Calculating God

Who is God? What is God? Is there a God? Is God an entity who not only created the world, but is also an active participant as religions would like us to believe? Can God be determined through the study of science and mathematics, or do the atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Sigmund Freud have the right answer? These are just a few of the questions brought up in Robert J Sawyer’s 2000 book Calculating God.Calculating God A book described by the Toronto Star Newspaper as a “highly philosophical, theological and ethical story,” (R. J. Sawyer, Interview with Robert Sawyer 2010). Calculating God explores these questions and provides scientific reasons to support the theory of intelligent design.

Calculating God is rightly classified as a science fiction because the story revolves around an alien landing near a museum and wanting to study earth’s paleontological history. It could also be classified as a work of science-based philosophical fiction, as many of the discussions between the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) Thomas Jericho and the alien Hollus are a debate about the existence of a God.

The Royal Ontario Museum

Is God a creator who designed the universe or does the universe just exist? The life-long atheist Jericho can’t believe that a fellow scientist, albeit an alien one, believes in the notion of intelligent design, and is again stunned to discover the second alien species brought by Hollus’s people are also believers. This stunned feeling is reciprocated by the aliens because of Jericho’s lack of belief, (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 34)

Sawyer uses the back and fourth between the humans and the aliens to argue the theories of Darwin, the big bang, DNA, the anthropic principal, and many of the fundamental scientific constants to provoke the reader into thinking about the design of the universe. For example this exchange on page 61:

‘How do you know,’ I said to him, ‘that the universe had a creator?, Hollus’s eyestalks curved to look at me. ‘The universe was clearly designed; if it had a design, it must therefore have a designer.’ (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 61)

And Sawyer himself said of the book in a 2010 interview with Philosophy Now Magazine “if the designer did exist though, he was a scientist, pure and simple,” (R. J. Sawyer, Interview with Robert Sawyer 2010). It is with this quote in mind, the reader gets to think about the science of the world with a different view than is often given in other scientific approaches to explaining the history of the world.

Biography of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian science fiction writer of 21 published novels and other short stories. He is an award winning writer, and according to his biography on his website is also “the only writer in history to win the top science fiction awards in the United States, China, Japan, France, and Spain,” (R. J. Sawyer, Short Bio n.d.).

Calculating God Summary

Calculating God is the story of an alien named Hollus who arrives one day at the ROM in Toronto asking to work with a paleontologist about the earth’s five mass extinctions and their effects on the Earth’s evolution. Hollus’s landing changes the life and work of the books protagonist Thomas Jericho, a ROM paleontologist who just discovered that he is dying of lung cancer.

Jericho is surprised by the alien’s mastery of the English language, as Hollus tells Jericho she is from “the third planet of the star you call Beta Hydri,” (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 25). Beta Hydri

The Hydrus Constellation

is a star approximately 24.3 light years away from earth and the brightest star in the Hydrus constellation, (Wikipedia Beta Hydri n.d.). This galaxy is the ninth star system she and those traveling with her have visited, and the third with intelligent life on it. She tells the staff at the ROM she has arrived with 33 other scientists, half of whom are Forhilnors (Hollus’s race) and the other half are Wreeds, another intelligent alien spices from the second planet of star Delta Pavonis.

The Pavo Constellation

Delta Pavonis is located in the constellation Pavo, and is roughly 20 light years away from earth, (Wikipedia Delta Pavonis n.d.).

Upon her arrival to the museum, Hollus asks to be treated as a normal visiting scholar and have access to the museum’s fossils and specimens in exchange for data about the aliens and their knowledge of the universe. The unexpected arrival of an alien triggers the museum, government and media to come together to learn more about the Hollus and her intentions. After the initial shock and media spectacle dies down, the two begin discussing the extinctions and working together. The interest in the five mass extinctions is due to the fact that five similar extinctions occurred at roughly the same time on both the Beta Hydri and Delta Pavonis planets. For Hollus, the study of the fossils and the earth’s history as well as their study of the Wreeds helps her and her people to better understand the history of their planet and the universe, (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 28-33).

