visible in terms of frequency, we have infrared and so with Webb’s technology have been able to have great sensitivity in the infrared wavelengths, it will be able to actually see those that see the light from those stars and galaxies, much better than the Hubble did with its limited IR sensors and optical. In the optical range you’re gonna get almost nothing from objects that far away. 

Stump:  

Then also, what about this issue that it’s being sent out to what I believe is called Lagrange Point Two, what’s the significance of that? One, I guess it’s not going to be very accessible like your Hubble was to do right upgrades by people in the space shuttle or something right?

Wickman:

Exactly. The Lagrange Points are points around the earth that are very stable. Basically the gravitational forces at these points relative to the Earth and the Sun primarily allow something that’s placed at that point to require very little station keeping fuel, takes very little energy to maintain them in that position relative to other places. They’re stable locations. But also, rather than orbiting the Earth, like the Hubble does… The Hubble goes basically around the Earth every 90 minutes and within that 90 minutes, it’s going to be in shade approximately half the time and sunlight approximately half the time. You have very different viewing conditions as well as thermal conditions when it is in full sunlight versus in the shadow of the earth. At the Lagrangian Points, you’re able to, essentially, keep this particular long Lagrangian point between. Basically it’s got the Earth and the Sun both on the same side of it. You’re essentially able to keep the sunshade, which protects it thermally on the same side of it at all times, and be constantly looking out into deep space. So if you imagine a diagram having the sun at the center of the solar system, and then the earth, then the Webb telescope would be directly opposite the earth from the sun.

Stump:

And out further than the moon is, is that right?

Wickman:

Yeah, it’ll be about a million miles out from Earth, opposite the sun. Like I said, for thermal stability, you’re essentially in the same thermal conditions all the time. You’ve got the sunshade facing towards the sun, protecting the telescope, and then you’ll have the instruments looking toward deep space away from the sun.

Stump:

When should we start getting some data back from Webb? 

Wickman:

I think late spring-ish timeframe. We’ve got a lot to look forward to; it’s very exciting. Of course, there’ll be some kind of preliminary calibration and getting everything set up and verifying that everything’s set up properly and whatnot. But yeah, it’ll be really exciting to see what kind of images we get.

Stump:

When we get talking about space and telescopes and looking to see what else is out there, it doesn’t take too long until somebody is curious if we’re going to find evidences for life elsewhere in the universe. How would you assess the probability of that? Maybe even more interestingly, what kind of impact do you think that would have on Christian faith? Whether again, whether yours personally or Christianity more generally, if we were to find, maybe not just fungus on a rock somewhere, but actual living, breathing, intelligent creatures? What do you do about that?

Wickman:

This is one of my favorite questions to talk about, it always comes up. I think it’s a lot of people’s favorite question. We don’t know anything about whether God created other intelligent beings somewhere in the universe. We know that there are heavenly beings and angels and whatnot, but we don’t know from scripture, certainly whether God created other intelligent life. I think there are a couple of ways you can look at that. If we look at it from a purely naturalistic standpoint, and we examine all the fine tuning that has to occur in the universe to get life anywhere. It’s improbable that we’re here, right? From a purely naturalistic standpoint, it is improbable that we’re here, so it would certainly be improbable that there would be any other life anywhere else, because there’s so many conditions that have to be met. But if we then look at the flip side it is like, we are here, and as Christians we believe that God created us with a purpose, then, why not? Why might God have or have not created intelligent beings elsewhere? And I think for me as my greater understanding of the compatibility between science and faith has grown over the years, my belief in how great God is and how omnipotent and omniscient he is, I say, bring it on. I think my view of who God is, is big enough for him to have created life elsewhere.

Stump:

Some people are sound like they’re a little threatened by that, and maybe it’s in the same way that the the sort of literalistic reading of scripture you were talking about earlier of that every day mentioned in Genesis 1 has to be exactly 24 hours, maybe it’s that kind of fear that it undermines the sort of reading of Scripture where this is what God has done once and for all, for all. intelligent creatures. I mean, obviously, Scripture doesn’t use words like that, right? But is it the fear that it undermines the universality of Christian faith? If we find there are other planets out there with creatures who can read but they don’t even have the same Bible that we do? Is that a threat to Christianity somehow?

