INTRO BY DEB: While much of our work at BioLogos is about presenting the case for evolutionary creation (see for example The Big Story and Evolution Basics), we also take the time to analyze scientific proposals made by Christians who oppose evolution and an ancient universe. For example, Dennis Venema has done several case studies on anti-evolution arguments made in the area of genetics.
Today we begin a new blog series, focusing on a scientific proposal from a young earth creationist in the area of cosmology. The “Anisotropic Synchrony Convention” is a proposal by young-earth creationist scientist Jason Lisle to explain how distant starlight could have reached Earth if the universe were created roughly 6,000 years ago. Our guide through the topic is Casper Hesp, a graduate student in astrophysics and a gifted science writer. This series is intended for readers without any background in astronomy who want to learn more about God’s creation and how to think carefully about issues of science and faith.
The problem of distant starlight
According to the “young-earth creationist” (YEC) view of origins, the first chapters of the Bible strictly demand that the universe was created less than 10,000 years ago. Within the YEC movement it is commonly believed that a recent creation is in good agreement with all available evidence (when interpreted alongside a literal reading of Genesis). In contrast, BioLogos emphasizes that there are multiple independent lines of evidence that directly contradict such a young age of the Universe. The proposal of Jason Lisle, an astrophysicist working with Answers in Genesis, entails a response to the line of evidence related to distant starlight.
One of the more visible evidences which seems to challenge the YEC position can be seen on the sky on any cloudless night spent on the countryside, far away from the light pollution of the cities. It stretches across the firmament as a band of diffuse light which the Ancient Greeks suitably named “the milky circle” (γαλαξiας κuκλος or galaksias kuklos, hence our term: galaxy). Little did the Ancients know that this Milky Way would later be measured to span a distance of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 meters. Do not worry if you cannot grasp this number (nobody can, really). It is more to give you an idea of what astronomical distances “look” like. To wrap their heads around such numbers, astronomers have started thinking in units of light-years: the distance a ray of light can travel in one year. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, the speed of light is the highest speed possible. Using the speed of light that scientists measured, it would take a ray of light 100,000 years to traverse our galaxy (We will get back to the speed-of-light measurement issues later).
When you look at the Milky Way, you are basically looking at the side of our disk-shaped galaxy. Our galaxy contains about a hundred billion (!) stars. And our galaxy is just one out of billions in the observable universe. Astronomers have pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at regions of the sky that had appeared to be empty before. Looking “deeply” enough, they found huge collections of galaxies much like our Milky Way. Distances have been reliably measured beyond 40,000 times the size of our own galaxy. This is an awfully long (and according to standard physics, impossible) distance for light to cross within a mere 6,000 years. And yet we see light constantly arriving at Earth from these distant regions.
If the YEC position is scientifically viable, a satisfying solution should exist to the distant starlight problem. Of course, the first line of defense is to cast doubt on the measurement methods (e.g., see this YEC news article regarding the use of Cepheid variable stars). That approach has not worked out well because many different distance measurements independently converge on the current “cosmic distance ladder”. Such convergence has lead YECs to recognize that this matter should not be taken lightly (pun intended). It has been proposed that light could have been created “en route”, which entails that God placed all those rays of light already well on their way towards Earth. However, Lisle and others have rejected this proposal because it would imply that God is a deceiver. Back in 1994, Dr. Russell Humphreys proposed a so-called “white hole cosmology” to explain distant starlight. However, it seems this theory has met its own demise under pressure of both theoretical errors and falsified predictions (to which Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe has contributed). While Lisle seems to have acknowledged the severe difficulties facing that theory, YEC ministries like the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) still subscribe to it. It’s a longstanding discussion which is not the focus of this series.
It is clear that this situation has left the YEC movement with a dire need for a fresh approach that is more convincing, both theoretically and observationally. A trained astrophysicist would be the most likely source of such a solution. This is where Lisle comes in. After finishing his PhD in solar astrophysics at the (secular) University of Colorado, Lisle went on to become one of the leading scientific minds in the YEC movement. He became an expert voice on the problem of distant starlight for major YEC apologetics ministries such as ICR and Answers in Genesis (AiG). In 2010, Lisle published a long-awaited article containing the details of a solution at which he had been hinting for years: the Anisotropic Synchrony Convention (ASC). Say what? Well, let’s go about this topic slowly.