A drawing of Hollus and Thomas Jericho

Hollus is described as looking similar to a large spider with six legs and two arms. “His torso was no bigger around than the circle I could make with my arms…[it] was covered by a long strip of blue cloth. But his hide was visible on the six legs and two arms. It looked a bit like bubble wrap, although the individual domes were of varying sizes,” (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 23). Jericho determines that Hollus is endothermic, similar to mammals on earth; he also mistakenly identifies the alien as a male and is not until much later in the book Jericho finds out that Hollus is a female.

During their work together at the museum the two learn that despite the differences in appearance and planets, they are both made up of similar DNA structures. It is also explained by Hollus that all three planets have roughly the same technological advances, give or take a few decades, and the same basic life needs. To both the Forhilnors and the Wreeds, this is one of the indications of intelligent design, (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 85).

Although much of the book is a dialog between Hollus and Jericho about science and God, there are other subplots supporting the main themes. Jericho’s struggle with his terminal illness, and how it impacts both his family life and work. He is challenged to think about how God, if being real, could give him (and others) suffering and pain. Does God take an active part, a puppet master perhaps, in the ways of the world? The answer from the Forhilnors and the Wreeds is that God is merely the creator; not the God of religion and there to listen and answer prayers. However, they argue that God did play a role in the mass extinctions and paved the way for intelligent life to come about on all three planets.

An example of a space ship traveling at the speed of light

Near the end of the book, the Earth and the alien’s planets face a possible sixth extinction; the universe is threatened by a star going supernova. Something intervenes, and destruction is averted. After what the aliens and Jericho believe was the earth’s salvation by God, Jericho accepts an offer from Hollus to travel with them to the creator’s known location. Instead of spending his last days on earth suffering, he is cryogenically frozen for space-travel by the aliens and they embark upon a journey to find God. The last chapter of the book is the aliens and Jericho meeting and communicating, though in an unlikely way, with God.

Intelligent Design and Calculating God

There is a great deal of science discussed in Calculating God. Sawyer uses the five fundamental forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and (according to Sawyer) the yet undiscovered repulsive fifth force to disavow the random nature of life and to promote the idea of a creator, (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 72). Though Jericho remains skeptical, Hollus argues, “there is no indisputable proof for the big bang and there is none for evolution. And yet you accept those. Why hold the question of whether there is a creator to a higher standard,” (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 101).

Hollus explains on pages 62-64 that if gravity was just different by just a few orders of magnitude on each side that the earth would have either never been created or collapsed under the extra gravitational weight.

Gravity acting on a star

Another example is that of the balance between gravitational and electromagnetism for the creation and balance of stars. According to Hollus, there aren’t many ways to do this mathematically and if their gravitational strength was different by one in 1040 that no yellow suns could exist in the universe (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 62). He continues with the example that if the nuclear forces which hold the atoms nuclei together was just slightly smaller, the protons would not allow for atoms to exist. If larger, only the hydrogen element would be formed.

This argument is similar to what is now known as the weak anthropic principal (WAP), which was introduced in Poland at the 500-year celebration of Copernicus’ birthday (Physics SFSU n.d.). The principal was presented by Brandon Carter,

Brandon Carter

the Australian theoretical physicist, and it’s underlying theory was that “humanity did indeed hold a special place in the Universe,” (Physics SFSU n.d.). It follows the works of the early Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, who argued for the case of a designer or creator because of the complexities of man. These early men when they made the illustration for intelligent design, did not do so with the notion of the Juedo-Christian God, a feeling that both the Wreeds and the Forhilnors agree with.

The weak anthropic principal also follows along with William Paley and his analogy of the eye and the telescope which was summed up as, “the eye is like a telescope; telescopes have telescope makers; therefore eyes must have eye makers,” (Ruse 2006). As it is now defined, the WAP states:

The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on the values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the universe be old enough for it to have already done so. (Physics SFSU n.d.)