Wickman:

I think you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head where it goes back to the kind of fear that people might have about science contradicting a literal interpretation of Scripture. Perfect love casts out all fear, right? We believe in a God who is a God of love, not one of fear. Actually, someone pointed out to me many years ago that in John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that the Greek word for world is cosmos. And I absolutely love that. I mean, not to be a literalist, but just kind of the hint that God so loves the entire creation that He sent Jesus. CS Lewis explores that too in his space trilogy books, where he explores the idea of intelligent life on other planets. Obviously, it’s an allegory, but there’s some interesting things to think about and kind of exciting. I even think about the multiverse hypothesis, what if we live in a multiverse? If that’s the case, it just seems like if, in fact, we do live in a multiverse, that’s a lot of additional possibilities for things. My view of God is so expanded because of studying science, that I say, bring on the multiverse, my God’s big enough for a multiverse. If there is a multiverse, then then God is the God of that too. There’s such a freedom for me in understanding that nothing that we study in God’s creation is going to pose a threat to who God is. With my students, often, I go back to the idea of God revealing himself in two books, the book of scripture on the one hand and the book of his creation on the other. Our task is to figure out how those two books, how the truths of those two books fit together into a cohesive picture of who God really is. To me there’s tremendous freedom in that and just knowing that they do fit together and knowing that nothing we learn from another discipline is ever going to threaten who God is. He’s not afraid of us finding stuff.

Stump:

One of the ways that we try to understand how those two books fit together sometimes is through fine-tuning that you’ve referred to a little bit. You wrote a book published back in 2015 I think, God of the Big Bang, and one of the things you address there is fine tuning. Can you give us just a quick kind of refresher on fine tuning, why that’s significant, and maybe a kind of bridge between these two books, of what we learn from Scripture and what we learn from studying creation?

Wickman:

Yeah. This idea of fine tuning has been referred to by a lot of different terms over the years and you know, one of them is the goldilocks principle and other is kind of generally the anthropic principle. The idea basically is that there is a very long and growing list of parameters that have to be very finely tuned to what they are, and there’s very little room for error or difference in the value of these numbers or life doesn’t exist, there’s no possibility for life to exist. These are things like the strength of the gravitational force, the strength of the strong nuclear force, all these things dictate interactions between mass and energy in the universe. They have to be exactly what they are, otherwise you can’t even get things like galaxy formation. For example, let’s look at the expansion rate of the universe. If this expansion rate of the universe were any faster than what it is, there wouldn’t be time for particles to clump into anything other than atomic form where you couldn’t get any formation of galaxies, let alone planets, and if not planets, then certainly not life. So if the strong nuclear force were weaker than what it is you couldn’t have any elements heavier than hydrogen and it’s hard to build the universe out.

Stump:

It’s not very interesting, at least.

Wickman:

Exactly. So many different things — we can look at the precise mass of the Earth being exactly what it is to give us the gravity that we have, in order to have a breathable atmosphere. When you see these things throughout the entire universe, and our friends at Reasons to Believe have done a rough calculation on what the probabilities are of getting all these different factors exactly what they are, and come up with an estimation of something like 1 chance in 10 to the 280th power.

Stump: 

That’s a big number.

Wickman:

It is.

Stump: 

How do people respond to this then? So obviously, we Christians see this and it just fits so well with our understanding of God as a designer, God who intended for life like us to exist in the universe he’s creating. But obviously not everybody accepts that, even people who know all these numbers you’re talking about, right? So what are the ways that people try to get around that implication?

Wickman:

Often the response to something like that would be okay, yeah, I’ll give you that. The anthropic principle is well established and well understood within the astronomy community, and particularly in the astrobiology community. For life, the possibility of life in other locations. But maybe we live in a multiverse and maybe that means that we have all these possibilities, possible opportunities, possible spaces to get those numbers just right. If our universe is only one in perhaps an infinite number of others, then surely one of those universes is going to get all the numbers right.

Stump:

And it’s not surprising that we find ourselves in just such a universe, right? Because we couldn’t be in any other. So that’s the way the story goes?

Wickman:

Exactly. And so it’s really more of a philosophical argument than any kind of a scientific one. What you’ll often hear is, we’ve got all these other chances to get all the numbers exactly what they need to be, so we just got lucky. 

Stump:

Maybe just in closing, then talk a little bit about how you see this data, the information we’ve learned about the universe through science, relating to your faith, to theological principles, maybe that are revealed. The relationship between these two books you talk about the book of God’s Word, the book of God’s world, when some people want to keep those entirely separated and say, no, we’re talking about two different things here, don’t try to bring those together, other people might want to mash them together so closely that you think you can prove theological truths with scientific evidence in some sense, right? Or maybe that in Scripture itself there are the scientific truths, both of those on the extremes have never been entirely satisfying to me. But there must be some way of relating these two together in order to create a more coherent picture of the whole. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Wickman: 

