Wednesday, February 8, 2012


December 2011 

The accidental universe:
Science's crisis of faith

Alan Lightman, a physicist and novelist, teaches at MIT. His new book, Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, will be published in January by Pantheon.
In the fifth century B.C., the philosopher Democritus proposed that all matter was made of tiny and indivisible atoms, which came in various sizes and textures—some hard and some soft, some smooth and some thorny. The atoms themselves were taken as givens. In the nineteenth century, scientists discovered that the chemical properties of atoms repeat periodically (and created the periodic table to reflect this fact), but the origins of such patterns remained mysterious. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that scientists learned that the properties of an atom are determined by the number and placement of its electrons, the subatomic particles that orbit its nucleus. And we now know that all atoms heavier than helium were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars.
The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.
This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.
It is perhaps impossible to say how far apart the different universes may be, or whether they exist simultaneously in time. Some may have stars and galaxies like ours. Some may not. Some may be finite in size. Some may be infinite. Physicists call the totality of universes the “multiverse.” Alan Guth, a pioneer in cosmological thought, says that “the multiple-universe idea severely limits our hopes to understand the world from fundamental principles.” And the philosophical ethos of science is torn from its roots. As put to me recently by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg, a man as careful in his words as in his mathematical calculations, “We now find ourselves at a historic fork in the road we travel to understand the laws of nature. If the multiverse idea is correct, the style of fundamental physics will be radically changed.”
The scientists most distressed by Weinberg’s “fork in the road” are theoretical physicists. Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion. Experimental scientists occupy themselves with observing and measuring the cosmos, finding out what stuff exists, no matter how strange that stuff may be. Theoretical physicists, on the other hand, are not satisfied with observing the universe. They want to know why. They want to explain all the properties of the universe in terms of a few fundamental principles and parameters. These fundamental principles, in turn, lead to the “laws of nature,” which govern the behavior of all matter and energy. An example of a fundamental principle in physics, first proposed by Galileo in 1632 and extended by Einstein in 1905, is the following: All observers traveling at constant velocity relative to one another should witness identical laws of nature. From this principle, Einstein derived his theory of special relativity. An example of a fundamental parameter is the mass of an electron, considered one of the two dozen or so “elementary” particles of nature. As far as physicists are concerned, the fewer the fundamental principles and parameters, the better. The underlying hope and belief of this enterprise has always been that these basic principles are so restrictive that only one, self-consistent universe is possible, like a crossword puzzle with only one solution. That one universe would be, of course, the universe we live in. Theoretical physicists are Platonists. Until the past few years, they agreed that the entire universe, the one universe, is generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry, perhaps throwing in a handful of parameters like the mass of the electron. It seemed that we were closing in on a vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood.
However, two theories in physics, eternal inflation and string theory, now suggest that the same fundamental principles from which the laws of nature derive may lead to many different self-consistent universes, with many different properties. It is as if you walked into a shoe store, had your feet measured, and found that a size 5 would fit you, a size 8 would also fit, and a size 12 would fit equally well. Such wishy-washy results make theoretical physicists extremely unhappy. Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe. According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a universe uncalculable by science.

“Back in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Alan Guth, “the feeling was that we were so smart, we almost had everything figured out.” What physicists had figured out were very accurate theories of three of the four fundamental forces of nature: the strong nuclear force that binds atomic nuclei together, the weak force that is responsible for some forms of radioactive decay, and the electromagnetic force between electrically charged particles. And there were prospects for merging the theory known as quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of the fourth force, gravity, and thus pulling all of them into the fold of what physicists called the Theory of Everything, or the Final Theory. These theories of the 1970s and 1980s required the specification of a couple dozen parameters corresponding to the masses of the elementary particles, and another half dozen or so parameters corresponding to the strengths of the fundamental forces. The next step would then have been to derive most of the elementary particle masses in terms of one or two fundamental masses and define the strengths of all the fundamental forces in terms of a single fundamental force.
There were good reasons to think that physicists were poised to take this next step. Indeed, since the time of Galileo, physics has been extremely successful in discovering principles and laws that have fewer and fewer free parameters and that are also in close agreement with the observed facts of the world. For example, the observed rotation of the ellipse of the orbit of Mercury, 0.012 degrees per century, was successfully calculated using the theory of general relativity, and the observed magnetic strength of an electron, 2.002319 magnetons, was derived using the theory of quantum electrodynamics. More than any other science, physics brims with highly accurate agreements between theory and experiment.
Guth started his physics career in this sunny scientific world. Now sixty-four years old and a professor at MIT, he was in his early thirties when he proposed a major revision to the Big Bang theory, something called inflation. We now have a great deal of evidence suggesting that our universe began as a nugget of extremely high density and temperature about 14 billion years ago and has been expanding, thinning out, and cooling ever since. The theory of inflation proposes that when our universe was only about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old, a peculiar type of energy caused the cosmos to expand very rapidly. A tiny fraction of a second later, the universe returned to the more leisurely rate of expansion of the standard Big Bang model. Inflation solved a number of outstanding problems in cosmology, such as why the universe appears so homogeneous on large scales.
When I visited Guth in his third-floor office at MIT one cool day in May, I could barely see him above the stacks of paper and empty Diet Coke bottles on his desk. More piles of paper and dozens of magazines littered the floor. In fact, a few years ago Guth won a contest sponsored by the Boston Globe for the messiest office in the city. The prize was the services of a professional organizer for one day. “She was actually more a nuisance than a help. She took piles of envelopes from the floor and began sorting them according to size.” He wears aviator-style eyeglasses, keeps his hair long, and chain-drinks Diet Cokes. “The reason I went into theoretical physics,” Guth tells me, “is that I liked the idea that we could understand everything—i.e., the universe—in terms of mathematics and logic.” He gives a bitter laugh. We have been talking about the multiverse.

