Recent Discoveries in Astronomy, Part 2

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September 20, 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.

Note: This is Part 2 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.

In Part 1, Dr. Haarsma began by examining images of the Milky Way and the Sun, and today she continues with asteroids, nebulae, and galaxy clusters.

Asteroids

In July 2011, the spacecraft Dawn arrived at the asteroid Vesta and took the photograph shown in Figure 3. Vesta is about 530 kilometers across, or about the size of Wyoming. This beautiful image shows the varied texture on Vesta’s surface. Vesta has craters like the moon, but also ridged bands along the upper left. In fact, there are craters on top of the ridged bands! Just from looking at the surface, it is clear that Vesta has a history, in which the bands formed first, and after that small asteroids hit Vesta to make the craters on top of the bands.

Astronomers now know the orbits of nearly half a million individual asteroids in the asteroid belt. The asteroids are grouped into families that have similar chemical composition and similar orbits. College students with whom I work have programmed computers to run the orbits back in time under the laws of gravity. The students find the same thing that professionals do: asteroids in the same family have orbits that converge at a certain time in the past, millions of years ago. This was the time when two asteroids collided, breaking off many smaller asteroids. The new smaller asteroids are seen as a family today.

Charting the origins of asteroids is an excellent example of historical science: by using the evidence we see today, we can deduce what must have happened in the past. Very few assumptions go into the orbit calculation, just Newton’s laws of mechanics and gravity. Even though no one was there to see the collision, the orbits today show that a collision occurred millions of years ago. God gives us a glimpse of how he created the asteroid belt. The idea that something happened millions of years ago may seem startling to you. Christians disagree about the age of the earth, solar system, and universe. Some Christians believe the solar system is only 10,000 years old, in agreement with the genealogies recorded in the Bible. Other Christians believe the solar system is 4.6 billion years old, in agreement with many lines of evidence from astronomy and geology, including asteroid collisions.

Since God has revealed himself in both scripture and nature, we need to take both revelations seriously. Both revelations require human interpretation: scientists interpret the evidence in the natural world, and Christians interpret the Bible every time they read it. Many biblical scholars say that the best interpretation of Genesis indicates that it was never intended to teach scientific information about the age of the universe, but it was intended to teach truths about God’s sovereignty and the goodness of creation. A full discussion of age is beyond the scope of this essay, but resources on this topic are listed under Further Reading (at the end of this three-part series).

Nebulae

When you look at the night sky, the space between the stars looks black. Figure 4, however, shows that the space between the stars is actually filled with rich complexes of dust and gas. The Carina Nebula is located 7,500 light-years away. A light-year is the distance that light travels in one year, so that means the light we see left the nebula 7,500 years ago. This image is about thirty light years across. The beautiful colors represent different types of gas: blue for nitrogen, green for hydrogen, and red for sulfur. The dark clumps and filaments are regions where dust clouds absorb the light.

The resulting picture is as elegant as an abstract painting, truly a display of God’s artistic creativity. This nebula was around long before human history, but only in the last decade or two have we had telescopes and cameras to make images like this. We’ve found nebulae throughout our own galaxy and in other galaxies; God appears to have filled the universe with an extravagance of beauty, even where no human is there to see it.

This nebula displays God’s creative nature in another way: in this region God is creating new stars. It is an active “stellar nursery.” The smallest dark globules in the lower center of the picture are similar in size to our own solar system. Each globule will likely become a star with planets of its own. Our own solar system probably had its origin in a nebula like this. God brought together the dust and gasses in a swirling cloud to make the sun, earth, and planets. The very nitrogen in our bodies was once glowing in a beautiful nebula. God made us from stardust.

This nebula illustrates an important truth: a scientific explanation does not replace God. Some atheists say, “Scientists can explain this, so there’s no need for God.” And some Christians say, “Scientists can’t explain this, so God must have made it.” Both statements make the error of assuming that a scientific explanation is somehow a substitute for God. Yet in other areas—gravity or photosynthesis or chemical reactions—we view God as upholding the laws of nature. We don’t say that natural laws indicate God’s absence. For a Christian, a scientific explanation doesn’t diminish God’s role; it gives additional insight into God’s action and increases our praise of him.

