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Exploring Baby Galaxies with Charles Steidel

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April 22, 2013 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time
Exploring Baby Galaxies with Charles Steidel

Today's entry was written by Fred Heeren. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today’s post comes to us from God and Nature magazine, an online publication of the American Scientific Affiliation.

When I visited Caltech astronomer Chuck Steidel in 1996, he had recently discovered a method to fill in the enormous knowledge gap between our observation of modern galaxies and the universe’s first light (the cosmic microwave background radiation). For 20 years, astronomers had searched diligently—but unsuccessfully—for a way to single out a population of the earliest galaxies. Steidel had developed a method that proved itself capable of doing just that, so that today it continues to give astronomers the world over the data they need to learn how galaxies evolved.

As is the case in many fields, astronomers are trying to settle questions that the general public thinks little about, often because laypeople are still coming to grips with much more basic questions such as Did the universe appear—poof—all at once or did it evolve into its present state?

These are questions where science crosses into—and sometimes crosses swords with—religion. For many who take an anti-evolutionary stand as a matter of spiritual principle, the word evolution should not be applied to anything having to do with creation, cosmic or otherwise. Yet, if an evolving universe implies a beginning (and it does, for relativistic reasons), science has taken a tremendous leap toward rapprochement with Christian faith on the matter of creation. Traveling backward in time with their shrinking subject, cosmologists can only watch the cosmos disappear at the beginning, pointing to a universe that came out of nothing—a universe that wasn’t there.

No one need ask: “Were you there?” Chuck Steidel has tapped into nature’s own motion picture of past events, now showing in the present. Anyone who cares to view it can now see for himself what was and wasn’t there, at various stages of the deep past.

While other astronomers at first assumed that larger telescopes would be necessary before finding truly primeval galaxies, Steidel began finding dozens of them—and today, thousands of them. His method, called ultraviolet dropout, is based on the fact that intergalactic hydrogen gas absorbs the ultraviolet light of the most distant galaxies, causing them to disappear when seen through an ultraviolet filter. Steidel identified early galaxies that are present in pictures of the cosmos when viewed through red and green filters, but that aren’t there when viewed through an ultraviolet filter.

Visual evidence for a universe that isn’t there starts with the observation of galaxies that aren’t there.

“The way that people have looked for these in the past tended to be looking for particular, spectacular fireworks of stars going off all at once,” Steidel told me. He was only 32—a young-looking 32—and could have passed more easily as a student than as a professor as he talked with me in his Caltech office, surrounded by Hubble Deep Sky images. “So they were looking for relatively rare events, using narrow-band filters tuned to find an emission line that comes from hydrogen atoms. And you have to have the filter exactly tuned to that wavelength to see it.”

“And I’ve heard it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” I offered.

“It’s much more difficult.”

“So rather than try to find something that stands out you’re trying to find something that drops out?”

“That’s correct. It’s a very simple technique, where we take pictures through different filters, very deep images of the sky with CCD detectors, and we take three filters, and we look for objects that are present through two of those filters, and they completely disappear in the third. And the reason they disappear is because they’re at a high redshift.”

The high redshift denotes greater distances—and earlier periods, because of the time required for light to reach us from those greater distances. These young galaxies contain young, hot stars, emitting strongly in the ultraviolet. However, ultraviolet radiation from the most distant galaxies is absorbed by a greater amount of intervening hydrogen gas along the way. Today, Steidel uses the 200-inch Hale Telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory to find these primeval galaxies with his ultraviolet dropout technique, then flies to the 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii to measure their redshift, which corresponds to their distance and time period.

And what do these galaxies look like?

“We actually think we’re seeing the central bulge regions of galaxies forming,” said Steidel, “that is, the round part in the middle of a spiral or an elliptical galaxy, where you expect all of the star formation to be happening in a relatively small region. And those parts of galaxies we see today are also the parts that we think are the oldest stars in those galaxies.”

“And you’re saying that modern galaxies have the oldest stars in the bulges, is that right?”

“That’s right …. It’s still somewhat controversial. But there isn’t any doubt that we’re finding a number of things that match fairly closely to the number that you would expect to find if you were looking at the progenitors of the present-day, bright galaxies.”

Steidel’s galaxy surveys have shown that galaxies were already arranged in clusters at that early time. But the individual, primeval galaxies lacked the characteristics of today’s spirals and ellipticals. More recently, Steidel has focused on a slightly later period, from about 10 to 12 billion years ago, when star formation appears to peak. If seeing is believing, then, as Steidel says, the universe “has absolutely changed with time.” His methods have helped astronomers identify populations of galaxies at various stages, where their differences from one to another are unmistakable.

In the years ahead, telescopes beyond our obfuscating atmosphere, like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (collecting six times as much light as the Hubble), may begin to give us glimpses of the “Dark Ages,” when the first galaxies began to form. As our improving technologies bring us closer to the beginning, they will lead people to ponder, once again, what happened before that

In my interviews with researchers, I usually bring up such crossover questions when the scientists or their studies naturally suggest them. But I worried that I’d crossed over too clumsily into this territory with Steidel when I asked him what he thought about a universe that appeared to come into being out of nothing.

He hesitated and said, “What happened before, you know, it’s …” and his voice trailed off. 

Finally I suggested: “Something must have happened before.”

“I think about that extremely rarely.”

Shoot, I’d gone too far, I thought.

But then he added: “On the other hand, I do have a very wide appreciation for whatever put things there—because it’s just the greatest thing to go out on the catwalk around the dome, in the middle of the night, and just look up there, or look at a picture of the Hubble Deep Field, and see all the things that are out there, and—you know— it’s a beautiful universe out there.”

Indeed, come to think of it, the way it all came together may be an even more impressive fact to ponder than the fact that at one time, that is, before time, the universe wasn’t there.