While challenging the Platonic dream of theoretical physicists, the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine­tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it. Actually, the word anthropic, from the Greek for “man,” is a misnomer: if these fundamental parameters were much different from what they are, it is not only human beings who would not exist. No life of any kind would exist.
If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life? Intelligent design is one answer. Indeed, a fair number of theologians, philosophers, and even some scientists have used fine-tuning and the anthropic principle as evidence of the existence of God. For example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Pepperdine University, Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, said, “To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…. [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”
Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties—for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker—then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not. Some of those universes will be dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy, and others will permit the emergence of cells, plants and animals, minds. From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn’t matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.
The explanation is similar to the explanation of why we happen to live on a planet that has so many nice things for our comfortable existence: oxygen, water, a temperature between the freezing and boiling points of water, and so on. Is this happy coincidence just good luck, or an act of Providence, or what? No, it is simply that we could not live on planets without such properties. Many other planets exist that are not so hospitable to life, such as Uranus, where the temperature is –371 degrees Fahrenheit, and Venus, where it rains sulfuric acid.
The multiverse offers an explanation to the fine-tuning conundrum that does not require the presence of a Designer. As Steven Weinberg says: “Over many centuries science has weakened the hold of religion, not by disproving the existence of God but by invalidating arguments for God based on what we observe in the natural world. The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave still less support for religion.”
Some physicists remain skeptical of the anthropic principle and the reliance on multiple universes to explain the values of the fundamental parameters of physics. Others, such as Weinberg and Guth, have reluctantly accepted the anthropic principle and the multiverse idea as together providing the best possible explanation for the observed facts.
If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here. The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe there are, they suggest, many other worlds, some of them completely dry, and everything in between.

The most striking example of fine-tuning, and one that practically demands the multiverse to explain it, is the unexpected detection of what scientists call dark energy. Little more than a decade ago, using robotic telescopes in Arizona, Chile, Hawaii, and outer space that can comb through nearly a million galaxies a night, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. As mentioned previously, it has been known since the late 1920s that the universe is expanding; it’s a central feature of the Big Bang model. Orthodox cosmological thought held that the expansion is slowing down. After all, gravity is an attractive force; it pulls masses closer together. So it was quite a surprise in 1998 when two teams of astronomers announced that some unknown force appears to be jamming its foot down on the cosmic accelerator pedal. The expansion is speeding up. Galaxies are flying away from each other as if repelled by antigravity. Says Robert Kirshner, one of the team members who made the discovery: “This is not your father’s universe.” (In October, members of both teams were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.)
Physicists have named the energy associated with this cosmological force dark energy. No one knows what it is. Not only invisible, dark energy apparently hides out in empty space. Yet, based on our observations of the accelerating rate of expansion, dark energy constitutes a whopping three quarters of the total energy of the universe. It is the invisible elephant in the room of science.
The amount of dark energy, or more precisely the amount of dark energy in every cubic centimeter of space, has been calculated to be about one hundred-millionth (10–8) of an erg per cubic centimeter. (For comparison, a penny dropped from waist-high hits the floor with an energy of about three hundred thousand—that is, 3 × 105—ergs.) This may not seem like much, but it adds up in the vast volumes of outer space. Astronomers were able to determine this number by measuring the rate of expansion of the universe at different epochs—if the universe is accelerating, then its rate of expansion was slower in the past. From the amount of acceleration, astronomers can calculate the amount of dark energy in the universe.
Theoretical physicists have several hypotheses about the identity of dark energy. It may be the energy of ghostly subatomic particles that can briefly appear out of nothing before self­annihilating and slipping back into the vacuum. According to quantum physics, empty space is a pandemonium of subatomic particles rushing about and then vanishing before they can be seen. Dark energy may also be associated with an as-yet-unobserved force field called the Higgs field, which is sometimes invoked to explain why certain kinds of matter have mass. (Theoretical physicists ponder things that other people do not.) And in the models proposed by string theory, dark energy may be associated with the way in which extra dimensions of space—beyond the usual length, width, and breadth—get compressed down to sizes much smaller than atoms, so that we do not notice them.
These various hypotheses give a fantastically large range for the theoretically possibleamounts of dark energy in a universe, from something like 10115 ergs per cubic centimeter to –10115 ergs per cubic centimeter. (A negative value for dark energy would mean that it acts to decelerate the universe, in contrast to what is observed.) Thus, in absolute magnitude, the amount of dark energy actually present in our universe is either very, very small or very, very large compared with what it could be. This fact alone is surprising. If the theoretically possible positive values for dark energy were marked out on a ruler stretching from here to the sun, with zero at one end of the ruler and 10115 ergs per cubic centimeter at the other end, the value of dark energy actually found in our universe (10–8 ergs per cubic centimeter) would be closer to the zero end than the width of an atom.
On one thing most physicists agree: If the amount of dark energy in our universe were only a little bit different than what it actually is, then life could never have emerged. A little more and the universe would accelerate so rapidly that the matter in the young cosmos could never pull itself together to form stars and thence form the complex atoms made in stars. And, going into negative values of dark energy, a little less and the universe would decelerate so rapidly that it would recollapse before there was time to form even the simplest atoms.
Here we have a clear example of fine-tuning: out of all the possible amounts of dark energy that our universe might have, the actual amount lies in the tiny sliver of the range that allows life. There is little argument on this point. It does not depend on assumptions about whether we need liquid water for life or oxygen or particular biochemistries. As before, one is compelled to ask the question: Why does such fine-tuning occur? And the answer many physicists now believe: The multiverse. A vast number of universes may exist, with many different values of the amount of dark energy. Our particular universe is one of the universes with a small value, permitting the emergence of life. We are here, so our universe must be such a universe. We are an accident. From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life. But then again, if we had not drawn such a ticket, we would not be here to ponder the odds.