Galaxy Clusters

Since the Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched into orbit in July 1999, it has been sending back amazing pictures of the universe in X-rays. As with the sun, this galaxy cluster looks very different in visible light and X-ray light. On the top in Figure 5 is a visible light image f rom the Hubble Space Telescope of galaxy cluster Abell 1689, located 2.3 billion light years away. You can see hundreds of yellow galaxies, each containing billions of stars. Many of these galaxies are larger than our own Milky Way galaxy.

Before X-ray telescopes, astronomers had no idea that there was more to a galaxy cluster—we thought the space between the galaxies was basically empty. On the bottom in Figure 5 is an image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory of the same region of space. Instead of individual galaxies, the image shows X-rays coming mostly from a huge cloud of hot gas filling the space between the galaxies. In fact, there is much more mass in the gas than in the galaxies!

Yet even this isn’t the whole story. Astronomers have found that most of the cluster mass is not in galaxies, and not in gas, but actually in a mysterious substance called dark matter. Dark matter is stuff that has mass but doesn’t emit light. Astronomers are not sure what dark matter really is, but the best guess is that it’s some bizarre elementary particle that doesn’t exist on earth except in particle accelerator experiments. Only 2% of the cluster mass is actually in the galaxies! I love how modern telescopes show a reality beyond what our eyes can see. Without optical telescopes, we couldn’t see the galaxy cluster at all. Without X-ray telescopes, we wouldn’t know about the hot gas. And without particle accelerators, we would be even more confused than we are about what dark matter is.

I study galaxy clusters like Abell 1689 in my own research program. My students and I are investigating how the hot gas interacts with the galaxies, specifically how the central bright core of the gas interacts with the big galaxy at the center of the cluster. My students and I share the joys of discovering new things about the universe, and suffer the daily frustrations of calibrating data and computer analysis. We contribute a small piece of the puzzle within a community of hundreds of astronomers around the world who study galaxy clusters.


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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Merv - #72947

September 20th 2012

Astounding!  Thanks for the continued astronomy lesson.  The backward convergence of the asteroids was new for me.  Sort of a mini-version of Hubble’s observation for the universe.

I found this line interesting: 

And without particle accelerators, we would be even more confused than we are about what dark matter is.

It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which we could actually be more confused about dark matter, given that we’re nearly clueless about it now.  Or have I missed recent developments on this?  Is there actually any more substance to the theory of dark matter beyond it being a mathematical necessity to make gravitational equations work out correctly? 

-Merv

 


HornSpiel - #72949

September 20th 2012

Astronomers are not sure what dark matter really is, but the best guess is that it’s some bizarre elementary particle that doesn’t exist on earth except in particle accelerator experiments.

If dark matter seems to fill the universe and we really don’t know how to detect it except from its gravitational pull that bends light, how do we know it does not exist on earth? If it has a gravitational pull, wouldn’t it be attacted to massive objects like planets and stars?


Francis - #72956

September 20th 2012

“The students find the same thing that professionals do: asteroids in the same family have orbits that converge at a certain time in the past, millions of years ago… we can deduce what must have happened in the past.”

“Must” is a strong word. How sturdy are the assumptions?

 

“Some Christians believe the solar system is only 10,000 years old, in agreement with the genealogies recorded in the Bible. Other Christians believe the solar system is 4.6 billion years old, in agreement with many lines of evidence from astronomy and geology, including asteroid collisions.”

And some believe it’s 13.7 billion years old.

Assuming someone’s right, the others are somewhere between 183% and 129,999,900% wrong.

 

“Many biblical scholars say that the best interpretation of Genesis indicates that it was never intended to teach scientific information about the age of the universe, but it was intended to teach truths about God’s sovereignty and the goodness of creation.”

And I think many of those same scholars say Adam wasn’t real. I say they’re wrong.

 

“Astronomers are not sure what dark matter really is, but the best guess is that it’s some bizarre elementary particle that doesn’t exist on earth except in particle accelerator experiments.”

That deserves an instant replay:

We don’t know what it is, but we know dark matter “doesn’t exist on earth except in particle accelerator experiments.”

So, dark matter exists only where the astrophysicists and their Big Bang Theory (BBT) need it to be. They need dark matter so that their “survey” says …… The universe is 13.7 billion years old!

In contradiction to another BBT assumption – the necessary assumption of homogeneity - dark matter isn’t found on earth. Not even when I turn off the lights.