I think they go hand in hand with each other, the book of God’s works and the book of his words. Sometimes we call general revelation, the book of God’s works or his world, and then Scripture, the book of his words. I do think that they go hand in hand, but we have to be smart about it. God also gave us rational brains to think about these things. We shouldn’t expect that the writers of Scripture were going to write about future science that no one would understand. Think about, in talking about the creation of the universe, and the stars, and Earth itself, what if the authors of Scripture had been inspired to talk about dark energy and dark matter? No one would understand it for thousands of years, we’re still trying to get our brains around this stuff. I’d like to say, I think we need to be smart about it and realize that God is communicating with people and so he has to use some accommodation to have those scriptures be relatable to the first intended audience. So we have to use intelligence when we’re trying to interpret scripture. But I think this other book of God’s revelation, his general revelation, His creation, can help us figure those questions of scripture out. If we trust both of those pieces of revelation to be from God, then they’re both reliable, so how do they best fit together? I think you have to be smart about it. I also think that there’s a couple of things that we can kind of learn from science, and one of those is about God’s nature. It’s interesting, you talk to different people, and different people will give you different answers. But I think that, we look at Romans 1, where Paul talks about how the truth of God can be seen through what he’s created. Some people would say, okay, yeah, we can see that God is powerful, and to have created this amazing world universe that we inhabit, he must be big, he must be powerful. But I think we can see more than that. I actually think that because of this fine tuning, that we see God has created a universe for us that we can not only just barely survive in, but that we can thrive in. I tell people, this is not some big biology experiment to see how grim the conditions are that we can still survive in. It’s a pretty wonderful place that God’s created for us that we can not just survive, but thrive in, and be able to ask the big questions. To me, that speaks to a God of love, who wants to have a relationship with his people. We put that together with Scripture, the book of God’s words, and we see the story of creation and relationship and provision of Christ and reconciliation and redemption. I think they fit together, they support each other. 

Now, the other thing that I think that is an important takeaway is, in science, we use the inductive process, the inductive method, where we’re basically collecting data and we’re looking for the best explanation given the data that we have. Also realizing that new data might come along that will change our hypothesis, change our theory. That encourages humility and openness to new data. That has changed the way I look at the word proof; I’ve become really careful with that word. So just as in the scientific world, you can say the scientific method doesn’t technically prove anything. It can disprove things, eliminating possibilities, but it doesn’t technically prove anything, because what we’re dealing with is the data that we have so far, realizing that we are not omniscient, we don’t have all the data and so something new could be learned. We see this in scientific revolutions throughout history. It also makes me think about what faith is. I don’t think God ever intended us to be able to prove his existence or prove the things that we read about in Scripture. I think that if he did, or if he allowed that possibility, then that flies in the face of our freewill. And I think freewill is such an important part of that relationship between God and humans, if we were able to prove these different things about God, then the freewill goes out the window. If you’re faced with proof, then you don’t have so much of a choice about what to believe and what to follow, but rather, with our rational minds, we look for the best explanation. I come back to the scientific method and what is the best explanation. In fact, I love a line that Alister McGrath uses, that looking at all of the evidence from scripture, as well as creation, human history, all the different evidence that we’re provided with, that Christianity is the best explanation for the sum total of the evidence. I agree with that wholeheartedly. For me, it’s not about proof. Because if it were then where does the faith come in?

Stump:

Well, that’s a good word. I think we’ll stop there, thanks so much for talking to us. Thanks for the example that you have been of how to understand faith in science fitting together in these ways. It’s our prayer that more and more people will have that kind of experience instead of the tension and turmoil that you had so much earlier in life. But we’re grateful to see how you’ve been able to help lead people through some of that. So thanks for that and thanks for talking to us today.

Wickman:

Thank you. And it is certainly my passion and prayer that people would be able to wrestle through these questions as well. And I know that you’re providing a lot of resources for a lot of people so thank you for that.

Stump:

All right, good. We’ll have to do this again sometime. Thanks so much.

Wickman:

Thank you.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Leslie Wickman

Leslie Wickman

Leslie Wickman, Ph.D., is an internationally respected research scientist, engineering consultant, author and inspirational speaker. For more than a decade Wickman was an engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space, where she worked on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station Programs, receiving commendations from NASA for her contributions and being designated as Lockheed's Corporate Astronaut (hence the nickname "Rocket Girl"). Wickman recently resigned from four years as Executive Director of the non-profit American Scientific Affiliation, and now divides most of her time between launching Biola University's new Corporate Affiliates Program, and running her new non-profit, Starry Nights, Inc. She occasionally takes on projects involving technical and policy aspects of national aerospace and defense issues. Some of her recent projects include climate change impacts on national security, assessment of future human spaceflight missions and technologies, human factors problems for extreme environments, sustainable agriculture and water reclamation. Dr. Wickman has lectured around the world on satellite servicing, spaceflight physiology, astronaut training and operations, as well as various topics in astronomy, environmental stewardship, and the interface between science and theology. Wickman is also a dedicated athlete, playing competitive beach doubles volleyball with CBVA & FIVB, as well as both indoor and beach volleyball for Athletes in Action in Bolivia, Brazil, and South Africa. She is now retired from women's professional tackle football, but not before earning All-Conference recognition and helping her team, the California Quake, win the Women's World Bowl. Another noteworthy achievement is her role with WET Design in R&D and programming for the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. Wickman holds a master's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering and a doctoral degree in human factors and biomechanics, both from Stanford University. She graduated magna cum laude from Willamette University with a bachelor's degree in political science.

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