An extremely short primer on Special Relativity
Synchronization has to do with the concept of time in Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity (SR). Now, explaining SR would be a whole semester worth of study in itself, but I’ll do my best to give you a very basic understanding. SR involves a mind-flip relative to our standard way of thinking about time and space. For everyday life purposes we all fare pretty well by thinking in terms of absolute time and absolute space. This is what physicists call Newtonian or “classical” physics. In classical physics, all speed measurements depend on our own movement speed. For example, a train carriage stands still for the passenger inside, but moves for those waiting on the station. In SR, we need to flip this classical mentality around. SR is based on one main premise: the speed of light is the same for every observer (independent of location and speed). The speed of light is exactly the same whether measured by someone waiting on Earth or someone flying a spaceship. Now, how does one perform such a measurement? Imagine that every observer has a single clock. Someone can determine the speed of light by measuring the time it takes for a ray of light to travel away, bounce off a mirror and travel back (i.e., back and forth or “two-way”). In classical physics, space and time were absolute, so measurement outcomes would change with the speed of the observer. However, in SR, only the two-way speed of light is absolute and to keep it absolute, time and space need to be stretched. This results in all kinds of strange predictions that contradict our common-sensical way of looking at the physical world: different observers experience time and space differently. A common SR textbook problem concerns the question of trying to fit a 20 feet ladder in a 10 feet barn: “How fast do you have to run while holding the ladder so that there is a moment at which the ladder is fully contained in the barn?” There is an actual quantitative answer to this question based on something called Lorentz Contraction. I do not expect you to be able to perform any calculation at this point, but it serves to give you a flavor of the weirdness of SR.
The matter of choosing one’s Synchrony Convention
Remember that SR only pins down the two-way speed of light, denoted with the constant c ≈ 300,000 kilometers per second. This is useful because this quantity can be measured with a single clock (this clock just waits until the ray of light comes back). However, what if, for example, you want to make an appointment to do sports with someone very very far away, separately but simultaneously? Together you will need to decide on some kind of rule to synchronize both of your clocks at different points in space. This choice is called a “Synchrony Convention”. Einstein would advise you to do this such that your one-way speed of light is also constant, always equal to c. This means that it takes a ray of light as much time to go towards your friend as it takes to return to you. If the light leaves you at 1:00PM and arrives back at 3:00PM, we set the clock of your friend such that it reads 2:00PM when the ray of light bounced off his mirror. In Einstein’s convention, the speed of light is the same in directions away from and towards any observer. Einstein’s convention is denoted with the term “isotropic” because this word literally means “the same in every direction”.
Now comes the trick. Instead, one can choose the synchronization of clocks in such a way that the clock of your friend reads 3:00PM at the moment of reflection. Since on your own clock, the light signal left at 1:00PM and came back at 3:00PM, it seems like the ray of light took two hours to arrive at your friend, but zero hours to come back. This means the measured one-way speed of light is two times slower in directions away from you and infinite in directions towards you. This is allowed within SR, since synchronization is essentially a matter of convention. This convention is called “anisotropic” because the speed of light now depends on the direction with respect to the observer. This is why Lisle appropriately uses the term Anisotropic Synchrony Convention (ASC). The procedure of synchronization is visualized in the animation below, which also illustrates the difference between the two synchronization conventions.
Choosing the ASC as a descriptive convention allows any ray of light from anywhere in the universe to “reach” Earth instantaneously (i.e., with infinite speed) . It seems like it could explain how starlight from distant objects reached the Earth in a very young universe. However… Doesn’t it all sound too good to be true? Why exactly did Einstein chose the isotropic convention after having discussed the matter in painstaking detail? In the next blog post, we will dive deeper into the theoretical justification for Einstein’s choice. We will see that it is deeply linked with Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. All of this serves to make you feel more familiar with the theoretical world of physics.
Later on in the series, this will help us to start focusing on the empirical side of the story. The use of the ASC by itself is a free choice which cannot be falsified. Fortunately, observations are also allowed to enter the stage for testing the “ASC model” which Lisle introduced. This model is based on the assumption that the ASC was used in the Bible to describe a six-day Creation event about 6,000 years ago. Also, Lisle assumed that all objects in the Universe were created fully mature. This model actually makes some testable claims about physical reality. Most importantly, everything in the universe should appear as if it came into existence 6,000 year ago. As we progress, we will zoom in on different kinds of observations that seem irreconcilable with this proposal. Essentially, we will see that the ASC model leads to the revival of the Omphalos hypothesis (i.e., the hypothesis that God created the world with the appearance of age even beyond maturity). If you have any further questions, thoughts, or objections, please join our discussion by sharing them in the comments section below.