In this post, BioLogos president (and resident astrophysicist) Deb Haarsma talks about her time at a recent astronomy conference and shares about some exhilarating research happening currently in the field
I had the privilege this week of attending the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington. Astronomers from all over the country and the world gathered to announce the latest discoveries, share updates from every field, and predict what future telescopes will be able to see. Here are a few highlights that caught my eye.
One of the most exciting areas in astronomy today is the discovery of planets around other stars (called extra-solar planets, or “exoplanets”). About 1800 exoplanets have been found so far by various telescopes, and this week more were announced from the Kepler mission. Astronomers have found that some stars have several planets, some stars have none, but on average there is about one planet for each star in our galaxy. Not all are like Earth, of course, but the detections point to billions of earth-mass planets in the Milky Way. Some of these exoplanets orbit too close to their star, and some too far away, but others will be in the goldilocks “habitable zone” where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface (visit the HZ gallery to watch animations of planets crossing in and out of the habitable zone). Of course more ingredients are needed for life than the right mass and liquid water, but it’s exciting to see that God’s universe contains so many potential homes for life.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA is celebrating with a release of new beautiful photos. Jennifer Wiseman and others spoke in honor of the anniversary, reflecting on the major discoveries since 1990. These include the observation of planetary systems in the process of formation and the detection of black holes at the centers of other galaxies. Hubble also contributed to major advances in measuring the expansion rate of the universe and the acceleration of that expansion over time. It’s been an exciting quarter-century for astronomy!
Speaking of cosmology, it was a treat to hear Martin White speak on recent results from the Planck spacecraft. This mission is giving us the most detailed maps of the cosmos to date, measuring the heat radiation leftover from the early universe (called the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB). In 2013, Planck’s first map of the CMB showed remarkable consistency with the predictions of the inflationary model of the early universe. White gave us a preview of the next data release from Planck, coming out in a few weeks. This will include additional types of data (the polarization of the CMB and gravitational lensing results) that will significantly improve the precision and robustness of the cosmological results. White reported that the major cosmological parameters are now measured with under 1% uncertainty.
The CMB data supports the inflation theory of the early universe. Max Tegmark spoke on the implications this has for the idea of the multiverse in a talk based on his new book Our Mathematical Universe. I haven’t read the book, but I found the talk to be not only clear and entertaining, but well-balanced and appropriately caveated. Tegmark was not trying to persuade people that the multiverse exists so much as to explain different proposals for the multiverse and where the evidence currently stands. Observations from Planck and other sources are confirming several predictions of the inflationary model to high precision. While there are several versions of the inflationary model, so far the predictions of the simplest versions have been confirmed, and these versions also predict a multiverse. He described how many astronomers are debating the multiverse and whether it is really science. He feels that the multiverse is in the realm of science, pointing out that we often accept theories (such as General Relativity, or GR) after some predictions are confirmed (GR has been confirmed on earth and across the cosmos) even if some predictions are impossible to measure directly (such as GR’s predictions for the interior of a black hole).
Returning to White, one of the most impassioned moments of his talk was unrelated to inflation. He described how the new data give dramatic confirmation of the consistency of the laws of physics across our entire universe, in both time and space. The sheer consistency between the Planck results (based on radiation emitted 380,000 years after the beginning), the results of primordial fusion of helium (based on processes 3 minutes after the beginning), and physics experiments on earth today, shows that the laws of gravity, electromagnetism, atomic physics, and nuclear physics are all universal. As a Christian, I was delighted to see this tremendous testament to God’s faithful unchanging governance in the “fixed laws of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:19-26, see more at the end of this piece).
Returning to our solar system, one of the most popular talks was by Paul Weissman of CalTech speaking about the Rosetta mission, which you may recall landed a probe on a comet in November. Be sure to follow the news in coming months as Rosetta travels with the comet around the Sun - there should be some amazing photographs of the “out-gassing” of the comet as it warms up. To me it seemed the ovation at the end of Weissman’s talk was more than polite applause – its length and enthusiasm showed the excitement of the whole astronomical community on this most recent advance in our exploration of space.