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Recent Discoveries in Astronomy, Part 1

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September 19, 2012 Tags: Astronomy & Physics, Earth, Universe & Time, Worship & Arts

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

Recent Discoveries in Astronomy, Part 1

Note: This essay is Part 1 of a three-part series from Deborah Haarsma’s chapter in the book Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church, edited by Deborah Haarsma & Scott Hoezee. Other essays from the book appear at The Ministry Theorem.

A passenger settles in beside me on the airplane. We chat a bit about our destinations, and then comes the inevitable question: “So, what do you do for a living?” I pause a moment before answering. If I answer “astronomy,” I know my fellow passenger will perk up, comment that he has always loved stars, and ask a question about a comet or planet that’s been in the news. If I answer “physics,” he will shrink back, comment that he didn’t do well in physics in high school, and the conversation will quickly come to an end. My professional colleagues have noticed the same thing. We joke that if you want to sleep on the plane, just answer, “Physics!”

It’s true that physics sounds scary to many people, and it can indeed be a difficult topic to learn. Yet I’ve always loved physics (my degrees are in physics rather than astronomy), because of the way that mathematical equations can describe and predict so much of what we see in the world around us. One reason I got into astrophysics is because the universe contains so many bizarre situations that we can’t reproduce on earth, like ultracold, or extremely high density, or extremely high magnetic fields. It’s a fun challenge to figure out which physical process will be the most important when the situation is so dissimilar to everyday experience. But if the word “physics” makes you shrink in distaste or fear, don’t worry. For the rest of this article, we’ll focus on a more friendly topic: astronomy.

In the last decade or two, our knowledge of the universe has grown dramatically as many new telescopes and spacecraft have come online. In this essay, I’ve selected some of my favorite recent astronomy photographs to share with you. As a professional astronomer and a Christian, I feel God has called me to share these wonders with the Church. Many times, these new discoveries are presented without any mention of God, and sometimes in a context of overt atheism. I want to share these things with you in a Christian context, with God as their creator.

The Milky Way

Have you ever seen the Milky Way? If you live in a rural area, you may have seen it many times. If not, it may have been a dramatic surprise when you first saw it while camping or traveling. On a clear night out in the country, the sky is strewn with brilliant stars—many more stars than you can see under city lights.The faintest stars form a creamy, smoky band from horizon to horizon. Our galaxy contains billions of stars, and thousands of those stars are visible to the naked eye. The stars appear in a band across the sky because we are viewing our galaxy edge-on, like looking at the edge of a dinner plate.

When David looked up at the night sky over Israel thousands of years ago, he may have seen the Milky Way, or a comet, or simply the brilliance of the full moon. Whatever the sky looked like that night, it inspired him to sing:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4a)

The heavens are displaying the glory of God for all people to hear, proclaiming their message to people of every language, tribe, and nation. Just about anyone who looks up at the night sky feels a sense of wonder. Yet as Christians, we feel more than a vague sense of awe; we know the Creator of the heavens personally, as our own loving Father.

The heavens declare more than God’s glory. The universe is God’s revelation of himself to us, and teaches us about his character. As the Belgic Confession says about “The Means by Which We Know God,”

We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own. (Article 2)

The natural world teaches us about God’s glory, power, divinity, faithfulness, extravagance, immensity, love, and other attributes. God’s special revelation in scripture is our primary place to learn of God’s character (Ps. 19 goes on to talk about special revelation in vs. 7), but the natural world can bring the message to our senses in a powerful way beyond mere words on a page. The Holy Spirit can use the natural world to get the message past our hardened or weary hearts. Nature illustrates these attributes in ways that enlarge our imaginations to appreciate afresh the glory of God.

The Sun

The Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched into space in 2010, the latest of several spacecraft to photograph the sun in detail. In Figure 2, the upper photo shows the face of the sun with a sprinkling of sunspots. The sun is powered by nuclear fusion reactions deep in its core which heat the hydrogen and helium gas till it glows. A sunspot is a place on the sun’s surface where the gasses are a bit cooler than the surrounding area, so that it glows less brightly and appears dark.

