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Common ground on cosmic questions

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Did the universe have a beginning? Was it designed, or do we exist by mere chance? Are we alone? Scientists and theologians have different perspectives on such ultimate questions, but at least some of them are trying to find common ground.

Science and religion have been on uneasy terms over such issues for centuries — just ask Galileo. Lines have traditionally been drawn between religious believers and scientific skeptics, between faith and facts.

But in recent years, scientific and religious leaders have recognized they share common ground: a desire to make sense out of the unknown — and the unknowable.

Scientists, too, have their articles of faith. Here are some of the more provocative claims put forth over the years:

The universe as we know it most likely arose in an initial burst beyond imagination, and it’s possible that unseen universes coexist with ours.

The overwhelming majority of the universe’s mass-energy content is unseen and subject to processes we don’t understand.

Empty space is not the same as “nothingness”: It appears to have properties that may explain the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Life may not be unique to Earth. In fact, we ourselves could be Martians, on the basis that organic material from Mars might have “seeded” our planet billions of years ago.

To be sure, such out-of-this-world speculations are being hotly contested. In the end, it may not be possible to arrive at proof or disproof in the strict scientific sense. Rather, the outcome is likely to depend on which world view best fits the instant of time and space in which we live.

Such is the stuff of cosmology — and such was the stuff of the “Cosmic Questions” symposium, presented in Washington by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Theoreticians such as MIT’s Alan Guth and Cambridge’s Neil Turok (a colleague of Stephen Hawking) traded insights with theologians such as Berkeley’s Robert John Russell and and Georgetown’s John Haught. Biologists and astronomers reviewed the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence.

Were there answers to the ultimate questions? Hardly. But there were insightful progress reports on the ultimate quests.