SixDay Science

Faith in Science | Science in Faith

In their own words — Robert Jastrow


Robert Jastrow. Credit: Unknown.

Robert Jastrow was an American astrophysicist who headed NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for many years. He was an enthusiastic popularizer of science who frequently appeared on television to talk about science and the space program. He was also a noted skeptic of human-caused climate change. Jastrow was an agnostic and non-believer, but his assessment of mankind’s current state of knowledge led him to make some surprisingly frank observations about science and religion. The following, taken from God and the Astronomers, is perhaps the quote for which he is best known.

At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

No evidence needed

If you ever doubt that atheists can be as blind-faith-driven as they claim Christians are, just ask them to justify their assumptions.

This is part of the ongoing discussion I’m having with this particular atheist over the fine tuning argument. See here for background.

There are only three possible explanations for why the universe is so finely tuned as to permit the existence of complex, intelligent life: necessity, chance, or design. Necessity means that there are physical laws requiring the universe to take on the very precise values for things like the physical constants. Chance means the universe won a very, very lucky roll of the dice and just happened to land upon the precise values for things like the physical constants. Design means someone/something deliberately chose the precise values for things like the physical constants. Note that these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. However, once you have ruled out one, you can only consider the other two.

The problem for JW is that there is no physical theory that anyone is aware of that requires the universe to take on the very precise values for things like the physical constants that we measure. JW asked for an example, and I gave him the density of dark energy. Dark energy is a mysterious form of energy in the universe, causing it to accelerate in its expansion. The Standard Model, the name given to the theory of particle physics, predicts that dark energy could have a range of about 10115 GeV/cm3. That’s a 1 with 115 zeroes after it. At the risk of understatement, that’s an enormous range. If the density of dark energy was a bit more than what it is, the universe would’ve expanded too rapidly and no stars could form. If it was a bit less, the universe would’ve collapsed on itself before life could emerge. And yet the density of dark energy is precisely the “right” value for life to emerge. This is why the fine tuning argument is such a focal point for debate.

What we’re left with is chance or design, and thus the argument boils down to multiverse or God. JW seems to think most physicists are “mad” for holding to this very logical conclusion, and steadfastly refuses to accept it. Ironically, he clings to his belief in exactly the same manner many atheists accuse Christians of clinging to their belief.

Weekly Psalm 19: NGC 7006

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — globular cluster, NGC 7006.


Globular cluster NGC 7006. Credit: HST/NASA.

Globular clusters are spherical clusters of stars orbiting in the halos (the outermost regions) of galaxies. This particular cluster is orbiting in the halo of our Milky Way Galaxy, at a distance of about 135,000 light-years from Earth. It appears in the sky in the direction of the constellation Delphinus. Due to its distance, it’s very faint in the sky and therefore difficult to detect with small telescopes. The above image was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The stars in NGC 7006 all formed at about the same time, and are therefore all roughly the same age. They are very old stars — almost as old as the universe — and will remain tightly gravitationally bound to each other their entire lives.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we examine a curious claim about quantum mechanics and the creation of the universe.

JH writes:

[How can Christians respond to the] claim that almost every atheist is clinging to right now, namely that quantum mechanics proves something can come from nothing?

JH is referring to the common atheist tactic of explaining how the universe could be created ex nihilo without a cause (aka a Creator) by invoking a phenomenon in quantum mechanics known as virtual particle production.

Virtual particle production refers to particles suddenly popping into existence from the vacuum of space. For those of us used to the decidedly Newtonian appearance of the world, this seems very strange, but it’s a real phenomenon in the quantum mechanical world. Atheists like to invoke it when arguing about who or what caused the universe: the claim is, these particles are uncaused and come from nothing, therefore it’s possible for things like universes to pop into existence uncaused and from nothing, therefore God is superfluous. The problem with this claim is that virtual particles are neither uncaused nor do they come from nothing. Let’s examine the latter claim first.

If you were able to look at the universe at the quantum mechanical level, you’d notice it was a very jittery place, with virtual particles fluctuating into and out of existence. In order for these virtual particles to fluctuate into existence, they must “borrow” energy from the vacuum energy, which is the background energy of space. This is because, according to Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. If you want to make matter, you use energy (the reverse is also true, which is how nuclear fusion works). Even though we’re accustomed to thinking of a vacuum as nothing, in this case it is definitely something. The vacuum energy of space is non-zero and measurable, so right away this tells us that virtual particles don’t come from nothing.