The concept of the multiverse is compelling not only because it explains the problem of fine-tuning. As I mentioned earlier, the possibility of the multiverse is actually predicted by modern theories of physics. One such theory, called eternal inflation, is a revision of Guth’s inflation theory developed by Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, and Alex Vilenkin in the early and mid-1980s. In regular inflation theory, the very rapid expansion of the infant universe is caused by an energy field, like dark energy, that is temporarily trapped in a condition that does not represent the lowest possible energy for the universe as a whole—like a marble sitting in a small dent on a table. The marble can stay there, but if it is jostled it will roll out of the dent, roll across the table, and then fall to the floor (which represents the lowest possible energy level). In the theory of eternal inflation, the dark energy field has many different values at different points of space, analogous to lots of marbles sitting in lots of dents on the cosmic table. Moreover, as space expands rapidly, the number of marbles increases. Each of these marbles is jostled by the random processes inherent in quantum mechanics, and some of the marbles will begin rolling across the table and onto the floor. Each marble starts a new Big Bang, essentially a new universe. Thus, the original, rapidly expanding universe spawns a multitude of new universes, in a never-ending process.
String theory, too, predicts the possibility of the multiverse. Originally conceived in the late 1960s as a theory of the strong nuclear force but soon enlarged far beyond that ambition, string theory postulates that the smallest constituents of matter are not subatomic particles like the electron but extremely tiny one-dimensional “strings” of energy. These elemental strings can vibrate at different frequencies, like the strings of a violin, and the different modes of vibration correspond to different fundamental particles and forces. String theories typically require seven dimensions of space in addition to the usual three, which are compacted down to such small sizes that we never experience them, like a three-dimensional garden hose that appears as a one-dimensional line when seen from a great distance. There are, in fact, a vast number of ways that the extra dimensions in string theory can be folded up, and each of the different ways corresponds to a different universe with different physical properties.
It was originally hoped that from a theory of these strings, with very few additional parameters, physicists would be able to explain all the forces and particles of nature—all of reality would be a manifestation of the vibrations of elemental strings. String theory would then be the ultimate realization of the Platonic ideal of a fully explicable cosmos. In the past few years, however, physicists have discovered that string theory predicts not a unique universe but a huge number of possible universes with different properties. It has been estimated that the “string landscape” contains 10500 different possible universes. For all practical purposes, that number is infinite.
It is important to point out that neither eternal inflation nor string theory has anywhere near the experimental support of many previous theories in physics, such as special relativity or quantum electrodynamics, mentioned earlier. Eternal inflation or string theory, or both, could turn out to be wrong. However, some of the world’s leading physicists have devoted their careers to the study of these two theories.

