The ongoing conflict between science and religion fascinates me. This front in the culture wars came to prominence once again over the last couple of weeks due to, of all things, the country singer Miley Cyrus (previously known as Hanna Montana to a lot of Disney Channel-watching youths). Here she is, in a picture where she looks nothing like her teeny-bopper alter ego, attending the 20th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party in February 2012.
Source: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for EJAF
What, you may well ask, does Miley Cyrus have to do with science?
From Dust to Stardust
Well, let's start at the beginning, which was this March 1 tweet, in which Miss Cyrus said the word "Beautiful" along with a link to a graphic showing physicist Lawrence Krauss describing the process of stellar nucleosynthesis, which describes as "the most poetic thing I know about the universe." (Really, I suppose that starting at the "beginning" in this case would be the Big Bang ... but I digress! )
The controversy comes because the quote ends with "So forget Jesus. Stars died so you could live." As a country singer, Cyrus has a lot of Christian fans, and they were upset by this "forget Jesus" part of the quote. There were complaints back and forth on her Twitter feed, some quite civil comments and a few that were unnecessarily rude. Here's an article that covers the controversy.
In fairness to those who objected, only a very small fraction seem to have objected to the overall intent of Krauss' message. This (mostly) wasn't a case of young Earth creationists or Biblical literalists arguing with established scientific fact. Most specifically opposed the "forget Jesus" line.
But a handful did object to the notion that we were made from stardust, which I find interesting. Genesis 3:19 says "for dust you are and to dust you will return." So why not stardust? Let's be clear: the Bible provides no defined mechanism for the creation of heavy elements. So, really, there isn't even a conflict here. The Bible leaves a giant question mark in how elements were formed, so the scientific explanation should be satisfactory, even for Biblical believers.
It seems to me like only the most hardcore of literal readings of Genesis could possibly exclude Krauss' explanation as being basically consistent with the poetic description presented there. Honestly, the Genesis sequence of events is even mostly correct (though the timing is off), scientifically speaking.
Still, we are talking about people who are taking the time to harangue a young country singer for thinking that being made of stardust is beautiful.
I would argue that the only reason anyone couldn't agree with Cyrus' "Beautiful" assessment is because they're so blinded by the "forget Jesus" comment that they can't see the glorious explanation of creation (lowercase c or uppercase) provided by Krauss. Or, honestly, maybe they just didn't understand what he was saying!
I have to confess that even I got a mild amount of backlash related to this story. You see, I have this quote on the website, in both our Lawrence Krauss biographical profile and in the glossary entry for stellar nucleosynthesis, because I frankly find it one of the greatest quotes I've ever read on the subject.
Actually, I transcribed it directly from a video Krauss speaking on the subject. There are some mild differences between the wording in the Twitter graphic and the one I transcribed, so they may be quoting another one of his written or spoken presentations where Krauss framed the statements slightly differently, but they're extremely similar.
Here's how I framed the quote:
"Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn't be here if stars hadn't exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren't created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.... The stars died so that you could be here today."
You'll notice that my quote does not include the "So forget Jesus" line. Frankly, the comment seemed a glib, somewhat amusing side-comment which played well in the spoken presentation, but which I felt was distracting in the written quote. When spoken, it serves not so much to diminish Christianity as to highlight the significance of the death of stars. It takes on more significance than it deserves when written into the quote, so I edited it out, because I believed it might turn people off to the science ... which, frankly, seems to have been exactly what happened in the Miley Cyrus situation.
Some people (my mother among them) have questioned whether it's permissible to remove things from quotes, so I guess it's fair to address this. I have two main points on how I justify this:
First, I included ellipses to indicate that text had been removed. Quotes are frequently edited for length and to make the quote more relevant to the subject at hand, especially if they contain asides or other distracting, filler comments. (Arguably I would put the "So forget Jesus" comment in this vein, since it adds nothing of scientific value to the passage.) Ellipses within a quote typically indicate that some text has been removed, so the editing wasn't obfuscated in any way.
Second, the removal of this line in no way altered the overall authorial intent of the original passage. This is the danger of editing a passage. The goal of an honest person is always to use the quote to maintain the author's original message (even if you're quoting with the intent of later refuting the author's message). For example, someone who was intending to manipulate Krauss' passage could have edited it to read: "It is really the most poetic thing I know ... Jesus ... died so you could be here today." This would clearly not have at all followed the author's intent. It would be dishonest and when I do edit quotes, I make every effort to ensure that the quote contains enough information that it's clear what the author is trying to say.
So, to my mother and anyone else, please keep in mind that when you see quotes on here with ellipses (...), it's possible that the quote has been edited to remove text, but never with the intention of obscuring the true intention of the original author. And, in this case, if you want the author's full intent, you can check out his new book, A Universe From Nothing.