But there’s another problem — these particles don’t exist for very long. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle — which tells us that we can’t simultaneously know the precise amount of energy and the precise duration of time for an event — allows virtual particles to borrow energy from the vacuum energy provided they return that energy in a very short amount of time. Here’s the key: the more energy they borrow, the more quickly they must return it.

Let’s look at a practical example using a particle called a meson with a mass about 1/10th that of a proton. (Protons reside in the nucleus of an atom, and have a mass of about 2 x10-27 kg.) For a meson to pop into existence, it could only borrow the required energy for about 10-23 second. Written out in decimal form, that’s 0.00000000000000000000001 second. Remember, the more energy a particle borrows, the more quickly it has to return it. A conservative estimate for the number of protons in the observable universe is 1080 (which I am not going to write out in decimal form), which means that for a “virtual universe” to fluctuate into existence, it would exist for an extraordinarily short amount of time — just 10-103 second, which is far shorter than the 14 billion years we’ve measured for the age of the universe.

Now let’s examine the claim that virtual particles pop into existence uncaused. That’s just false. As theoretical physicist Matt Strassler explains on his wonderful blog, virtual particles are disturbances in space caused by the presence of other particles in that space. They’re not even really particles, which is why they’re called “virtual particles.” The upshot is, if certain conditions must exist in order for something to happen, then that something is not uncaused.

Short-short version:

  • When atheists invoke quantum mechanics to try to explain how the universe could be created from nothing naturalistically, they are abusing the notion of nothing.
  • Virtual particles borrow energy from the background energy of space, therefore they do not come from nothing.
  • For something to fluctuate into existence, the more massive it is, the briefer its lifetime. According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the observable universe could only exist for 10-103 second, far shorter than the 14 billion years we measure.
  • Virtual particles are caused by the presence of other particles, therefore they are not uncaused.
  • There is no physical evidence of anything in the universe ever coming into existence uncaused and from nothing.

Backyard Astronomy: July 2015

Here are some fun astronomical events you and your family can enjoy in the month of July. All you need is an inexpensive telescope or binoculars for most of these events, but some of them are viewable with the naked eye.

July 1: Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. A conjunction occurs when two or more planets overlap, or appear very close together, in the sky. This year’s closest conjunction is in July when Jupiter and Venus will appear to be less than half a degree — the diameter of the full Moon — away from each other. This will be a good one to view through a small telescope.

July 28-29: Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower. Meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through a cloud of debris left behind by a comet. The Delta Aquarids are debris from the comets Marsden and Kracht. The shower will peak on the night of the 28th and the early morning of the 29th. This is an average meteor shower that would normally give a decent show, but will largely be washed out by a nearly full Moon. You can still catch a few meteors if you’re persistent. Look in the direction of the constellation Aquarius after midnight for your best chance.

July 31: Blue Moon. A Blue Moon is a second full Moon in a calendar month. They’re sort of rare, but not super-rare, hence the phrase, “Once in a Blue Moon.”

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss dinosaurs and the age of the world and pursuing science as a Christian student.

Shawn made the following criticism in the comments to the “Six Days” post:

Below the slideshow you asked for corrections. I can’t speak to the astrophysics parts, but I can concerning two standpoints — that of theology, and that of fossil evidence, particular in reference to humans, but also in reference to even dinosaurs, which have been found containing soft tissue, something that seems strange, but plausible for a world of only 6-10K years, but absolutely forbidden for a world millions, even billions, or trillions of years old.

This strikes me as an odd observation. Taking the soft tissue evidence at face value, why couldn’t we simply have young dinosaurs in a very old world? It might be a bit awkward, but there is nothing in either science or scripture I’m aware of that “absolutely forbids” this.

In any case, it turns out that the soft tissue evidence is not necessarily a problem for old dinosaurs. It’s quite possible what we’re discovering is that scientists don’t understand decay like they thought they did. Evidence is mounting that, under certain conditions, soft tissue can be preserved during fossilization for millions of years. Nor is it a problem for Christianity, given that I believe scripture [together with a basic understanding of cosmology -Ed.] strongly implies an old universe/old Earth, anyway. Also, for you conspiracists out there, consider that the scientist who made the discovery, Mary Schweitzer, identifies as a committed Christian.


HB writes:

I’ve wanted to change my major to astronomy, but I feel it will be a hard major to be in as a Christian. As an astronomer, do you feel that people are trying to convert you? Or do they respect your beliefs and work with you just the same? And is becoming an astronomer as cool as it seems?