Fredric Heeren has a reputation for writing about the everyday work of leading scientists so that readers wish they too could be out there making these discoveries. Heeren’s recent investigations have taken him to fossil sites that tell the story of life’s evolution — from early Cambrian and Precambrian sites across southern China, to the hominin findings at Koobi Fora, Kenya, to the Romanian Carpathians where he joined cave-divers excavating the earliest modern human remains in Europe. He has covered science news for over a dozen newspapers, magazines, and science journals.

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lancelot10 - #78903

April 22nd 2013

Chuck - Looking at the big bang theory how do modern astronomers explain how all the matter in the universe came out of a tiny dot - seems like impossible compression to a layman like me.

beaglelady - #78908

April 22nd 2013

It is most interesting that the big bang theory originated with a Belgian Catholic priest, Georges  Lemaître.  But he didn’t want his theory used to “prove” religion in some way. He said, 

As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.


Read more here


Another interesting fact is that in the opening chapters of Genesis, there is no creation ex nihilo, believe it or not.  A watery, dark, chaotic world already exists, which God organizes, etc.  The doctrine of creation ex nihlio would come later; I believe it first appears in one of the apocryphal books of Maccabees.

And before the holy inquisition stops by, let me state that I believe that God created the world out of nothing.  Have I made myself clear?

hanan-d - #78922

April 22nd 2013

Beaglelady is correct.

The confusion comes from a lack of understanding of hebrew grammer. It’s not “In the beginning”. It’s “When God was first creating the heavens and the earth and the…..”

Eddie - #78924

April 22nd 2013

Actually, Hanan, as someone whose scholarly specialty is in part Hebrew creation doctrine, I have to qualify your statement, and beaglelady’s above.  The translation you suggest is possible.  It does not solve all problems, not even of the Hebrew grammar, and it is not universally accepted by Biblical scholars.  Neither is the traditional translation and interpretation beyond criticism.  The safest thing to say is (a) that Genesis 1 may or may not teach creation out of nothing; (b) even if the narrator of Genesis 1 imagined an original uncreated chaos, it is certainly true that in historical orthodox Christianity (and, correct me if I’m wrong, in historical orthodox Judaism) creation is regarded as ex nihilo.  

beaglelady - #78926

April 22nd 2013

Thanks hanan-d

One really good translation of Genesis is the one by Robert Alter.  He’s a  professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature at U Cal Berkeley

Eddie - #78925

April 22nd 2013

Oh, very clear, beaglelady.

As clear about the involvement of God in the first creation of matter as you are nebulous about what God does with the matter after it is created.

The “Holy Inquisition” hereby clears you of all charges on the first point.  As for the second point, its verdict is rendered on the other current thread on this topic.

beaglelady - #78927

April 22nd 2013

I just can’t wait.  Will there be any spitting on the TE God?

Eddie - #78937

April 22nd 2013

As long as the TE God is the spittin’ image of the actual Christian God, there’ll be no spittin’ on him.

hanan-d - #78928

April 22nd 2013


Eddie, I accidentally hit the “report Abuse” button instead of the “reply to this comment”

Sorry about that.

Theologically, ex nihilo may be it, but gramatically it’s a different story. 

The hebrew word says “BEreshit.” For it to be “In the beginning, it woud have to be BAreshit. The BA would be the difinite article. BE would work out as something to what I said above. 

So you can perhaps say that God did create everything. But the the first sentence does not read In the beginning. It reads as there is something there and God is about to form it the world. 

Here is a nice link with some lectures Michael Heiser gave at a church


Eddie - #78934

April 22nd 2013

Thanks, Hanan.

Yes, I understand the difference between the two Hebrew forms, and I understand why, given the pointing b^ereshit, people have tried for an alternate translation.  But then you have to re-point the verb “created” (bara’) as the verbal noun “creating” [b^ero’] to get “in the beginning of God[‘s] creating” (i.e., “when God began to create”).  So in order to save the pointing on the first word, you have to alter the pointing on a later word; the sentence grammar doesn’t work out right either way, if you stick with the Masoretic pointing.  And as I said, while many Bible scholars will go along with “when God began to create,” others won’t.  

There are of course precedents for your translation in some medieval rabbis, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Rashi.  But even among Jewish scholars, I believe, there is not universal agreement that the “when God began to create” is the right rendering.  For a discussion of some gory details, have a look at the commentaries of Westermann and John Skinner (ICC).

I’m not saying that your translation is wrong; I’m saying that it isn’t certain.  It’s one way of dealing with a difficulty in the text.  It may be correct.  It may be that the original document which became our Genesis 1 was written by someone who envisioned God as working on a primordial chaos.  I was merely offering a scholarly caveat for the benefit of the readers here.  

Hope that clarifies. 

Seenoevo - #78931

April 22nd 2013

Have you ever heard someone say “older than old”?

How about “older than time itself”?

Here’s one of the many “issues” astronomers are dealing with these days:


Seenoevo - #78976

April 23rd 2013

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”


Sounds like ex nihilo.

Seenoevo - #78977

April 23rd 2013

This article is about the work of Chuck Steidel, Caltech astronomer.

I saw a quote yesterday by Ernst Peter Fischer, who coincidentally was educated at the California Institute of Technology.

“a society which accepts the idea that the origin of the cosmos could be explained in terms of an explosion, reveals more about the society itself than about the universe. Nevertheless, the many observations made during the past 25 years or so which contradict the standard model, are simply ignored. When fact and theory contradict each other, one of them has to yield.”

I wonder if Chuck and Ernst have ever corresponded or collaborated.

Seenoevo - #79053

April 25th 2013

“Visual evidence for a universe that isn’t there starts with the observation of galaxies that aren’t there.”

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