Another scientific argument for the idea of a creator is based on water. Hollus in the book talks about the importance of water because unlike most compounds; water does not contract when it cools and again does not expand when it is heated, but the opposite. If it acted differently, ice could not float because it would be denser as a solid. If ice can’t float then the oceans would freeze solid, and as Hollus explains, no life would be able to live in the ocean and the underwater currents would not give way to spring thawing, (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 68). These properties are explained in greater detail by the University of Idaho’s Ground Water Hydrology website, which agrees with the logic in Calculating God about the opposite thermal property of water, “the importance of this property cannot be overemphasized for its role on the ecosystem of earth,” (University of Idaho n.d.).

Through Hollus, Sawyer also uses evolution and DNA to make the case for intelligent design. The scientists in the book take samples of both Hollus and the Wreeds blood for a DNA test, and they are surprised to find how similar they are to human DNA. Upon learning this, Jericho tells Hollus that the geneticist “was expecting something more – well alien,” (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 97). But if the same designer created all of the life forms, not just those of earth, Hollus explained it made sense to have similar genetic code.

A drawing of DNA

When looking into DNA, there are only four letters A, C, G, and T that make up the sequences of nucleotides. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s Design Arguments for the Existence of God, there are four possibilities “for origin of biological information. (1) chance; (2) a pre-biotic form of natural selection; (3) chemical necessity; and (4) intelligent design,” (Himma n.d.). The author, Kenneth Himma argues that intelligent design is most likely because it “is logically possible to obtain functioning sequences of amino acids through purely random processes, some researchers have estimated the probability of doing so under the most favorable of assumptions at approximately 1 in 1065.” While Jericho is thinking about DNA in relation to cancer and his conversations with Hollus, the reader is given arguments on the precision of the DNA code and the arguments for this being a creator, (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 167-170).

Throughout the many scientific arguments in the book, the reader as well as Thomas Jericho can argue that this is just one large coincidence, yet Hollus counters with, “It’s either coincidence piled on top of coincidence or it is a deliberate design,” (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 67).


While the bulk of the science in this book are based around the questions of God and intelligent design, not all of the science is about that. Calculating God is full of classic science fiction ideas, including aliens, space travel, cryogenic freezing, and fusion powered space ships.

An artist’s drawing of Hollus

For many readers, the assumption that we are not alone in the universe is not a large step from their imaginations, but an alien showing up in Toronto has not yet happened in the history of science or the earth. Also the technology used to power the Forhilnor’s ship is clearly Sawyer’s inventiveness at work.

However, it is the compelling arguments about intelligent design that provoke the reader to contemplate how science and God can move together. Sawyer himself has stated about the book that, “the science is carefully researched, and as we travel through the plot we explore issues in evolutionary biology, cosmology, quantum physics, astronomy, and biochemistry” (R. J. Sawyer, On Writing Calculating God 2000). His research is clear with the in-depth arguments made by Hollus about the nature of the universe and life as we know it.

The arguments made by Hollus for God do not give the reader the impression that the God of this book is the God of religion; but however, the God of the beginning of the universe. “Look, I’m not a mystic. I believe in God because it makes scientific sense for me to do so; indeed, I suspect God exists in this universe because of science, “ (R. J. Sawyer 2000, 98).

Adam and the Creator

Works Cited

Himma, Kenneth Einar. “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Physics SFSU . The Anthropic Principal. (accessed July 2, 2014).

Ruse, Michael. Religion and the Biological Sciences. Vol. 2, in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Donald M. Borchert, 393-397. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006.

Sawyer, Robert J, interview by Nick DiChario. Interview with Robert Sawyer Philosophy Now Magazine Issue 80, (Aug/Sep 2010).

—. On Writing Calculating God. 2000. (accessed July 2, 2014).

Sawyer, Robert J. Calculating God. Edited by David G Hartwell. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2000.

University of Idaho. Water. (accessed July 2, 2014).

Wikipedia Beta Hydri. Beta Hydri. (accessed July 2, 2104).

Wikipedia Delta Pavonis. Delta Pavonis. (accessed July 2, 2014).

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