As researchers continue to seek traces of the biblical flood, Tim Cornwell reports on the stand-off between science and religion.
In the early 19th century, the days before Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, the Rev William Buckland thought the bones that he had found in a Yorkshire cave were evidence of British hyenas that had drowned in a great deluge - the biblical flood. The findings earned Buckland a Royal Society prize but also some pointed warnings from contemporaries that it was time to detach geology from theology.
Early geologists struggled to reconcile their findings with the Bible, says David Knight, a historian of science at Durham University, who will discuss Buckland's work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Anaheim. Fossil remains of hyenas and other animals found in Yorkshire were initially treated by scientists such as Buckland as evidence of animals that did not make it into Noah's Ark.
But Buckland - who described dinosaurs as beloved by God and as the inhabitants of a hotter, pre-Eden world - later came to regard the Bible as a book whose purpose was not to tell us about empirical truths. Evidence from Swiss glaciers on the move helped establish that the gravel and rounded boulders that Buckland and his fellow scientists encountered were left not by floodwaters but rather by an ice age that was not mentioned in the Good Book.
US researchers are still hunting traces of the biblical flood - at least at the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego. Every year the centre sends a research team to the Mojave Desert, not far from Death Valley. In one of the earth's driest and hottest regions, they search for evidence of an upheaval of the ocean floor - as described in Genesis, when "all the fountains of the great deep were broken up and the windows of the heavens were opened".
The institute would like to expose the "wrong thinking of evolution" and "see science return to its rightful God-glorifying position". Its officials complain that public schools in the US are thoroughly hostile to creationism. But in 20th-century America, fundamentalist Christian churches in a deeply religious country have helped keep alive the questions that troubled 19th-century British geologists. This casts the AAAS's on-going programme of "Dialogue between science and religion" as more than an academic exercise.
Anaheim is very near Disneyland, but it lies in Orange County, celebrated heartland of conservative California. Not far from the office of the chairman of the dialogue programme - Francisco Ayala, who will talk to the AAAS meeting about "Darwin's Devolution" - is the staunchly creationist Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, one of America's "superchurches" with a congregation in the thousands.
The single largest problem that students encounter with Ayala's introductory biology class at the University of California at Irvine is reconciling what they hear there with their religious beliefs, Ayala says.
"The notion that evolution is contrary to Christian beliefs is pervasive among people and among their children," he says. Each year he has to parry suspicious questions, even from Catholic students and those from mainstream Christian denominations whose leaders have formally accepted evolution.
Ayala says he knows of parents who actively encourage their children to avoid science classes, but in his experience students "come accepting religion and rejecting evolution and they leave five years later rejecting the church and accepting science, and I think that's very unfortunate".
Talking science and religion is like studying the universe: no one is sure quite when the debate began, and there is no end in sight. The programme has already covered cloning, human germline intervention, evolution and global climate change.
In a country brimming with religious sentiment, the US scientific community has its share of true believers. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is described as a devout Christian. Astronomer and Anabaptist Owen Gingerich is fond of quoting Galileo to the effect that "the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
It is over the vexed subject of evolution that scientists and ministers have traditionally driven each other to distraction, but the latest field of contention is cosmology. California cosmologist Joel Primack was one of three prominent scientific advisers on the 1996 film Cosmic Voyage, which was produced under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the country's national museums.
When the film was being made, Newt Gingrich and right-wing Republicans were on the march in Washington, and the Smithsonian was taking no chances with the new powers that be in Congress. "We were warned that we would be in grave danger if we used the terms 'Big Bang' or 'evolution'," Primack says. "The fundamentalists would picket the Air and Space Museum and prevent the film being shown in the American South." After the scientists strenuously protested, the inflammatory scientific terms were allowed to enter the soundtrack.
Primack is a moderator at an AAAS-sponsored conference on "Cosmic Questions", scheduled for April, that will delve into topics such as "Did the universe have a beginning?" and "Are we alone?" He says that at the end of the 20th century, scientists are poised to answer the questions they only learned to ask at the beginning of it.
Nasa satellites are reading heat radiation left over from the Big Bang, now in microwave form. Predictions developed from the theory that the Big Bang was preceeded by an inflationary epoch of the universe have finally become testable.
"What these readings are doing is giving us the details of the origin and evolution of the physical contents of the universe. They are filling in the true history of cosmology," Primack says. "We are reading God's journal of the first days and without the intervention of any church."