Back to the intelligent fish. The wizened old fish conjecture that there are many other worlds, some with dry land and some with water. Some of the fish grudgingly accept this explanation. Some feel relieved. Some feel like their lifelong ruminations have been pointless. And some remain deeply concerned. Because there is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.
Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.
“We had a lot more confidence in our intuition before the discovery of dark energy and the multiverse idea,” says Guth. “There will still be a lot for us to understand, but we will miss out on the fun of figuring everything out from first principles.”
One wonders whether a young Alan Guth, considering a career in science today, would choose theoretical physics.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The one person in history I'd like to talk to

This Catholic Update examines the facts and fiction about St. Mary Magdalene. Learn about the real Mary through Bible stories that portray her as a witness, disciple, partner and evangelist.
St. Mary Magdalene
Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation
by Carol Ann Morrow
     The Da Vinci Code, as a best-selling novel and a heavily promoted film, has introduced many to a Mary Magdalene they hadn’t met before. But behind the scenes, there has been a renaissance of interest in this “Apostle to the Apostles” in recent decades.
     Authors and theologians, such as Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., have researched what we really can say about St. Mary Magdalene, by sorting through the Bible stories and showing how she can be a saint for our times. Their serious scholarship helps us to keep the current
“buzz” about this faithful friend of Jesus rooted more realistically.
     This Catholic Update, with some help from Sister Elizabeth Johnson and a multitude of others, tries to sort out the fictions, the facts and the notable qualities of St. Mary that can inspire us all to be faithful followers of Christ in this 21st century. We celebrate her feast each July 22.
Multiple personalities
     Mary Magdalene is, it can be argued, the second-most important woman in the New Testament. Within the four Gospels, hints of Mary Magdalene’s importance in the early Church can be discerned. She is named 14 times, more than most of the apostles.
     The assembled Gospel references describe Mary Magdalene as a courageous servant leader, brave enough to stand by Jesus in his hours of suffering, death and beyond. Scholar Mary Thompson points out that she is the only person to be listed in all four Gospels as first to realize that Jesus had risen and to testify to that central teaching of faith. This is a spectacular first indeed!
     Other Gospel passages can confuse us, because other women also named Mary and some anonymous women, to boot, can seem to merge several women into one. This phenomenon—fusing several stories into one composite—is called conflation.
     We saw this recently in Mel Gibson’s 2005 film, The Passion of the Christ. And we’ve seen it over the centuries from Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century, Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth, and many artists, writers and Scripture commentators who followed their lead.
     One Mary, the Mother of Jesus, retains her unique status and reputation as the number-one woman in the Gospels. But other women—Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, a woman who anoints and one identified as an adulterer—are mistakenly fused into one sensual young sinner.
     Pope Gregory, who became pope in 590 A.D., clinched Mary’s mistaken reputation as sinner when he delivered a powerful homily in which he combined Luke’s anonymous sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50) with Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. He said, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?”
     Gregory, like the much later Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) and many other famous preachers, loved to give a moral “spin” or interpretation to Scripture. How could the pope as pastor use the story of the Magdalene to encourage repentance during a time of famine and war in Rome? The seven devils morphed into the seven capital sins, and Mary Magdalene began to be condemned not only for lust but for pride and covetousness as well, just to add insult to injury.
     But, the pope concluded in a sentence that rehabilitates Mary into an example of conversion, “She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.” Elizabeth Johnson imputes no slanderous motives to the pope, who obviously had no access to the contemporary scriptural scholarship that helps modern readers to sort such things out. The pope used the Magdalene as a “type,” a stereotype, and probably didn’t think she’d mind.
     But contemporary biblical scholarship, encouraged by Vatican II and accessing resources never dreamed of in the sixth century A.D., confirms that there were several Marys. “If we go on making Mary Magdalene a prostitute when we have clear evidence to the contrary, that would be deliberate,” an intentional falsehood, says Johnson. And women in the Church and beyond might well wonder why.
Marys the Magdalene is not
     What new insights lead biblical scholars to separate Mary the sinner from Mary Magdalene? Here’s some of their reasoning.
     One person and one place—such as Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph of Arimathea, Simon of Cyrene, Mary of Magdala—are connected frequently in the Gospels. Mary of Magdala (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) is actually named more often than Mary the Mother of Jesus. Scholars conclude, using this kind of analysis, that when a woman named Mary is not called the Magdalene, that’s not who is intended. According to this rationale, she is not the “woman with the alabaster jar” (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 7), even though artists over the centuries have assigned her that identity. But Mary is more than just a pretty picture.
     She no doubt sinned in her life, but she is not the forgiven sinner of Luke (caught with that alabaster jar). However inspiring that woman’s reformation may be, prostitute is still a label by which no woman cares to be remembered.