I became a Christian halfway through my graduate studies in astrophysics, and did not find it difficult at all. Nobody in my department gave me any trouble for my beliefs. A few of the faculty and grad students were also Christian, which helped. However, I can foresee a problem being a young-earth creationist Christian and trying to major in astronomy, since so much of the subject matter reveals a very old age for the universe. But if you are not a young-earther, that’s not a concern.

Now, that said, if you are passionate about astronomy, you should not let the fact that you are Christian deter you. Science needs Christians. And we know from scripture and history that we will face many challenges and obstacles just for being followers of Jesus Christ. Since that’s inevitable, just do what you feel you are called to do, and ignore those who would give you any trouble.

And, yes, becoming an astronomer is wonderful. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Do keep in mind, though, that being a scientist is sometimes tedious, but that probably describes just about any job.

Weekly Psalm 19: The Pleiades

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the Pleiades.


The Pleiades star cluster. Credit: NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory.

The Pleiades is an open cluster of stars that forms an asterism — a recognizable pattern of stars — in the sky. The cluster is about 440 light-years from Earth, making it close enough and large enough to be easily observed with the naked eye. It’s also quite lovely through a good pair of binoculars.

The Pleiades is known by many different names, including the Maia Nebula and the Seven Sisters. In Japan, it’s known as Subaru. (You probably recognize the asterism in a certain car company logo now.)

These large, hot stars are relatively young at just 100 million years (our own Sun is 4.5 billion years old), but are already halfway through their main stage of life. The general principle with stars is that the bigger and more luminous the star, the faster it lives.

The cluster is currently passing through a cloud of dusty gas. The light from the stars reflects and scatters off the dust, creating the ethereal glowing wisps surrounding the stars.

Never trust an unstable AGB star…

The best passage from The Lord of the Rings and an astronomical reference to kick off the weekend.

An unstable asymptotic giant branch star is a low- to medium-mass star, like our Sun, in its final phase of fusing hydrogen into helium. At this point, it has burned through all of the hydrogen in its core and is only burning hydrogen in an outer layer. It becomes unstable when it begins to pulsate, after which it will puff off its outer layer into what’s called a planetary nebula. This is the fate of our Sun.

Here’s the Stingray Nebula, in case you were curious.

The Stingray Nebula. Credit: NASA, Matt Bobrowsky (Orbital Sciences Corporation).

Scientific revenge poetry

There are few things more annoying for a scientist presenting at a conference than to be scheduled as the last presenter. A lot of attendees have lost interest by then or have left the conference, leaving you with a sparse and worn-out audience. When Australian astrophysicist, J. W. V. Storey, found himself in this unenviable situation in the 1980s, he got his revenge by presenting his research in the form of a poem and then later submitting his paper to the conference proceedings in poem-form.

Here is a sample:

I wrote my abstract, sent it in,
With words that don’t offend.
Imagine my horror to find that I
Am scheduled at the end.

Let me say, to be last speaker,
There are very few things worse.
And so this talk, to get revenge,
Will be entirely in verse.

The subject I address today
Is that of star formation.
And what we’ve found out recently
About the situation.

Stars start out as clouds of gas and
Dust and bits of spinning stuff.
Collapsing gravitationally
Until they’re dense enough.

They form themselves in little lumps,
(Or so says this bloke Jeans).
‘Dynamic Instabilities’
Whatever that term means.

It goes on for quite a while and includes figures, some of them charmingly hand-drawn. But the story doesn’t end there.

Last year, Storey’s family shared the following with one of my colleagues, which shows that the referee assigned to review Storey’s paper — who can now be identified as John Whiteoak — responded in kind, by producing his own poem to express his commentary (“Dick-Ed” is Richard McGee, the proceedings editor):

Whiteoak review


Weekly Psalm 19: The Needle Galaxy

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the Needle Galaxy.

This galaxy, also known by its catalog name, NGC 4565, is about as fine an example of an edge-on spiral galaxy as you’ll ever see. If the Milky Way were to be seen at the same distance of 43 million light-years and on its edge, it would look very much like this.

Edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 4565, also known as the Needle Galaxy. Credit: Bruce Hugo and Leslie Gaul/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF.

The puffy part in the center is the bulge of the galaxy and the extended part is the disk. The dark strip running the length of the galaxy is a dust lane. Dust typically makes up about 10% of the gaseous stuff between the stars in the disk of a spiral galaxy, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to block a lot of the intense starlight coming from the galaxy.


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