The lower photo in Figure 2 was taken the same day, but in X-ray light. X-rays are invisible to our eyes, but you have experienced them at the dentist’s office. There, the X-rays are produced by a machine, travel through the mouth, and are detected by film to reveal an image of your teeth. In this image, X-rays are produced by the sun, travel to the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and are detected by a camera to show an image of the sun. In X-rays, the sunspots are the brightest part of the image, not the faintest. If you look at the sunspot on the left edge, you can see bands of particles rising out of the sunspot in a looping path above the sun’s surface and falling back down on it. As the particles follow lines of magnetic field, they emit X-rays. The loops you see are not small—they are about the size of planet Earth! Because of modern spacecraft, telescopes, and cameras, we can see so much more in the heavens than what is visible to the naked eye. Thus, we are seeing more of what the heavens have to declare about God. In Psalm 19, David goes on to describe the sun:

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. (vs. 4b-6)

If David had lived today, maybe he would have written about other properties of the sun, like the power of God as seen in nuclear reactions and looping magnetic fields. As it is, he makes two important points. One is the universal warmth of the sun, by which God provides for all life on earth. The other is the faithful path of the sun, day after day, unchanging year after year. In the book of Jeremiah, God promises his people that he will not break his covenant with them, any more than he would break his covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth (33:19-26). The sun is a persistent reminder, woven into our lives, of God’s faithfulness to his promises.

Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.

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pastorscott - #72924

September 19th 2012

The solar images are absolutely magnificent.  It is intriguing to think that, while the shepherd David could not spell the word “astronomy” in any language, yet by God’s grace he had the wonder of an astronomer.  That is a big part of the glory in Psalm 19.

wesseldawn - #72925

September 19th 2012

Deborah, I mean no disrespect but I would have thought that you would find the following more in line with a physicists view:

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretches out the heavens like a curtain (Pslam 104:2)

It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in. (Isaiah 40:22)

Who covers thyself with light as with a garment: who stretches out the heavens like a curtain (Psalm 104:2)

Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? who hath gathered the wind in his fists? who hath bound the waters in a garment? who hath established all the ends of the earth? what is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell? (Prov 30:4)

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath: for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment ... (Isaiah 51:6)

Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)

And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. (Hebrews 1:10-12  King James Version (KJV)

They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed (Psalm 102:26)

And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. (heb. 1:12)

And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree. (Isaiah 34:4)

And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. (Rev. 6:14)

synonyms: curtain, garment, vesture, rainment, a cloth, clothes, veil, wrapper, mantle, cover

I find it odd that people that claim to know God’s word so well continually point to creation as God’s miracle (not to say that creation isn’t amazing) but to me it’s “the words” that are more so.
Not that I undervalue any of the sciences but don’t you think it’s high time to start taking the words more seriously instead of quoting the same old scriptures (presented in a boring manner) time and again?
Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. (Mark 13:31)

wesseldawn - #72926

September 19th 2012

sorry - I meant to delete that second Psalm 104:2

Bill Wilson - #72951

September 20th 2012

Whenever someone says “I mean no disrespect” that’s exactly what they do mean, as you proved with your obtuse remarks.  The only thing “boring” was you post.

wesseldawn - #72978

September 21st 2012

Who’s being obtuse now!!

Seeing that you have special powers to know a person’s motives….please tell me…what am I thinking right now?

Regarding physics I have little knowledge, Deborah on the otherhand does, and I wanted to make sure she knew that I wasn’t questioning her expertise in that area. I was however, questioning her expertise in Bible knowledge. However, my remarks seem to have gotten under your skin.

Merv - #72930

September 19th 2012

We can sure see deeper than David into creation with all our techie stuff, but in some basic ways he got the better seat for everyday (or night) observations.  I wonder how brightly the stars must have shown for him in those “pre-light pollution” times?  Psalm 19 is one of my favorites, and I hope I’ll never get bored with such spectacular displays of God’s power.

This post went into ‘my favorites’.  I can’t wait for part 2.  Thanks, Dr. Haarsma.


Francis - #72936

September 19th 2012

Ms. Haarsma,

“Have you ever seen the Milky Way? …When David looked up at the night sky over Israel thousands of years ago, he may have seen the Milky Way …”

To see the Milky Way, one must have eyesight. (I’ve asked multiple times on this website how eyesight evolved but have never received a response. But that’s another issue, and not a question for you.)