     Her fortunes changed a bit in 1969, when the liturgical calendar was reworked. (This is when we “lost” some favorites, such as St. Christopher.) The pertinence of Scripture readings assigned to feasts was revisited. The Gospel proclaimed on Mary Magdalene’s feast would no longer be Luke 7:36-50 (the pardon of the sinful woman), but rather Mary’s discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb in John 20. Bad reputations, though, are hard to live down!
     It’s those demons that still tempt readers to think Mary a fallen woman. In Luke 8, some Galilean women are described journeying with Jesus, together with the Twelve. They include “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities [and] Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.”
     Famous Presbyterian scholar George Buttrick, in his 1962 Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, says Luke’s phrase doesn’t mean possession but physical sickness. “She had been cured of a serious illness,” he believes. “The number seven would accentuate the seriousness of her condition or possibly its recurrent nature.” Elizabeth Johnson adds that the demons possessing scriptural men are not associated with sin; the same principle should hold for Mary.
Mary's principal role
     Today’s scholars, more and more, embrace the earlier view of St. Augustine, in the fourth century, who said, “The Holy Spirit made Magdalene the Apostle of the Apostles.”
     Apostle is a title of distinct importance in the Bible. Paul prized it greatly. In 2 Corinthians 12:11-12, he seems rather annoyed not to be counted as one. Yet Mary too could say, with Paul, “I am in no way inferior to these “superapostles....” This is her entirely legitimate and scripturally based claim to fame. The word means, says Webster, “one sent on a mission” and it was Jesus himself who said to her, “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father…’” (Jn 20:17).
     It would be easy for The Da Vinci Code readers and viewers to think that Mary Magdalene was supposed to tell these brothers, “Jesus and I were married, so now I’m taking over!” After all, its author claims on page one that his book is rooted in historical fact. He never claims theological accuracy, to his credit. And his use of the word fact simply is not factual.
     Some of author Dan Brown’s “facts” are total fabrications or imaginative hypotheses, while others can be traced to sources such as the apocryphal (gnostic) gospels. One such source, the Gospel of Mary, is even named for Mary Magdalene.
     In this and other gnostic texts, Mary Magdalene is featured more prominently than in the four canonical Gospels. She even seems to be pitted against Peter. You can imagine trouble brewing, I’m sure.
     To oversimplify, these gnostic texts do not reveal deep secrets, nor are they “forbidden books.” They simply are not part of our canon of Scripture, our Bible.
     Why not? One reason is that the apocryphal gospels were not written by people who had witnessed events as they happened—or even heard from eyewitnesses later. They were composed centuries after the New Testament’s four Gospels. Those four Gospels were chosen as “canonical” (official) by the early Church as the strongest, most authentic written representations of the Gospel story as it was being told and lived by the Christian community.
     So Dan Brown isn’t making appropriate use of either history or Scriptures (canonical or otherwise) when he tells us (in about 25 pages of his thick thriller) that Mary Magdalene, of royal blood, was the wife of Jesus, that they had a child together and that Magdalene and her daughter began a dynasty that survived in France.
     To top it all off, Brown asserts that the Church intentionally slandered Mary Magdalene, promoting violence and mayhem so that no one would ever honor this woman or her offspring. In Brown’s view, the Church feared that power and leadership would then be in the hands of a woman.
     One thing on which we all might agree: The Church has not valued women enough, especially a woman whose greatest assignment was to tell the apostles the pivotal news that Jesus was alive. Her words, “I have seen the Lord,” are the first act of faith in the Resurrection.
Mary, first witness and faithful disciple
     Does it really matter all that much which biographical details we attach to a long-ago woman? In a word, yes. In the 21st century, as in centuries before, the Church is full of sinners. We all are sinners. It’s good and instructive to be convinced that Jesus loved sinners, because that’s our human history and weakness.
     But we also need the example of sanctity. Women especially need the encouragement of a Gospel role model who exercised bravery and leadership in challenging circumstances.
     Perpetuating demeaning and unflattering stories about Mary Magdalene “reminds women of what has been done generally in the Church and in the world,” says Elizabeth Johnson. And that has not always been honest or affirming. Why compound the challenge when Mary Magdalene can and should inspire women and men to be full, effective and dedicated witnesses to the gospel?
     Mary herself may not have cared what we 21st-century Catholics think of her, so long as we believe her testimony to the Resurrection. Indeed, as Augustine said, she was “Equal to the Apostles,” the title by which she is honored in our “other lung,” as Pope John Paul II called the Eastern Orthodox Church.
     Apostle has multiple meanings and most of them apply to Mary Magdalene with ease. She is one sent on a mission. She is an authoritative person sent out to preach the Gospel. She is first to advocate an important belief. Or to put those in other terms, she points the way as disciple, partner and evangelist. Preceding all of that, of course, she is an eyewitness to the wonders of Jesus among us.
     Let’s close this article by pondering a little more deeply what each of these means.

WITNESS. “If the women had not stood by and witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross, then followed his body, accompanied it to the tomb, returned on the first day of the week in the morning to anoint again and found the tomb empty, then announced to the disciples their experience of the risen Lord,” Johnson suggests that “we wouldn’t know what happened! They [the women, with Mary Magdalene always in their number] are the thread of continuity through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.”

