Recent Discoveries in Astronomy, Part 3
Note: This is the conclusion 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.
Figure 6 looks like a child’s marble or a funny planet, but it is actually an image of the whole sky. Imagine yourself standing at the center of the sphere and looking out at the universe all around you. You’ll also need to imagine that your eyes can detect microwaves, because this image was taken by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001. Throughout this decade, WMAP has sent back increasingly precise pictures of microwave radiation from all over the sky.
This image shows the heat radiation left over from the beginning of the universe. When these photons first started traveling, the universe was as hot as iron in a blacksmith forge, but the expansion has cooled the universe way down to -454.49 degrees Fahrenheit. In the early 1900s, the prevailing view was that the universe was infinitely old and unchanging. By the mid-1950s, astronomers were considering a new model: the Big Bang. The Big Bang model predicted that faint heat radiation would be detected from all over the sky. When this was detected in 1965, most astronomers accepted the Big Bang model. In this model, the universe has a beginning in time, which is closer to the biblical picture. Unfortunately, some scientists have told the story differently, claiming that the Big Bang model means that God is unnecessary. But as with the Carina Nebula, a scientific explanation does not eliminate God. I see the Big Bang model as a scientific description of how God brought about the universe.
The exciting news in the last decade is about the bumps and smudges on the globe. These are regions slightly warmer and cooler than the average, and their shape and distribution (combined with some other data) leads to some amazing conclusions. The WMAP team has precisely measured the ingredient list for the universe and only 4.5% of the universe is the atoms we are familiar with from the periodic table, while the rest is exotic stuff we don’t understand yet: 22% dark matter and 73.5% dark energy. When I was a young graduate student in the early 1990s, astronomers thought there was no dark energy and had major debates over the amount of dark matter; I’m thrilled that we can now measure these values with 1% precision! I hope to live to see the day when we actually understand what the dark stuff is. The thrill of discovery is one of the joys of studying God’s creation. Even though I didn’t personally contribute to this discovery, I can learn about it and share the excitement, and so can you and your congregation.
Billions of Galaxies
All photographers know that if you want to take a picture in dim light, you need a long exposure. When astronomers take a long exposure photograph with a powerful telescope, they call it deep. The photo in Figure 7, from the Hubble Space Telescope, is the deepest ever taken in optical light, with an exposure time of eleven days (divided into many shorter exposures). In a short exposure photo, this part of the sky looks black with just a few stars. The deep exposure reveals thousands of galaxies. This photograph is the one of the most sensitive images of the sky ever made and was taken of a small patch of sky that didn’t include any bright stars, nebulae, or galaxy clusters. And this part of the sky isn’t special; a deep image anywhere in the sky would show the same “wallpaper.” There are probably ten billion galaxies in our universe!
Look at the thousands of galaxies strewn about. You can see white spiral galaxies, orange elliptical galaxies, and small blue blobs that are baby galaxies, just in the process of forming. (God is making whole new galaxies!) This picture reminds us of one of the ways God sees the universe—all of the galaxies dancing and spinning through space, governed by him and following his grand design.
This picture can also make us feel really small. After all, we live on one little planet, orbiting one star in a galaxy of billions of stars, and our galaxy is just one of billions of galaxies in God’s creation. Some people react to this fact by feeling profoundly insignificant: they think maybe God is just some idea we puny humans thought up to make us feel better, or an idea that can’t possibly be relevant. They think that if God does exist, he couldn’t possibly care about us while he is governing this whole huge universe.
My Christian faith teaches me to react to this picture in a different way. This picture of the huge universe reminds me how big God is. The Christian faith has never said God was restricted to our planet; we have always claimed God is outside of his creation and is thus, in a sense, bigger than all of his creation.
But if God is so huge, how can he care about our little planet? How can he care about my little life on this planet? This question isn’t new. David writes in the Psalms:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? (8:3-4, TNIV )
The question of human significance in the face of the cosmos has been with us for thousands of years. David answered it by remembering that
You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet... (8:5-6)
One reason we are significant is that God gave us a special role in creation, to study it and care for it. He has asked us to be partners with him in governing his creation. We are not insignificant. In fact, our responsibility to care for this earth is a much more important issue for Christians to be concerned about than arguments over the age of the universe.
Since David’s time, we have learned so much more about God through his revelation to us. God himself chose to become human, like one of us. He sacrificed all of his glory, held back all of his power, and died to show us how much we matter to him. The same God who governs the galaxies all across the universe also loves each one of us enough to die for us. As Psalm 103 says,
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (v10-11)
The night sky isn’t meant to remind us of how small we are; it is meant to remind us of how vast God’s love is.
To read more on astronomy and faith, the age of the earth, or interpretations of Genesis, visit The Ministry Theorem website and browse resources listed by topic. Here are a few highlights:
- Brouwer, S. Who Made the Moon? A Father Explores How Faith and Science Agree. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.
- Giglio, Louie. “Indescribable.” Six Step Records, 2009. A video sermon on the glory of God seen in astronomy.
- Gingerich, Owen. God’s Universe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
- Haarsma, Deborah and Loren Haarsma. Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design. Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2011. Includes chapters on age, Biblical interpretation, and astronomy.
- Walton, John. The Lost World of Genesis One. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
- Zeilstra, Bill. Today: A Majestic Creation. Palos Heights, IL: Back to God Hour, 2001. A month of devotions on astronomy.
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.