 

Folks, the lights are off … where they should be on.


mjblyth - #72958

September 20th 2012

Your last comment appears to be correct, Francis, though perhaps not in the way you meant it. Are you trying to dialog and learn here or just repeating what you’ve been told? Which “assumptions” are you critiquing in the bit about the asteroids, and on what basis do you question those assumptions? Do you understand the difference between the age of the universe and the age of the solar system? Can you help us engage with biblical exegesis beyond saying, “I say they’re wrong,” (wow, your opinion on that really makes me reconsider all I have learned in the past!)? Can you elaborate on your understanding of dark matter? I’m not sure whether you’re saying you have evidence that it does not exist at all, or that it exists everywhere, or what? I’m sure we’ll all be interested in engaging in your ideas if you would just expand them for us with some facts and logic.


Loren Haas - #72960

September 20th 2012

Regarding those who refuse to honestly engage in the conversation, I think it is best to just shake the dust off your sandals and leave them in their own world.


Francis - #72961

September 20th 2012

Mjblyth,

“Which “assumptions” are you critiquing in the bit about the asteroids, and on what basis do you question those assumptions?”

I don’t know what the assumptions are, but I’m curious and willing to be enlightened.

Please free to explain and defend the assumptions the author and her students made. You may have to, since the author might not (she hasn’t yet responded to my points in Part 1).

One thing I do know about asteroids - the scientists say you can’t always judge an asteroid by its cover:

Compare Lutetia the frigid  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111028103212.htm

To Lutetia the possible hottie http://phys.org/news/2011-10-battered-asteroid-core.html

 

“Do you understand the difference between the age of the universe and the age of the solar system?”

I think you may be right. I misread the author. Maybe no one says the solar system is 13.7 billion years old. Some say that only about the universe. Some say the solar system is 4.6 billion years old, some say about 10,000.

Allow me to correct myself:

Assuming someone’s right, the other is about 45,999,900% wrong.

 

“Can you help us engage with biblical exegesis beyond saying, “I say they’re wrong,” (wow, your opinion on that really makes me reconsider all I have learned in the past!)?”

I’ll let someone else make my point [about the reality of Adam] for a change of pace. See Matthew 19:4-5; Luke 3:38; Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:24, 45; 1 Timothy 2:13-14; Jude 1:14.

 

“Can you elaborate on your understanding of dark matter?”

No. Can you? (And I mean something besides “mysterious substance”, “Astronomers are not sure what dark matter really is, but the best guess is that it’s some bizarre  …”, “without particle accelerators, we would be even more confused than we are about what dark matter is”.)

 

“I’m sure we’ll all be interested in engaging in your ideas if you would just expand them for us with some facts and logic.”

That’s what I’d like too. “Some facts and logic”.

Still waiting.

 

P.S.

Is that a grapefruit on your head?


Francis - #72962

September 20th 2012

Loren Haas,

“Regarding those who refuse to honestly engage in the conversation, I think it is best to just shake the dust off your sandals and leave them in their own world.”

I know what you mean, “brother”.

I sometimes wonder whether I should be sticking around here.


wesseldawn - #72977

September 21st 2012

Why can’t both views be correct, scripture and nature?

Francis, we need to trust the physicists in regards to their work just as we trust you in regards to yours!! It’s an insult to question someone’s knowledge and motives in their respective field; I dare say that only physicists are properly equipped to challege other physicists. The discovery of dark matter is only in the elementary stages and we need to encourage the work…sure there are discrepancies about time but think how complicated the subject is…most physicists (religious and not) agree (because of the data) that the earth is far older than 10,000 years and our solar system and the universe itself measured in billions of years.

Now I have a question for Deborah…and again, I mean no disrespect,

Since God has revealed himself in both scripture and nature, we need to take both revelations seriously.

You have been using science as the primary means to show God’s creativity. As you well know, the universe is complicated…being God’s creation (as you and others believe) then the Bible (also God’s creation) should reveal this same kind of complexity. Quoting a few single verses from the Bible to support the creation (using the same ones over and over) does not reflect any kind of singularity. Therefore, and logically, I must conclude that the interpretations are missing something!...your thoughts?

Also, I need to ask: why are galaxies spirals...spiral shapes are prevalent in nature itself, I can only think because of an underlying swirling activity. I can only think that the universe itself (dark matter) then must be some kind of viscous liquid as the Bible often speaks of the waters above and the waters below!!


