SANDY — When the big-bang theory emerged around 1930, Joseph Smith's views of the universe didn't look good from a scientific perspective, according to a former NASA physicist.
But times, and the climate of cosmology, have changed.
Ron Hellings, a believing Latter-day Saint who earned a doctorate in physics and spent 25 years as a research scientist at NASA, is well aware of the contradictions and uncertainty out there.
"In the last 20 years, we have learned so much about the universe that we are now mystified and profoundly confused," Hellings said. " … This is no time for anyone to criticize anyone else's beliefs based on what cosmologists know."
That applies to the Mormon Prophet, whom Hellings is convinced knew something about the cosmos and did his best with the language at his disposal.
"There is something there for us to learn about the cosmos by looking at the statements of Joseph Smith," Hellings said.
During a presentation at the recent Mormon Apologetics Conference titled "Joseph Smith and Modern Cosmology," Hellings explored teachings of the Prophet that have "cosmic implications" and analyzed them against the backdrop of science. Using intricate language and complex equations, Hellings detailed the evolving understanding of the universe and how we arrived at an exciting but "very confusing" time in the world of cosmology.
Hellings put particular emphasis on Doctrine and Covenants 131:7, which states, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure … " He emphasized that the Prophet expressed his learning in his own words — not those of a future scientist.
"He did not say, 'There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it coupleth to a different metric," Hellings said. "I wish he had said that, because I would understand what he meant. If he had said that, it would have been proof positive that he was a prophet of God. Not because it's right, but because he had no business talking like that in 1840. …
"I believe that it's true that Joseph Smith knew something about the cosmos, and that he tried to explain it to the Saints in the language that he had at his command."
Translated into more modern terminology, Hellings concluded that the Prophet's views on the cosmos comprise the following points: matter-energy is conserved, everything is matter-energy, and the universe is infinite and eternal.
"There is nothing intangible or imaginary about the universe, as taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith," Hellings said. "It is real stuff, it is all matter, meaning that it is probably all energy, so that everything in the universe is matter-energy. There is nothing that's not included in that category."
Hellings said the Prophet's views were relatively compatible with science between 1840 and 1930. During that time, it was thought that matter could neither be created nor destroyed, and the universe was considered static, infinite and homogenous.
"The church looked pretty good," Hellings said. "The Mormons, for a change, had scientific opinion on their side."
The big bang, however, disrupted this harmony. The basis of the theory is that the universe is moving away at a speed proportional to its distance, meaning that it was once all together.
Hellings conceded to being perplexed by the theory in his younger years, and suggested that for a time, the Prophet's views weren't as compatible with science as they had previously been.
"He looked bad for about 50 years," Hellings said.
These days, however, "there are big problems with standard big-bang cosmology," Hellings said. He detailed some of them, including the "horizon problem" and the "flatness problem," which challenge the notion of a random, chaotic occurrence.
Some solutions and alternatives have been put forth such as "inflationary cosmology," which encompasses the ideas of "eternal inflation" and the universe becoming a multi-verse.
"This is a big deal and a lot of cosmologists believe this," Hellings said. " … The inflationary cosmology would say matter-energy is conserved, everything is matter-energy and the multi-verse can be infinite and eternal."
But inflationary cosmology is not without its problems, and "there are just a bunch of competing theories and no way to tell between them," Hellings said.
He's learned the importance of maintaining humility in both science and religion.
"Remember that scientists can misinterpret what they see, and that Mormons can misinterpret what they read."
Hellings was once the NASA representative on a task force assembled to study the unknown content that makes up 75 percent of the universe. Referred to as "dark energy," the concept is "something that we don't even have very good ideas for," Hellings said.
"Whatever dark energy turns out to be is going to require a revolution in our understanding of physics."
He remembers taking a break during the group's first meeting and overhearing a group of scientists discussing how "silly" LDS doctrines were.
"I think it's ironic for any member of the dark energy task force to be ridiculing anyone else's beliefs," he said.
Hellings, who is also a gospel doctrine teacher, believes Joseph Smith was taught about the cosmos. He's particularly impressed by a five-word phrase found in one of the Prophet's statements — "thou must commune with God."
"Joseph Smith was an intelligent and inquisitive man," Hellings said. "I'm convinced that he wondered about these things, that he took these questions to the Lord and the last five words indicate to me that he was taught some things that the rest of his contemporaries did not know."
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