DISCIPLE. “Mary Magdalene is a founding mother of the Church,” says Johnson. “She ministered to Jesus during his own ministry, sharing things with him, and was one of his followers in Galilee. She was a faithful disciple during the last hours of his life.”

PARTNER. This more accurate assessment of Mary Magdalene’s role in the Easter mystery can support and strengthen women in the Church today. Professor Johnson feels that it can inspire everyone. “Those men who are desirous of partnership with women in the Church also find this a joyous rediscovery. Partnership is a different view of the beginning of our history as a Church, which then gives a different view of what our future could be as well.”

EVANGELIST. Elizabeth Johnson describes the Acts of the Apostles as Volume II of Luke’s work, telling the history of the early Church. It is Acts 1:14 that she cites: “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

     Biblical scholars, explains Johnson, ask who these women are. “The only logical answer is that they’re the women Luke [author of Acts] named as those present at the tomb, at the cross, at the Resurrection. Reviewing the ministry of Jesus, these would logically be the same women who had followed him earlier.
     Then in Acts 2:1-4, “[T]hey were all in one place together....Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire. . . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” And that would include the women? Yes, says Johnson.
     What did they proclaim? Mary Magdalene was sent forth from the tomb with the message, “Jesus is risen.” Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith”
(1 Cor 15:14).
     That is the Gospel truth, first heard from the lips of a woman, a woman named Mary Magdalene. Throughout the Church year, it is Mary’s message that we are challenged to proclaim with as much boldness and integrity as she did.

Carol Ann Morrow, who interviewed Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., shortly after The Da Vinci Code hit the best-seller list, is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger and managing producer of audiobooks for St. Anthony Messenger Press