PNG - #73035

September 23rd 2012

The idea of an underlying swirling activity sounds similar to the idea of Rene Descartes that the motion of the planets is due to the motion of a medium that held them. I was reading a book about Newton which notes that he spent part of the second section of the Principia demolishing Descartes’ idea. I haven’t read it myself. I figure Newton got it right, like just about everything he dealt with in physics.


wesseldawn - #73053

September 24th 2012

Maybe Descartes’ was right (I will have to look him up)? If dark matter is indeed some kind of “waters”, then it will possibly react similarly to what we see on earth even though there’s no atmosphere in space?


Francis - #72988

September 21st 2012

“Also, I need to ask: why are galaxies spirals...spiral shapes are prevalent in nature itself, I can only think because of an underlying swirling activity.”

Maybe just because. Because God designed them, and many other things, that way.

http://fabulousfibonacci.com/portal/index.php?opti

 

See time 2:50-3:07 in this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9MwNm0gXd8&feature=related

 


wesseldawn - #73024

September 23rd 2012

I’m not trying to be smart but was “just because” the impetus behind genomics studies?

I was thinking that if galaxies are present in dark matter it has to mean that some force is working upon it to produce the swirling, as in nature wind produces swirling.


wesseldawn - #73056

September 24th 2012

...a scientific explanation does not replace God.

Sure it does! You use science to explain the universe, not the Bible!! Oh sure, a few scripture verses are thrown in for good measure but it’s most definitely science that’s answering the questions about the earth and the universe!

And there’s nothing wrong with science but you would think if God were the creator of this reality (which as magnificent as it is, I still maintain is a degraded copy of the original) it would be friendlier!

 


Merv - #73071

September 25th 2012

Well, then, the biblical authors must have been confused about this, wesseldawn.  They had no problem saying that God sends the rains, the sunshine, calamity, destruction ... and everything else.  They also had no problem saying that these things come from clouds, sun, invading armies, etc.  One huge claim jealosly guarded by God is that He most definitely brought Israel out of Egypt.  He used Moses, others, and all manner of plagues to do it.  We read he parted the sea.  We also read that a “strong east wind” was used to sweep back the sea.  By your reckoning, then the Bible is contradicting itself by making commentary on how God did it—something you feel we aren’t allowed to do any more.

If there is one thing TE does—and it does it well—it demonstrates the utter falsehood of the claim that scientific explanations replace God.  Not only is that an unscientific statement, much more seriously it’s an unbiblical statement.  In fact I’m trying to think what credible source could support such a claim and I’m coming up blank.  But in any case, the Bible lays the matter to rest.

-Merv


wesseldawn - #73074

September 25th 2012

Merv,

You need to re-read the essays: science is used far more on Bio-Logos to explain God’s so-called creation than the Bible is!

When Bible verses are used, it’s always in a secondary sense to science…and then the Bible verses are vague and generalize (and always the same verses).

If God made it all then logically the Bible should be able to explain dark matter! I quoted scripture verses on the previous essay by Deborah: the Bible shows that dark matter consists of light or water or liquid light (?). It was ignored when I believe if it were taken seriously, the Bible can explain what dark matter actually is.

Your examples are too vague: “a strong east wind”!!...science would explain what the wind actually is!

Did you question why the wind came from the east as often “east” signifies Heaven as in Paradise (Daniel prayed towards the east and the wise men who visited the child Jesus came from the east). Why the east? Too, often a strong wind is in reference to “the breath from God’s nostril or mouth/God’s spirit”.

Another example is “stars”, very often it’s referring to “angels”:

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:7, makes you wonder why Jesus called himself “the bright and morning star” in Rev. 22:16!!)

Very often the verses are read at face value only, without bothering to see the deeper (hidden) meaning. The Bible then appears archaic instead of the amazing material it is, being authored by a highly superior (intelligent) being. 


wesseldawn - #73075

September 25th 2012

Re: 73074, I’m referring to the complete failure of BioLogos to notice the Bible’s own (and amazing) algorithm (I hope I’m using the term correctly) - but it was out of place for the topic of this thread.


wesseldawn - #73100

September 26th 2012

I should have mentioned the algorithm is in no way related to the Bible Code (Michael Drosnin) or this one:

http://news.yahoo.com/israeli-algorithm-sheds-light-bible-163128454.html

 

 


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