SixDay Science

Faith in Science | Science in Faith

Backyard Astronomy: August 2015

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

August 7: Mercury, Jupiter, and Regulus will be within one degree of each other in the sky.

August 12-13: Perseids Meteor Shower. Meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through a cloud of debris left behind by a comet. The Perseids are debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. As meteor showers go, this one is top-notch, producing many bright streaks and up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak. The shower runs every year from July 17th to August 24th, but will peak on the night of the 12th and the early morning of the 13th. Look in the direction of the constellation Perseus after midnight for your best chance.

August 19: Mars will appear to cross in front of the Beehive Cluster, an open cluster of stars located in the constellation Cancer.

August 29: Super Moon. The Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth during its full moon phase, making it a little bigger and brighter than usual. This will be the first of three Super Moons for 2015.

Earth-like planet kills God dead!

The big news last week was that astronomers (incidentally, some of them colleagues of mine) discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star. The exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-452b, was discovered by the Kepler space telescope and recently announced by its discoverers. It is 1,400 light-years away from Earth and appears in the constellation Cygnus.

It’s exciting news, and probably had more than a few nerds thinking we’re one step closer to the United Federation of Planets, but apparently the really big news is that the discovery of this planet was the death-knell for religious tradition.

In what I suppose is a serious commentary on the discovery Kepler-452b and not satire, Jeff Schweitzer, a scientist and former White House analyst, declares that Earth 2.0 is “bad news for God.” Why? Because Genesis doesn’t mention alien worlds. Of course, Genesis also doesn’t mention bananas, but to my knowledge no one has argued that the existence of bananas rocks religious tradition to its core.

Schweitzer’s first mistake was referring to Kepler-452b as “Earth 2.0.” This newly discovered exoplanet is believed to be Earth-like in terms of its size and proximity to its Sun-like star, and that’s sort of big news, because the majority of known exoplanets are Jupiter-sized or larger and very close to non-Sun-like stars. Kepler-452b is at just the right distance to its Sun-like star to permit liquid water on its surface (a necessary component for life). All this means is that we can’t rule out the existence of liquid water on its surface; it doesn’t mean there is water. And there are known differences between Kepler-452b and Earth: it’s estimated to be 60% larger than Earth (so it’s more like a “Super-Earth”), it’s about 1.5 billion years older than the Earth, it receives 10% more light from its sun than the Earth does from its Sun, its gravity could be anywhere from 80% to 300% of the Earth’s gravity, etc. We don’t know its composition. Is it rocky? Does it have a fluid core that would lead to a dynamo effect? Does it have an atmosphere? Plate tectonics? We currently don’t know the answers to these questions. We therefore have no idea exactly how Earth-like Kepler-452b is or whether it’s suitable for life. And it’s not the only known Earth-like exoplanet, nor is it even the most Earth-like. All good reasons why it’s absurd to call this particular exoplanet “Earth 2.0.”

Nevertheless, Schweitzer goes on to declare that we are coming “ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe.” That’s quite a leap from the discovery of an exoplanet about which we know very little. But never mind. His point here is to preemptively declare that the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would be a big problem for “the world’s major religions.” And by “the world’s major religions” he seems to mean Judaism and Christianity (and probably just the latter), since the Bible is the sole focus of his critique.

He begins his theological discussion thusly: “Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation:”

Let’s look at what the Bible unambiguously claims about creation, according to Schweitzer:

1. “the earth is the center of the universe”

He doesn’t mention which verse says this. Probably because there is no verse, that I’m aware of, that says this. Ancient Greek philosophy held that the Earth is the center of the universe, and this view was eventually adopted by the Church, whose philosophy was heavily influenced by Aristotle.

2. “only humans were made in the image of god”

Of all the creatures mentioned in Genesis, yes, only humans were made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, being made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, not being made in the image of God.

3. “and all life was created in six days”

No, all life was created in four days. Plant life appeared on Day 3, animal life appeared on Day 5, and human life appeared on Day 6.

4. “All life in all the heavens. In six days.”

No, all life on Earth. In four days. (See here for why six creation days are fully compatible with a billions-year-old universe.)

Notice that he does not support any of these claims with the biblical verses that supposedly “unambiguously” say these things. Instead, later in his piece, he quotes the Pope during the trial of Galileo on what the Church believed the Bible claimed at the time.