But apparently, just as in real estate, seeing the Milky Way is also all about location, location, location.

Below is an extraordinary video, which makes the case that our particular location in the universe and in the Milky Way is critical not just for habitability, but also critical for observability. That is, for our ability to observe as much as we do of our universe.

I found the entire video entertaining and illuminating, but the focus on our location’s impact on our powers of observation is at time 26:45 – 48:22. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj7F9gkFNi4


Now, the build-up to my questions. Some understand our universe to be about 14 billion years old. This aging is courtesy of The Big Bang Theory (aka the Standard Cosmological Model?). However, the Big Bang Theory (BBT) relies on two major assumptions: 1) isotropy, and 2) homogeneity. I have issues with both of these assumptions, but right now I want to concentrate only on #1, isotropy. Isotropy, in the BBT context, says that the universe looks the same in all directions and from all locations. However, this video, while it doesn’t use the term isotropy, says that one’s location in the universe makes a huge difference in how the universe looks. This is why I have an issue with the BBT’s assumption of isotropy. (And why I have a problem with “14 billion years old”.)

Do you believe in the validity of the BBT’s assumption of isotropy, which is necessary for the model’s 14 billion year aging of the universe?

If so, why?

Bill Wilson - #72952

September 20th 2012

The universe looks the same in a general sense from all perspectives.  However, when it comes to particulars, one’s viewpoint can indeed affect what is oberved.  The question is merely one of semantics.

Father D - #72983

September 21st 2012

I feel that “looks the same” is a bad way of phrasing isotropy.  Isotropy really means you can get the same observational evidence from looking any direction in the universe.  Since observational evidence is based on the operation of physical laws, isotropy really means that the same physical laws apply throughout the observable universe.

Darwin Guy Dan - #73095

September 26th 2012

Francis, In the beginning there was light——globally.  Light enables two primary biochemical pathways: (1) life necessitating energy and (2) environmental sensitivity—- i.e., previsionary sensing on through the vision of the 6 (?) phyla with sight organs.  (Note that apparently it has been becoming increasingly recognized that (1) and (2) indicate a naturalistic teology, i.e., goal-oriented drives.)  The science literature reports that light sensitive biomolecules are some of the earliest biomolecules known in the fossil record.  One wonders about the extent of this record.

Are you familiar with “phycocyanobilin”?  If not, Google.  My guess would be that many more than one of those molecules originated, in conjunction with light and other (perhaps unique) environmental factors, some 3.8 b.y.a. or so.

Also highly recommended is Andrew Parker’s IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE (2003) which especially highlights the significance of the Cambrian.  My guess, as a naturalistic parallelist, is that lineages / modern species / kinds have all had their beginnings prior to the Cambrian.  But obviously these lineages would be significantly different now than they were eons ago, not due to Evolution (i.e., common descent) but rather due to descent with modifications.

Parker also wrote THE GENESIS ENIGMA: WHY THE BIBLE IS SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE (2009).  But I personally find that book and others as Gerald S. Schroeder’s THE SCIENCE OF GOD: THE CONVERGENCE OF SCIENTIFIC AND BIBLICAL WISDOM—- I find such books epistemologically problematical. But while I can’t accept that the biblical authors could possibly understand a great deal beyond their own immediate lives, I do recognize that such “day-age” books may be of some pedalogical value to some and give these scholars a leg up in terms of learning science.  That is, the ability to draw parallels may be useful.  (Such would be an interesting sociological study.)

Another great book, with some mathematics, is LET THERE BE LIGHT: THE STUDY OF LIGHT FROM ATOMS TO GALAZIES (2008) by Alex Montwill and Ann Breslin.  Don’t suppose you’re good at quantum physics.  If not we would need another billion dollars for some to interpret ATOM-PHOTON INTERACTIONS: BASIC PROCESSES AND APPLICATIONS (1992) by Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Jacques Dupont-Roc and Gilbert Grynberg.  (I noticed these books cost a small fortune at Amazon. I got mine a few years back, from Bargain Books for much less. Access to a good research library might be useful.)

