Big Bang and religion mixed in Cern debate

  • 15 October 2012
  • From the section Europe
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An image of data recorded at Cern during experiments is search of the Higgs boson (c) Cern
Image caption The discovery of a "Higgs-like particle" preceded this religious and scientific meeting

Some of Europe's most prominent scientists have opened a debate with philosophers and theologians over the origins of everything.

The event, in Geneva, Switzerland, is described as a search for "common ground" between religion and science over how the Universe began.

It will focus on the Big Bang theory.

The conference was called by Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in the wake of its Higgs boson discovery.

Cern is the home of the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator, situated beneath the French-Swiss border region near Geneva.

Media captionProfessor Jim Al-Khalili explains what the Higgs boson is and why its discovery is so important

The first speaker at the conference was Andrew Pinsent, research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University.

He said that science risked "trying to turn society into a machine" if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

"Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas," he told the BBC.

"Einstein began by asking the kinds of questions that a child would ask, like what would it be like to ride on a beam of light."

That, Dr Pinsent said, was what science should return to.

Prof Rolf Heuer, director of Cern, explained that the Higgs results provided a "deeper insight and understanding of the moments after the Big Bang".

He added that he hoped, by the end of the conference, that delegates from very different backgrounds would be able to "start to discuss the origin of our Universe".

Co-organiser Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative in Brussels, said that the Higgs particle "raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can't answer".

"They need to explore them with theologians and philosophers," he added.

Heated debate

The organisers are expecting some disagreements during the three-day event.

For example, one of the speakers, Prof John Lennox from Oxford University, has been an outspoken critic of atheist scientists in the past.

Most recently, he took issue with Prof Stephen Hawking's assertion that God did not create the Universe.

In an article in the Daily Mail, he said that he was certain that Prof Hawking was wrong.

Prof Lennox wrote: "When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for 'the blue touch paper' to be lit to 'set the universe going', the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?"

Dr Wilton, though, said he was hopeful that "scientists, theologians and philosophers alike might gain fresh insights from each other's disciplines".

"This is such an exciting conference," he told the BBC.

"It is the first time Cern has invited theologians and philosophers to debate with them.

"But by the end... we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

"We might even find new ways of talking to each other about the beginning of the world."

The conference is being organised by Wilton Park, an agency of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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