This is why you should never rely on what an anti-theist says about the Bible. Schweitzer is completely wrong. Which means his conclusion is completely wrong, for he goes on to say:

“So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications. But do not buy the inevitable historical edits: life on another planet is completely incompatible with religious tradition. Any other conclusion is nothing but ex-post facto rationalization to preserve the myth.”

Nonsense. What he’s attempting to do is use false assumptions and specious reasoning to justify his leaping out in front of this discovery before anyone’s had a chance to comment thoughtfully on it, and claim it as a victory for atheism. Dibs, everyone!

Is Schweitzer unaware that Christians have already commented on the topic of alien life in the context of Christian theology? C. S. Lewis not only wrote a well-known essay (“Religion and Rocketry“) on the topic, but wrote a science fiction trilogy exploring it in great depth (The Space Trilogy). (Incidentally, I wrote on this topic a few years ago.)

The rest of Schweitzer’s article is filled with theological analysis and reasoning of similar quality. For instance, he quotes Genesis 1:1 and then makes the following claim:

“Nothing in that mentions alien worlds, which of course the ancients knew nothing about. Man was told to rule over the fish on the earth, not on other planets. But god would have known of these alien worlds, so it is curious he did not instruct the authors to include the language.”

One might reasonably ask how man could possibly rule over the fish on other planets, and therefore why it would be of any concern to him that there might be fish on other planets. (I seriously wondered if Schweitzer was having us all on at this point, but since this was The Huffington Post and not The Onion, I had to assume he was sincere.) (Also, what is it with the childish refusal of some atheists to capitalize the ‘G’ in God? Lower-case ‘g’ god denotes a lesser god. God is the supreme being, the God, which is why ‘God’ is capitalized. Spelling it correctly doesn’t mean you agree God exists, it means you understand the concept of a proper noun. It just makes you look like an idiot to refuse to capitalize the name.)

He then goes on some weird tangent about some verses in Genesis that shows he doesn’t understand that Genesis refers to the entire universe for the first two days, and then specifically the Earth for the remaining days. It was all so contorted and confused that it made my head hurt. He amusingly concludes this word-salad passage with “Let us be perfectly clear…”

Schweitzer ends his piece with the statement that, “none of this will matter upon life’s discovery elsewhere. Religious leaders will simply declare that such life is fully compatible with, in fact predicted by, the Bible.” He’s right that this sort of poor understanding of the Bible and lousy reasoning are utterly inconsequential to any possible discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. As for whether the existence of life elsewhere is compatible with, even predicted by, the Bible, consider that the great biblical commentator, Nahmanides, inferred from Genesis that the universe was created with the potential for life built into it. Since he claimed this over 700 years ago, I’d say our side had dibs long before Schweitzer’s.

Weekly Psalm 19: The Antennae Galaxies

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the Antennae Galaxies.

hs-2006-46-a-large_web

This spectacular pair of colliding spiral galaxies is located 45 million light-years from Earth. They started their encounter a few hundred million years ago, but the entire collision will likely last a couple billion years. Drawn together by their mutual gravitational attraction, they will undergo several passes and collisions before their stars and gas finally settle down to make a new, single galaxy. The interaction has sparked intense star formation, visible as the blue regions, surrounded by excited hydrogen gas, visible in pink.

The Antennae Galaxies derive their name from the long streams of stars that extend from the galaxies like antennae, seen in wider-field images, like the one below.

The Milky Way Galaxy is on a collision course with its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. At some point during this future encounter, the collision will probably look much the same as the Antennae Galaxies:

Top image of the Antennae Galaxies, credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. The wide-field ground-based image was taken by Robert Gendler.

Movie Moment: The Wisdom of Yoda

Back in the good old days before George Lucas came up with “midichlorians,” the Force was something quite mystical and spiritual. Watch how beautifully Yoda explains the Force and the true nature of conscious beings to Luke in this scene from The Empire Strikes Back:

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

Long before I even considered becoming Christian, I liked that idea. Now it evokes Paul’s vision of the heavenly man:

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became [to] a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so let us bear the image of the heavenly man.

1 Corinthians 15:44-49

 

Weekly Psalm 19: Jupiter and Io

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — Jupiter and Io.

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Last week, we were reminded of God’s handiwork with little Pluto, as imaged by the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons was launched in January 2006, and a little more than a year later it made a flyby of Jupiter, using the giant planet’s gravity to gain speed and shorten its journey to Pluto by three years. NASA made the most of that flyby to take images of Jupiter and its moons with unprecedented detail. The above image is a composite of Jupiter in infrared and its moon, Io, in true color. The blue and red in Jupiter’s atmosphere show high- and low-altitude clouds, respectively. The blueish flare on the night side of Io shows scattered sunlight off of a volcanic plume.