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Before appeal was possible Live the History
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Case of George Edalji
Published Online: June 12, 2006 
Savvy Londoners know that there is no such address as 221B Baker Street to be found anywhere in the city. (At least there wasn't until recently, when it was created specifically for use by the Sherlock Holmes Museum.) It requires less intimate knowledge of London to know that the famous lodger at this non-existent address, the Consulting Detective Sherlock Holmes, is equally fictitious. Yet even today the Royal Post Office receives letters addressed to the literary detective at the imaginary address, sent by people claiming to have been wrongfully accused of some crime, and asking Holmes' help in solving the case.
In the early years of the 20th century, however, one such desperate man penned a more practical letter, addressing it not to Sherlock Holmes, but to his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, events would prove, shared many of Holmes' special talents.
The petitioner was George Edalji, the 27-year-old son of the vicar of Great Wyrley. Edalji's story began even before he was born, when his father, a man of Parsee ancestry, married an Englishwoman, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became the spiritual leader of his small Staffordshire community. His parishioners, perhaps thinking that the elder Edalji's Parsee heritage made him an unsuitable Christian preacher, had little liking for him, and at least one of them made he and his wife's lives miserable. In 1892, when George was 16 years old, the Edaljis began receiving threatening letters in the post. At the same time, other Staffordshire clergymen received abusive letters over Edalji's forged signature, earning him the hatred of his peers. Mocking advertisements appeared in local newspapers, also purporting to be submitted by the disliked vicar. George shared in the family's troubles, seemingly earning someone's special resentment by becoming a successful solicitor with a fine professional reputation.
The harassment directed against the Edalji family came to a head following several incidents of animal mutilation throughout Great Wyrley. In the wake of these incidents, the police received anonymous letters accusing George Edalji of the crimes. The local Chief Constable not only acted on the accusation, but also reasoned that George had written the mysterious correspondence himself. This all fitted in with his long-held belief that George had been the one responsible for the earlier threatening letters that had been sent to his father.
Acting on his suspicions, the Chief Constable assigned no less than six policemen to keep the Edalji house under surveillance. Despite this, a labourer heading to work in the early hours of a summer's day stumbled upon another mutilated animal, a pony this time, whose stomach had been sliced open.
The police, already preconditioned to believe George Edalji was the culprit, investigated the scene hastily, then returned to the vicarage to arrest the preacher's son. By this time, George had already left for work, so the investigators searched the house and confiscated a pair of muddy shoes, a pair of pants with dirt around the cuffs, and various other clothes on which they found blood and horse hair. With these items in their custody, the police then proceeded to George's Birmingham office, where they arrested their suspect.
If the evidence collected at the vicarage looked damning superficially, the police showed a remarkable lack of interest in reasoning out the facts of the case to a logical conclusion. When studied in detail, the evidence was far from convincing. George's whereabouts during the previous evening were corroborated by several witnesses who placed him far from the crime scene. George had then retired for the night at 9.30. He slept in the same room as his father, who locked the door to the bedroom each night. The elder Edalji swore that his son could never have left the room after 9.30.
Presuming, however, that he was able to slip past his father and out of the room, he would then have had to sneak undetected past all six of the policemen who were watching the house, and then repeat this feat of stealth on the return trip. This is exactly what the police alleged had happened, and George Edalji was tried on 20th October, 1903, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in jail. In addition, the verdict effectively destroyed his law career.
The injustice of the sentence was obvious to many outside Great Wyrley. Ten thousand people signed a petition demanding that the case be retried. Newspapers carried stories upholding Edalji's innocence as well, but to no avail until the third year of his sentence, when he was released without pardon, apology, or explanation.
In an effort to clear his name, Edalji wrote his own version of the incident, which was published in The Umpire. Subsequently, he posted a clipping of the article to Arthur Conan Doyle. 'As I read,' the Sir Arthur remembered, 'the unmistakable accent of truth forced itself upon my attention, and I realized that I was in the presence of an appalling tragedy, and that I was called upon to do what I could to set it right.'
At the time, Conan Doyle was grieving over the death of his wife, and perhaps questioning whether he had done all that he might to make her last days as comfortable as possible. If so, the Edalji case came to his attention at a time when he was acutely conscious both of his own responsibilities and the consequences of taking a cavalier attitude toward someone in need. He launched himself into a personal investigation of the case with the same enthusiasm with which Holmes might shout, 'Come, Watson, the game is afoot!'
He began by studying Edalji's own account of the case. As he did so, several questions came to mind. Painstakingly, he wrote to everyone involved in the case who might be able to shed light on some of the oddities he perceived in George's description of the evidence and the trial. His investigation turned up some very startling defects in the case against Edalji. The razor that the police claimed the defendant used to mutilate the pony had contained not a trace of blood. The mud found on Edalji's clothes was of a completely different type of soil than that found at the crime scene. Most absurdly, Conan Doyle learned that the police had wrapped a piece of the dead horse's hide, taken for evidence, in Edalji's clothes, thus accounting for the hair that had been found on them. As to the small traces of blood on the same clothes, Sir Arthur commented that 'The most adept operator who ever lived would not rip up a horse with a razor upon a dark night and have only two threepenny-bit spots of blood to show for it. The idea is beyond all argument.'
The amateur detective also shot holes in the prosecution's most weighty piece of evidence–a handwriting analysis that identified George Edalji as the one who had written the many threatening letters. Conan Doyle learned that the 'expert' the police had commissioned was a man already infamous for sending an innocent defendant to jail with an analysis that had later proved to be erroneous.
After he had convinced himself beyond any doubt that George Edalji did not committed the crime, he arranged to meet the man in person. When he did, his first impression confirmed all his previous conclusions, for it immediately became apparent that Edalji suffered from a condition that Conan Doyle had not previously suspected. 'I had been delayed,' Conan Doyle recalled later, 'and he was passing the time by reading the paper….He held the paper so close to his eyes and rather sideways, proving not only a high degree of myopia but marked astigmatism. The idea of such a man scouring fields at night and assaulting cattle while avoiding the watching police was ludicrous to anyone who can imagine what the world looks like to eyes with myopia of eight dioptres.' Edalji's eyes not only gave Sir Arthur further proof of their owner's innocence, they also provided a possible explanation why the police may have been predisposed to suspect him. His inability to focus his eyes gave him an odd distracted look that could easily be interpreted as sinister.