Dan, a.k.a. NaturalHistoryGuy / LocalTransportationGuy

Francis - #72954

September 20th 2012

Bill Wilson,

“The universe looks the same in a general sense from all perspectives…The question is merely one of semantics.”

Claiming that the universe is 14 billion, sorry, 13.75 ± 0.11 billion (4.339 ± 0.035 ×1017 seconds) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_universe), years old is a pretty extraordinary and pretty exacting assertion. Especially given such a fuzzy, “general sense” assumption.

To me, it’s almost as extraordinary as claiming someone can drive his gas-guzzling Humvee across the breath of the Sahara Desert or of the Antarctic, because in the world these days, generally speaking, one can find a gas station every couple miles. (Enough with the Exxon, Sunoco, Citgo, you worry wart! That’s just semantics!)

Hope to meet you on the other (good) side, traveler.

wesseldawn - #72979

September 21st 2012

Does anyone find it the slightest bit interesting that the verses I quoted in post #72925 seem to suggest that dark matter (garment, curtain, vesture) has properties of both light and water?

Afterall, something is creating the “swirling” that cause galaxies to be spiral in shape? In nature spirals (swirling) are caused by water and wind, or as is the case of the crown of hair on the head, swirling circulating blood.

As shown in a pervious post, according to the Bible, there are waters both above and below, the iniverse itself appearing to be ‘the waters’ below!

Francis - #72984

September 21st 2012

Father D,

“I feel that “looks the same” is a bad way of phrasing isotropy. Isotropy really means you can get the same observational evidence from looking any direction in the universe. Since observational evidence is based on the operation of physical laws, isotropy really means that the same physical laws apply throughout the observable universe.”

Maybe you should ask NASA for a re-write.

“After the introduction of General Relativity a number of scientists, including Einstein, tried to apply the new gravitational dynamics to the universe as a whole. At the time this required an assumption about how the matter in the universe was distributed. The simplest assumption to make is that if you viewed the contents of the universe with sufficiently poor vision, it would appear roughly the same everywhere and in every direction. That is, the matter in the universe is homogeneous and isotropic when averaged over very large scales. This is called the Cosmological Principle.” http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/bb_theory.html

Father D - #72989

September 21st 2012

I don’t feel that NASA needs to rewrite anything.  This paragraph is not meant as the technical definition of isotropy. My definition of isotropy isn’t competely accurate. But once again, I’m not trying to give a technical definition. The definition of isotropy that matters is the one that makes predictions that can be tested against the observable universe.  Did you follow any of the links on that NASA site showing the predictions made by the BBT, and whether or not those predictions were supported?  I feel you should.



Francis - #72991

September 21st 2012

Father D,

“My definition of isotropy isn’t competely [sic] accurate. But once again, I’m not trying to give a technical definition.”

And I don’t think my definition of isotropy was especially technical. But I think it was close enough. [Your spelling isn’t completely accurate either.]


“The definition of isotropy that matters is the one that makes predictions that can be tested against the observable universe. Did you follow any of the links on that NASA site showing the predictions made by the BBT, and whether or not those predictions were supported? I feel you should.”

What I feel I should do is ask you about a prediction of isotropy that came true – that background radiation reaching us from all directions is essentially the same – but which creates other problems for the BBT and the Inflationary Hypothesis.  http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/astro/cosmo.html

What I feel I should do is ask you how astrophysicists can say, with a straight face, that isotropy (as well as homogeneity) can be considered valid assumptions only from a perspective of hundreds of millions of light years away. http://www.gizmag.com/universe-homogeneous-300-million-light-years/24149/  (Here’s an assumption for you: To the naked eye, Father D and Francis side-by-side appear about the same… from half-a-mile away.)

And how do you get outside the universe (by even a foot, let alone 250 million light years) to look back at it and see wondrous isotropy and homogeneity?  

Father D - #73010

September 22nd 2012

Nothing requires you get 250 million light years away in order to see the homogeneity and isotropy. If you read the article that you linked, they explain how they got evidence to support the homogeneity of the universe for at least the last 6 billion years.

Thank you for reminding to be more careful with my typing. Being able to see our mistakes is the only way we can hope to correct them. I appreciate you facilitating this process for me.

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