Image of Jupiter and Io, credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Goddard Space Flight Center.

Stars

“Stars”
by Valerie Worth

While we
Know they are
Enormous suns,
Gold lashing
Fire-oceans,
Seas of heavy silver flame,

They look as
Though they could
Be swept
Down, and heaped,
Cold crystal
Sparks, in one
Cupped palm.

The pentaquark

This has been a big week for news of all kinds, not least of which is the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto after its decade-long, three-billion-mile journey through the solar system. But forget all that. The really big news — what all the cool kids are talking about — is the pentaquark.

Ordinary matter, the stuff you and I, and everything else we can see and touch, is made of particles called hadrons. The two best-known examples of hadrons are the proton and the neutron. These particles are each made up of three quarks1 and thus could be called triquarks. (As far as we can tell, quarks represent the fundamental bits of matter, which means, unlike molecules, atoms, and protons, you can’t break them up into smaller bits.) Another type of hadron is the meson, which is made up of a quark and an anti-quark2 (a biquark?).

A new class of hadron was proposed by physicist Murray Gell-Mann in 1964, and, like the Higgs boson, seemed quite clever in eluding particle physicists for many years. However, that has apparently changed with what scientists at the Large Hadron Collider are pretty sure is the pentaquark. Unlike a proton or a neutron, the pentaquark, as the name suggests, is made of five quarks2. A boring old proton is made of 2 up quarks and 1 down quark1. A neutron is made of 2 down quarks and 1 up quark1. In principle, you could have a lot of different kinds of pentaquarks, all made of different combinations of quarks. The one discovered by LHC is made of 2 up quarks, 1 down quark, 1 charm quark, and 1 anti-charm quark2,3.

What’s important about this discovery is that it: a) further validates what is called the Standard Model, the prevailing theory governing particle physics; and b) raises new questions, which is music to a physicist’s ears. There is nothing better in science than a new question. One of the new questions is, what holds a pentaquark together? The quarks in a proton are bound tightly together by gluons, however it’s not clear what holds a pentaquark together. Is it tightly bound by its gluons like a proton or is it made up of a proton and a meson that are, themselves, somehow bound together? This’ll keep particle physicists busy for a while.

—–

1. Plus zillions of gluons and zillions of quark-antiquark pairs. (Yes, gluons are called gluons, because they glue quarks together.)

2. Plus, presumably, zillions of gluons and zillions of quark-antiquark pairs.

3. The six known ‘flavors’ of quark are called: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the top quark is the strangest quark of them all.

Weekly Psalm 19: Pluto

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — Pluto.

NH-Pluto-color-NewHorizons-20150713

After nearly 10 years and three billion miles, the New Horizons spacecraft has arrived at Pluto. This image was taken by New Horizons yesterday (July 13) before it made its closest approach of about 8,000 miles.

Pluto is perhaps best known in recent times for its demotion from the ninth planet in the solar system to dwarf planet or “plutoid.” It orbits the Sun at about 40 times the Earth’s orbital distance. It is likely the largest and most massive member of the Kuiper Belt, a large collection of icy-rocky objects in the outer region of the solar system.

Pluto imaged by New Horizons. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI.

Humility

May the Force be with all of us

In 1977 my father took my brother and me to see Star Wars, and what I saw transformed me. On that screen, which seemed so big to a little kid, I was swept away from my Earth-bound existence and became conscious for the first time of our universe.  This was the defining moment in my life and it occurred when I was six years old.

Now that I am an adult, I realize how short on science the movie was, but I will be forever grateful for the way it got me thinking about outer space in a significant way. Space was all I could think about for years after: the awe, the mystery, the unlimited possibilities. From that moment onward, a life dedicated to the study of space science was inevitable for me.

Almost four decades later, I’m a professional astrophysicist. I have Jodie Foster-in-Contact moments whenever I go to a remote observatory and watch the transcendent night sky. Every time, it transports me back to 1977 and reignites the sheer wonder and indescribable joy I felt at the sight of a sky filled with thousands of far-off suns. But the wonder is deeper and more complex than it was when I was six years old, because of what I know. I now know what powers each of those suns, I know how they formed, when they formed, that most have planets orbiting them, and, though the stars appear to extend infinitely in all directions, I know that I’m really only looking at the outskirts of the vast Milky Way galaxy. But most important of all, I now know that all of this was deliberately created.

