When and how the universe was created is often debated
As the holiday season begins, I am reminded that I have been writing some version of this astronomy column every week since 1988. During that time, I have sometimes felt caught between two seemingly divergent worldviews.
From the point of view of some professional astronomers, I don’t have much knowledge about astronomy. My search for the night sky and its wonders is frivolous at best.
Conversely, some evangelical Christians have treated me like an expert and then bullied me on topics like the Big Bang and the age of the universe.
Their divergent attitudes reveal a deeper disagreement between the two parties. Some evangelicals and astronomers are at war over concepts as fundamental as when and how the universe was created.
The centerpiece of that conflict often seems to be the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31 to most amateur astronomers.
M31 is one of the icons of stargazing, which people like me refer to, somewhat defensively, as amateur gazing astronomy. Why so defensive? This is why.
Over four decades ago, during my wasted time in graduate school, I was standing with my homemade telescope in the parking lot of the Perkins Observatory.
Centered in the eyepiece was the inclined spiral of M31, its bulging core in the center and its spiral arms splayed out to either side—a spectacular sight, to say the least.
Beside me was a professional astronomer taking a break from using the Perkins Observatory’s Schottland Telescope for research. He had come out to make sure, I think, that he wasn’t getting into his car.
Have a look? I offered. “Boy,” she said dryly, “if I want to look at M31, I’ll go to the Perkins library and look at a picture of M31.”
Understood! Yes, I was a fan. Yeah, he was doing real science and I was just kidding. And, yes, he knew more at the time about M31 than I would learn in a lifetime of “just looking.”
He knew, for example, that M31 is a flattened disk of hundreds of billions of stars. At 150,000 light-years (900 quadrillion miles) across, it takes light 150,000 years to traverse its width.
M31 shines from such a great distance that it takes 2.5 million years for light from its 300 billion stars to reach our planet.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of the great distance of M31 added to the growing geological and astronomical evidence that the universe was extraordinarily old. Even the most distant galaxies indicate that the cosmos has existed for at least 13.7 billion years.
The professional astronomer approached my astronomical obsession with wry amusement.
Some evangelical Christians responded with outright hostility. Some groups came to Perkins Observatory for our public programs as a test of faith, and it’s hard to blame them.
The great distances to the galaxies pose impediments to belief in some passages of Scripture. If M31 is millions of light-years away, then the light we are seeing now took millions of years to reach our eyes on Earth. Therefore, the universe must be very old.
However, a small subset of Christians, the Young Earth Creationists, argue that the Earth and the entire universe of galaxies are only about 6,000 years old.
The intellectual foundation for a young universe was laid during the 17th century when two generations of theologians, and yes, scientists, used the Bible to calculate the age of the universe. Theologian James Ussher used Old Testament chronology to argue that the universe began on October 23, 4004 B.C.
The greatest astronomer of the same century, Johannes Kepler, reached a similar conclusion using the same method. Later in the century, so did the intellectual giant Isaac Newton.
Our society is thus caught in a philosophical conundrum that causes some evangelicals and astronomers to disagree. For some evangelicals, the ancient text of the Bible is correct above all else. Astronomers rely primarily on direct observation of the universe they see today.
As a result, some Christian groups visited the Perkins Observatory as a test of faith. Sometimes they linked arms outside before a public program and prayed for strength before going inside. I was often cornered after the introductory talk and questioned at every mention of the Big Bang, the rapid inflation of the universe that began 13.7 billion years ago.
My answer was always the same. No one said that God did not cause the Big Bang.
One night on a public show at Perkins, the leader of a Christian group calmly argued that the great distance to M31 and the young age of the universe could be easily reconciled. God, he claimed, must have created the galaxy and its light traveling towards us at the same moment in 4004 B.C.
How do we bridge the spiritual gulf between modern religion and science?
For starters, all concerned should go out and look at the universe. High in the southeast, just after dark, is a blurry oval, visible to the unaided human eye for a thousand centuries.
We have only known for a century that the Andromeda Nebula, as the galaxy was called in earlier times, is a galaxy of stars.
Astronomers, consider sympathetically the anger and pain these young Earth creationists must feel. Cherished religious beliefs crumble with an informed glimpse of the Andromeda Galaxy.
And be patient. Ingrained religious beliefs take a long time to fade.
Of course, Ussher, Newton, and Kepler were wrong, but they used the best data available at the time, even though the Bible was never intended to be a complete and continuous chronology.
As noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “Ussher represented the best scholarship of his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working towards a common goal under an accepted methodology.
Christians, do not curse astronomers. On the existence of a creator, astronomy remains silent. It simply informs us that if God created the universe, he did so a long time ago.
God never claimed that the universe is young. Ussher, Kepler and Newton did it. Neither modern religion nor modern astronomy should have to bear the burden of their faulty interpretations of Scripture.
Nor should we trivialize such interpretations out of hand. Gould argues that Ussher’s chronology represents “an honorable effort for his time…. Our usual ridicule only registers an unfortunate narrow-mindedness based on the erroneous use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.
Astronomers, show some respect for the ancient astronomical traditions, even if you think they defy logic. They tell us a lot about how our view of the universe has changed.
More importantly, they tell us a lot about the human condition, then and now, and heighten our emotional attachment to the night sky.
Looking back from the perspective of old age, I wish I had described to the jovially dismissive professional astronomer how the Andromeda galaxy got its name.
M31 lies in the arms of the constellation Andromeda, princess of Ethiopia and archetypal maiden in distress. The sky captures the legend of her in a mythological moment stopped in time.
Andromeda has just been rescued from the ravenous clutches of the nearby constellation Cetus, the Sea Monster, by the brave hero Perseus, also nearby.
Riding on the back of the winged horse Pegasus, Perseus has just killed Cetus. When we see Andromeda, she is astride the winged horse’s back, the terrifying moment of her death transformed into the glorious ecstasy of flight.
And she will fly there for a thousand more generations, the darkness rushing fresh against her face, her heart filled with perfect joy and perfect freedom.
Over the years, I have observed the Andromeda Galaxy more times than I care to admit. I’ve seen it in telescopes large and small, binoculars of all shapes and sizes, and many times in the binoculars I was born with, my own blessed eyes.
More than once I have felt the joy of discovering the mythological Andromeda and the same feeling of liberation. I have felt my heart fly to the galaxies.
I have gone boldly in spirit where no one will ever boldly go in reality. M31 is simply too far.
For me, a distance like 2.5 million light-years is not an emotionless fact, as it is for the astronomer, nor an evidential impediment, as it is for some evangelical Christians. I have felt that great distance like a bolt of lightning down my spine, a sharp inhalation, a lump in my throat, a slow exhalation.
Christians, go outside and look at the 300 billion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy. Marvel at the power of a deity who could create such a place not just once, but six trillion times, for such is the number of galaxies in the universe that your God created.
Astronomers, feel the wonder and majesty of the cosmos. Christians, doesn’t Psalm 19:1 say that “the heavens declare the glory of God”? It turns out that the heavens are vaster and more glorious than people in Biblical times ever imagined. That is the gift of astronomy for you.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.