God, the universe and all that: Part 1

On the Sola Panel:

In the first instalment of a five-part series, I’m pondering what astronomy has to teach us.

I’m a fan of space. I don’t actually know much about the details of astronomy or cosmology or astrophysics; I just think that the space is really cool.

If there are any real scientists reading this, I want to say thanks. I know that most of your work involves boring and tedious searching, collating and number crunching. Thanks for doing all that stuff so that I can see those fantastic pictures of nebulas on the internet and wonder at it all.

For example, I’m a fan of millisecond pulsars. A gigantic star, millions of light years away, explodes in a huge supernova. It creates a fireball ten million billion billion times bigger than Hiroshima. In its ashes, it leaves behind a neutron star made of dense atomic nuclei, squashed together at a density 10 trillion times greater than steel. A teaspoon full of neutron star weighs about the same as Sydney Harbour. Sometimes this neutron star will steal stuff from a nearby star and start spinning. Some neutron stars spin hundreds of times a second—a whole star rotating as fast as an idling car engine. Many of these super-dense, revving stars send out pulses of electromagnetic radiation, milliseconds apart. And we might be able to use these millisecond pulsars as standard cosmological clocks to help us detect gravitational waves, explore space-time bending, and understand more about the tiniest particles in the universe.

But apart from the wow factor, what’s the point of learning about space?

Some people might say that, in the end, astronomy is a complete waste of time. Sherlock Holmes, that fictional epitome of scientific rationalism, cared nothing for astronomy. When his friend Dr Watson scolded him for being ignorant even of the basic facts of the solar system, he interrupted and said, “What the deuce is it to me? … you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”1

Is Mr Holmes correct? Is stargazing a completely useless exercise?

Well, you could point out that weather and tide and climate predictions need detailed solar, lunar and planetary modelling. You could also point out that car engines need modern mechanics, which is all based on the laws of motion formulated by Isaac Newton, who used the orbits of planets to calculate and build his theories. Or you could point to the humble GPS satellite navigator, which relies on Einstein’s theory of relativity and orbiting satellites. Of course, astronomy is useful; after all, it helps us to work out whether it’s raining, and how to drive quickly to the cricket and back without taking a wrong turn!

But I want to suggest that stargazing is far more important than all this. In fact, the Bible itself gives us a very good reason for considering the stars. There is a song in the Bible about the stars—a song composed thousands of years ago in ancient Israel. This is how the song begins:

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

(Ps 8:1-2)

You’ll notice that this poet believes in God (just like many of the astronomers down through the ages). In fact, this whole song is a prayer to the creator of the universe. We’ll come back to this shortly. But for the moment, let’s look at his exercise in stargazing. Do you see what he says in the third verse of the song?

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place …

When you think about it, stargazing is something that would have been easier and more natural for an ancient Israelite than for us. Yes, we can use our light, radio and gamma ray telescopes to penetrate vast distances, and we can use our complex mathematical and cosmological theories to make determinations and predictions. Of course, the ancients couldn’t do that. But on the other hand, they had a very big advantage over us: they had a clear, unpolluted sky in their backyards. We have so many lights on earth—especially in our cities—that the lights of the stars and the moons are drowned out. When I go into my backyard on a clear night, all I can see are a few pinpricks. But this biblical songwriter could step into his own backyard and see far more than you or I. He could see the glory of it all—the heavens, the Milky Way, the wandering planets.

We don’t tend to look up very much at all, do we. We don’t use the night time to look at the heavens; we use the night time to look down—to watch TV, to immerse ourselves in virtual worlds online. We know cyberspace very well, but this ancient poet sees real space with his naked eyes. We know the intimate details of the lives of rock stars and football stars, but this song is about the real stars. At this point, this biblical poet is far more in touch with the reality of the universe than we are. And knowing these stars—seeing them there before him—what does this do for the poet? How does it make him feel? Look at verse 4:

what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

What does astronomy do for this poet? What is the use of astronomy for all of us? Astronomy is very useful. It does something very negative for us, but it’s still very worthwhile: it reminds us how very very very small and insignificant we really are. In case you’re wondering, the words translated ‘man’ here mean ‘all humanity’. The question “What is man?” is an expression of amazement that human beings have any importance at all in the face of the evidence of the stars.

To be continued …

1 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Long Stories, John Murray, London, 1929, p. 17.

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