My brother and I were brought up with little in the way of religious instruction or experiences. He and I found God after long journeys on separate paths. It was the intense love my brother felt for his children and his need to believe they would have eternal life that brought him to God. What led me to God was my love of all things space and everything I learned as a student about the creation of the universe and the way nature is so exquisitely fine-tuned for intelligent life.  Science continues to be the basis of my unshakable conviction that nothing as beautiful and orderly as our universe could be an accident.

Whenever I stand on the peak of Mount Locke wrapped in the awe of a perfect night sky, I am infused by a feeling of complete humility. But, I understand in those moments what a little girl couldn’t possibly have understood forty years ago, that I am feeling humility in the midst of God’s divine work as I view proof of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Insignificance

Whenever I teach introductory astronomy, I hand out a questionnaire to my students and ask them to describe their main challenge (if any) with astronomy in terms of their religious or philosophical worldviews. Some students are troubled by the apparent conflict between science and their religious beliefs, but the most common response by far is a feeling of insignificance in the face of their new awareness of the vast scale of the universe.

Their answers reflect an intense humility, but it is often different from what I feel. Their humility, combined with the sense of insignificance, seems to lead many of them to disturbing feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness. I realized some time ago that people who do not believe in God feel the same degree of humility when they look at the night sky as I do, but they often turn the humility inward where it is translated into feelings of personal worthlessness. This feeling is not unique to the young and uninitiated in science. Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg lamented in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

I am fortunate to know that our vast universe is exactly the size it has to be to give rise to intelligent life.  Just about every scientist knows this, but the unfortunate non-believers are materialists for whom the vastness of the universe is also a constant reminder of the cold and deadly indifference of nature. Some non-believers, like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, hope for something after death, but largely accept the materialist view that this existence is all that there is. They retreat to gratitude for the moment, which is an intellectual evasion of their terrible truth.

Other scientifically informed people evade thoughts about the creation and fine tuning of the universe in a different manner, by pushing it beyond the bounds of investigation. They maintain that ours is one of an infinite number of universes—the multiverse—which we can never observe. They argue that we must have simply won the multiverse lottery and the jackpot was all of the conditions necessary for life. It seems to me that if people feel insignificant and hopeless in a vast universe, they aren’t going to feel any better being part of an even bigger multiverse. A darker road is taken by a few, like biologist William Provine, who simply accept their insignificance and acknowledge that a godless universe can have no meaning. It is an honest assessment for a materialist, but one that is filled with despair.

The deliberately more optimistic atheist will talk of his awe of the universe, but I know from experience that is only what he says in public to make his case. If he is capable of taking the next step in his reasoning, he can’t help but move to terrifying thoughts. He may feel wonder at the universe, but if he knows its history he can’t escape the understanding that nature doesn’t care about him. His awe, humility, and fear must all be based on the inescapable realization that ultimately the cosmos will bring about his destruction and the eventual annihilation of the entire human species. Nothing that he or anyone else does will ever have any meaning.  The atheist who looks at outer space as merely a pretty picture is deluding himself. If there is no loving God as Creator of the universe, what the atheist is really looking at in the heavens is the end of all hope or meaning.

There is no need for such a dim view of existence. Because I believe in a loving and purposeful God, when I look at outer space, I see something created with mankind in mind. I know that I am small in physical size, but huge in significance. My awe and humility expand my being through the knowledge that there is a divine power guided by God’s love for all of us. His love changes space into something more like Star Wars: a wonderful challenge that we can meet with joy because of our God-given spirit and intellect.

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

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

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet

Psalm 8:1-6

Weekly Psalm 19: Carina Nebula

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the Carina Nebula.

Carina_Nebula

The Carina Nebula is a giant diffuse cloud of gas spanning almost 500 light-years and containing many large, bright, hot stars. It’s about three times larger than the great nebula in Orion, but is not as well known, because it’s only visible from the Southern Hemisphere. This is one of my personal favorites, and a portion of it appears in the right-hand menu bar if you scroll down.

This nebula is located on the sky in the constellation Carina (hence its name), and is physically located about 7,000 to 10,000 light-years away in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. For reference, our Solar System is in the adjacent Orion arm. (See below.)

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Carina Nebula image credit: ESO/T.

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