Last week some creationists celebrated an apparent triumph: Legendary physicist Stephen Hawking used the word God, possibly not in vain.
The utterance allegedly occurred at an international "state of the universe" conference, to celebrate the 70th birthday of the world's most famous living scientist.
Creationists saw Hawking's comments as an admission that God was needed to create the universe. And they were particularly gleeful about a subsequent story in New Scientist Magazine, headlined "Why Scientists Can't Avoid a Creation Event." That piece called the substance of the conference "the worst presents ever," referring to the failure of several theories attempting to explain the origin of the cosmos.
The story set off a round of virtual chest-thumping. One writer said it raised the "thorny question of how to kick-start the cosmos without the hand of a supernatural creator."
The New Scientist story did imply that the physicists were bumping up against the Almighty. It even quoted Hawking seeming to admit that science can never explain the beginning of the universe without God: "A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God."
So are creationists rushing in where cosmologists fear to tread?
Hawking is inaccessible - his neurological condition, ALS, makes all but the slowest communication impossible - but I was able to reach the two scientists accused of coming to the conference bearing "the worst presents ever."
One of them, MIT cosmologist Alan Guth, said he did not get the impression that Hawking or anyone else was giving up on a scientific explanation for the origin of the universe. Guth certainly is not, and he thought Hawking's God quote was probably referring not to the state of cosmology but to some specific ideas.
Guth said Hawking has consistently embraced a picture of the universe that has no beginning, despite its apparent expansion from a big bang. As Hawking described in A Brief History of Time, there's a way to think about space and time in a configuration so that the beginning of the universe is like the South Pole - you can't go any farther south.
That defies intuition but it's oddly consistent with the laws of physics.
Guth and the other alleged bearer of bad presents, Alex Vilenkin of Tufts University, had been working on another approach to understanding the universe - a concept called eternal inflation.
Guth is famous for inventing the regular version of inflation back in the 1970s - not an economic problem but a concept that changed the way cosmologists think.
Inflation, he said, is a process by which a patch of space smaller than an atom expands at extreme speeds and blows up into the entire observable universe. Inflation explains several aspects of the universe astronomers have observed, including the distribution of galaxies and features of cosmic microwaves that permeate the universe.
In eternal inflation, everything we see with our most powerful telescopes is but a bubble that is expanding within something bigger. This bigger thing - sometimes called a "mutiverse" - may give rise to infinite bubble universes as it expands for all eternity.
That doesn't explain the origin of that little speck of space that became our universe. As invisioned by Guth, Vilenkin, ahd colleague Arvin Borde, eternal inflation would go on forever in the future, but would have a definite beginning in the past. As they continued to explore the implications of the theory, they found it wouldn't work without a beginning.
Vilenkin explained the impossibility of a beginningless eternal inflation at Hawking's 60th birthday party in 2002. He was back at the 70th party with more evidence that eternal inflation needs a good beginning.
Still, he said it was news to him if that made Hawking change his mind about the need for an almighty God. There's no problem with a beginning, he said.
"Historically people were uncomfortable because they didn't know what caused the beginning - it seemed to require something outside of physics. . . . Now we know there is a possibility of a natural creation of the universe," through the laws of quantum mechanics, something can come from nothing.
Guth agreed. "We don't have a solid theory of how the universe originated," he added, "but that doesn't mean we have to invoke a deity."
Some creationists have expressed surprise that scientists are averse to invoking deities. But this kind of a deity is just a placeholder for an intellectual gap. If the only way to make a theory work is to invoke the supernatural, that's a fatal flaw.
An unknown is very different from positive evidence for a God - say, a message written in the microwaves from space, or "God was here" in DNA. But that has never happened.
Vilenkin said the big mystery for him is the origin of the laws of physics. They allow a universe to come from nothing, not even space and time, but can there be laws governing nothing? And why these laws and not some other laws?
"It's a mystery, but without mysteries physics would not be interesting."
NOTE: For more on how something can come from nothing without violating any laws of physics, see this column, or read "A Universe from Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss. And please follow Higgs on google +.