Conan Doyle submitted the complete results of his investigations to The Daily Telegraph on 9th January, 1907, with instructions to clearly label it as copyright free, so that other papers could pick up the story and spread the news. 'Only an appeal to the public can put an end to a course of injustice and persecution which amount, as I hope that I shall show, to a national scandal', Sir Arthur advised. The newspaper obliged, printing the entire 18,000-word summary in two parts.
With Edalji by this time freed from jail, another man may have felt that nothing further needed to be done, but Conan Doyle was outraged by the government's refusal to acknowledge any fault or to pay Edalji any compensation for having his career and three years of his life taken from him through such a careless exercise of the criminal justice system. His report was as much an indictment of the police as a vindication of Edalji, charging the authorities with race prejudice, incompetence, and deliberate deceit.
Few of Sir Arthur's more famous works of fiction could boast the impact on the British public achieved by his letter to the Telegraph. The common belief that an injustice had been perpetrated now became nearly universal, and demands for an investigation grew irresistible. Finally, the Home Secretary grudgingly decided to appoint a three-man board to review the case. Astoundingly, one of the three 'unbiased' men appointed to the committee was the second cousin of Captain Anson, the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, who had been the first one to jump to the conclusion of Edalji's guilt.
In the meantime, Conan Doyle had turned his attention to an as-yet-unasked question: If Edalji was innocent, then who had committed the crime? Sir Arthur's crusade on Edalji's behalf clearly represented a threat to the mysterious slasher, and before long Conan Doyle received one of the threatening letters that had so long plagued the vicar of Wyrley. 'Think of all the ghoulish murders that are committed,' the note read. 'Why then should you escape?' The recipient treated the letter not so much as a warning as another piece of evidence, again turning to the Telegraph and the public for help. The 29th May edition contained another letter from Sir Arthur, stating: 'Upon Monday, the 27th, I received a letter and a postcard, both unstamped, from the unknown correspondent whose writing runs right through the whole Edalji affair from 1892 onwards….A crease in both documents seems to show…that they may have been sent up under cover, or possibly in somebody's pocket–a railway guard or other–and then posted. Should this be so one might hope to follow them back to the writer; and I hereby offer a reward of L20 to anyone who will enable me to say for certain whence they came.'
In the event, Detective Doyle found the crucial clue himself in a subsequent letter sent by the anonymous correspondent. The second missive contained a scathing remark about a former headmaster of the Walsall Grammar School in Staffordshire. Conan Doyle remembered that one of the letters sent to the senior Edalji had contained a similar reference, and that a stolen key from the school had once turned up on Edalji's doorstep. Sir Arthur contacted the ex-schoolmaster and asked if he could think of anyone who had attended the school and might have reason to hold such an unfavourable opinion of him. The schoolmaster suggested a boy whom he had expelled years before for uncontrollable, destructive behavior.
Conan Doyle further learned that in the years since, the boy had become a butcher, and that a friend of his family remembered seeing him with a lancet at about the time of the animal mutilations. Once he was on the right track, Sir Arthur found many more coincidences that identified the butcher as the guilty party beyond any possible doubt.
Conan Doyle provided all this evidence to the three-man commission, which deliberated and then concluded that Edalji had not, in fact, killed the horse and should therefore be pardoned, but that he had 'to some extent brought his troubles on himself', so there would be no compensation. By this, the commission apparently referred to the threatening letters, which it still believed Edalji had written to his father.
Conan Doyle's response, again in the form of a letter to the Telegraph, was predictable. 'While the friends of Mr. George Edalji rejoice that his innocence has at last been admitted (though in the most grudging and ungracious fashion), they feel that their work is only half done so long as compensation is refused him. It is clearly stated in the report of the Committee that: 'The police commenced and carried on their investigations, not for the purpose of finding out who was the guilty party, but for the purpose of finding evidence against Edalji, who they were already sure was the guilty man.'
'The result has proved that he was not the guilty man, and this inversion of all sane methods upon the part of the police has given untold mental agony to himself and to his family, has caused him to undergo the ordeal of the double trial, three years of incarceration, and an extra year of police supervision. Apart from the misery which has been unjustly inflicted upon him, he has been unable to exercise his profession during that time, and has been put to many heavy expenses, which only the self-sacrifice of his relations has enabled him to meet. And now, though all these results have been brought about by the extraordinary conduct of the police, and the stupidity of a Court of Quarter Sessions, the unfortunate victim is told that no compensation will be made him.'
As to the implication, still, that George Edalji had written the many outrageous letters received by his father, Sir Arthur insisted 'I will undertake in half an hour…to convince any reasonable and impartial man, that George Edalji did not write, and could not possibly have written, those letters. Of that I am absolutely certain, and there is no room for doubt whatever.' Conan Doyle did just as he promised, not through his own efforts, but in a much more convincing manner by seeking out the opinion of Dr. Lindsey Johnson, a handwriting analyst who had helped to prove that the famous treasonable letter attributed to the Frenchman Alfred Dreyfus was a forgery. This internationally renowned expert confirmed Conan Doyle's own assertion, providing many detailed specifics to substantiate his findings, and concluding his comparison of the anonymous letters with Edalji's own handwriting with the words, 'Further examples are unnecessary, as, look where you will, you will find no points in common between them.' Lindsey was equally as adamant that the letters were, in fact, written by the butcher Sir Arthur had already identified.
All of this evidence, however, was of interest only to the news press. The Home Office replied simply that a decision had already been reached, and that was that. No action was ever taken against the man Sir Arthur had convincingly proven was responsible for both the threatening letters and the animal mutilations–as well as for stealing the key to the local grammar school. The Law Society, showing markedly better judgment than either the police or the government, permitted George Edalji to resume his legal practice, but Sir Arthur's great investigative success ended on a bitter note. The government bureaucracy, he concluded in disgust, is motivated by 'a determination to admit nothing which inculpates another official, and as to the idea of punishing another official for offenses which have caused misery to helpless victims, it never comes within their horizon.'
A later biographer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rendered an even harsher verdict: 'Doyle thought that the Home Office was insane to ignore the evidence he had placed in their hands; but in expecting reason and justice from bureaucrats his own sanity was open to doubt.' Certainly, it was not the kind of ending a Sherlock Holmes fan would have expected.

This article was written by Bruce Heydt and originally appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of British Heritage.