by Pekka Sinervo, FRSC

Pekka Sinervo, FRSC, is one the discoverers of the Higgs boson and the top quark, and is also president of Temple Emanu-el of Toronto. This piece below is adapted from a scientific commentary he wrote and delivered in a presentation of The Creation (A Rock Cantata) — by David Bobrowitz and Steven Porter —  in preparation for the High Holidays.


“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth it was without a form and the darkness covered the face of the deep…”

God started with chaos or something without form – tohu vavohu.  But cosmology tells us that we started from some exquisitely small universe, something like 10 to the minus thirty-three metres.  Let’s just call that incredibly small.  It’s about a billion-billion times smaller than anything we’ve been able to measure today.  We call it a singularity.  But from that speck, the universe started to expand and do incredibly complicated things, all within the first very small fraction of a second.

“And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light…And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”

But we believe that the universe was not only filled with light, but with many other particles.  It was a soup of matter and anti-matter, made up of things that we call quarks and leptons, all bouncing around and colliding with the particles of light – particles we call photons –colliding with the gluons that hold quarks together, and colliding with heavier particles that cause radioactive decay.  And this soup was filled with Higgs bosons, these particles that the nice Jewish boy Leon Lederman christened the “God particle.”

This very hot soup of particles – far hotter than Bubbie’s chicken soup – expands and starts to cool.  And miraculously, well before the first second has elapsed, almost all the anti-matters disappears!  We’re now going to see the world we are familiar with start to form, as the universe grows and cools.

“And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters….And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.”

Separation is a big deal.  In the same way that light separates from the matter some 300,000 years after the Big Bang, we start to see objects form out of the clouds of hydrogen and helium gas. But in our story of creation, those objects are the early stars.  These stars gobble up most of the gas and start burning it.  Inside these stellar furnaces, we have the formation of other elements, like carbon and oxygen and silicon.

This process – this forging of the heavier elements — continues for several billion years.   From it, we get comets and asteroids and ultimately planets.  And fluids start to condense on some of these planets.  For Earth, that fluid is water.   So, yes, we do get earth and sky, this separation that we now celebrate each week with havadalah, when we separate the holy Shabbat from the rest of the week.  Separation very much matters.

“And God said: ‘Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, …. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day. And God said: ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; … And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.”

We are now seeing first life evolve.  It appeared to happen about three and a half billion years ago, with first single-cell organisms that erupted into what now appears to be millions of species.  These archea used light to create energy.  They figured out how to make photosynthesis work.  They filled our atmosphere with oxygen – the so-called great oxygenation event.  They started to grow in size in the seas, becoming more complex, eventually forming aquatic plants.  The first fruits were in the oceans, but these plants quickly figured out how to migrate onto the land, where now an ozone layer high in our atmosphere shields these early life forms from the sun’s deadly UV rays. It would have been already four billion years since the Earth formed, and soils should be in abundance, just ready for evolution to create the first plant species.

And we are now figuring out how to replicate this – create A-life or artificial life.  Are we playing God?  If not, what exactly are we trying to do?  Improve on evolution?

“And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creeps, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged bird after its kind …. And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.”

But evolution happened a little differently, we believe.  Once we had plants, it took a while to form aquatic organisms that weren’t rooted to the sea floor.  These first animals populated the seas, feasting on the plants that they had evolved to consume and quickly feasting on each other.  And the variety! We only have a glimpse of the number of species from the fossil record, but some say that we had a simple explosion of different forms of sea animals.

We’re now figuring out how such aquatic animals made the transition to becoming terrestrial.  It seems like it took a while – maybe 200 million years before they were ready to make the first steps.  Literally first steps.   These first animals had to make crazy changes – figure out how to breathe, figure out how to take steps and move around, then figure out what to eat to survive.  Quickly, they had to figure out how to avoid being eaten.  Yes, land carnivores came pretty quickly.

We’re now unwinding this story, as we actively de-speciate our planet.  Surely, we are more intelligent than that.  Scientists have been raising the alarm.  Is anyone really listening?

“And God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God did God create humanity; male and female God created….And God blessed them…. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”

And what a creature this was. Four million years ago, evolution brought you our earliest ancestor, Australopithecus.   A creature with the physiology to sustain an unusually large energy-hungry brain.  A brain literally screaming “Feed me, Seymour! Feed me, NOW”  With the cunning of the bigger brain, this species became hunter extraordinaire across the Africa savannas.

This first species, Australopithecus, continued to improve. Pretty soon, it wasn’t your father’s Chevrolet. It was an entirely new genus, one we call Homo. And Homo started to migrate out of Africa. When, it’s not so clear, but it looks like it happened a few hundred thousand years ago, around the time that our species, homo sapiens arrives.   Our first evidence of culture – putting value into one’s history, abstract thinking – maybe arose 50,000 years ago. We see it in ancient cave pictures. Advanced cultures were already forming as long as 20,000 years ago.

A blessed evolution indeed.

“And on the seventh day God finished the work which God had made; and God rested on the seventh day…”

And now we rest. We have to rest every day, with our circadian rhythm firmly tied to the rotation of the Earth.  What does rest really mean?  Why do we need the sleep that we do?  It refreshes.  It appears to be creative.  We awake ready to do more, to take our dreams and make things out of them.

But all of this appears to be inside our head, formed from the billions of neurons and the trillions of synapses.  We are starting to explore how the brain really works.

All this raises profound questions.  Is consciousness – the experience we have during our waking hours – real?  Or is it a figment of our own imagination.  Is the mind something totally different?  Do we really have free will, or is everything predetermined?  What we do know is that the brain is the most complicated organism we own. And we don’t understand it.

But we humans are inherently curious, and so through both our religious texts and our scientific knowledge, we will always continue to try.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from their program “The Genesis Project,” run in partnership between Beth Tzedec and Temple Emanu-el).