Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss Tabby’s Star, the meaning of “up,” time dilation, and Christian scientists.

HD, a retired school teacher, writes in with several interesting questions.

I wondered….Could the structures observed around the Tabby star that are postulated be the constructs of the new Jerusalem that is being constructed to come to Earth some day?

She is referring to the star, KIC 8462852, sometimes referred to as Tabby’s Star. This peculiar object captured people’s imaginations after scientists admitted they haven’t been able to explain irregular changes in the amount of light it’s emitting. Observations suggest a close formation of small objects is surrounding the star, blocking out some of its light. One idea is that these objects could be a swarm of comets (see artist’s impression below), while another idea is that they are some form of “alien superstructure.” (Neither idea turns out to be well supported by observational data.)


HD’s idea is novel and interesting, but I think it’s unlikely for the simple reason that Revelation 21 tells us God is going to scrap this universe and start over with a new creation.

And when Jesus says “I have not yet ascended to my Father” and speaks many many times of Heaven…then it is a for sure thing. We can count on it. It is real. It is there. And….it is up. (ascend) So as a scientist who studies space, can you tell me ….where is up?? If I am in Gulfport, I can point up. On the other side of the planet, someone else can point up. So where, scientifically….is up??

“Up” in terms of space and in terms of scripture are two different things. In space, “up” is more accurately described as “out,” as shown below.



When Jesus talks about ascension, I don’t think He is going “up” (i.e. out) from the planet the way a rocket ship does, but rather He is transcending the universe similar to the way a three-dimensional creature would transcend a two-dimensional world. This animated sequence narrated by Carl Sagan illustrates the principle:

Then I saw a special on National Geographic about an experiment on distance and time. Using two atomic clocks, synchronized to perfection, one was left at the bottom of a tall mountain. One was taken to the very top. I think it was four days later the clock from the top of the mountain was brought down. There was a tiny, miniscule difference in time.   So, if 1,000 years are like a day to God (Scripture), how far out would you have to travel to have the 1,000 years equal to a day on Earth?

Gravitational time dilation results from differences in gravity. Despite the fact that it’s difficult for us to escape Earth’s gravity, it’s actually pretty weak, so there’s not much difference between the flow of time on the surface of the Earth and the flow of time out in deep space. It’s enough of a difference that engineers have to account for it, otherwise things like GPS wouldn’t work,  however, it’s not nearly enough to dilate time so that 1,000 years on Earth would be like a day for someone in deep space.

So, the question isn’t how far out you would have to travel in space to make 1,000 years equal a day, but how deeply into a gravitational field you’d have to go before time dilates that much. Turns out, it’s pretty deep, as in just a hair outside of the event horizon of a black hole.

It is amazing that more scientists haven’t become Christians.

There was a time when most scientists were Christian, particularly so in Newton’s time. It’s seems strange from our modern perspective, but in the 17th century, one had to be an ordained Anglican priest in order to hold a professorship at Cambridge. In the 17th century, American universities like Harvard and Princeton were religious institutions.

An entire thesis could be written on the subject, but suffice it to say, somewhere along the way Christianity not only ceased to be the dominant cultural force in the academic world, but academia became hostile to it. Still, the evidence for some kind of conscious creative force is there, and I suspect most scientists know it. English Nobel laureate physicist, George Thomson, observed, “Probably every physicist would believe in a creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.” I think this is very much the case.

Image credit for Tabby’s Star: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Why haven’t we been back?

Bill Whittle observes that it’s becoming increasingly common for young people to question whether we ever landed on the Moon, despite reasonable explanations for their objections:

Now, I have no problem with people who are by default skeptical until they find compelling evidence and a logical argument for a claim. That’s actually pretty wise. But, like Whittle, I do have a problem with people who are too intellectually lazy to examine the arguments and evidence.

Whittle cites a common objection to the idea that we put men on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s, which is that we haven’t been back since. Like other objections to the Moon landings, there’s a reasonable explanation for why we haven’t been back.

What’s truly astounding is that, in terms of technology, it really doesn’t take anything more than Newtonian physics and 1960s technology to go to the Moon. The proof of that is the mirrors placed on the Moon in the 1960s for experiments called laser-ranging — we use them to accurately measure the distance from the Earth to the Moon by bouncing laser-beams off of them. So, there’s no doubt we sent something to the Moon in the 1960s. But did that include men? There’s good reason to think so just based on the technology available, but there is one other ingredient that’s necessary to pull off a feat like that, and once you know what that is, you will understand why we haven’t been back.

The first thing we need to consider is the historical and cultural context of the Apollo program. The space program of the 1950s and 1960s was an outgrowth of Eisenhower’s powerful military-industrial complex. NASA’s budget at that time represented a whopping 5% of the federal budget (compare that with NASA’s current budget of just 0.5%). Two major wars in which the U.S. was victorious were still fresh in the memories of Americans. Our economy was doing well, and, culturally, the U.S. was still united. We also had a powerful common enemy — the Soviet Union. So great was our animus for the Soviets, that the U.S. at that time was almost singularly devoted — militarily, culturally, and economically — to beating them in the Cold War.

For those of us who were not around in the 1950s, it’s impossible to understand the shock and fear Americans felt in 1957 when the Soviets successfully put Sputnik in orbit. Then there was Yuri Gagarin and his historic orbital trip around the Earth. The Evil Empire, as Reagan would later call it, had made it to space before anyone else, and Americans were fearful that the Soviets would soon dominate space. So, it was determined that we would do everything in our power to beat the Soviets in the space race, and what better way to beat them than by going to the Moon?

Mountains of money and countless hours of manpower went into the Mercury and Gemini programs, eventually leading up to Apollo. But even then, by the mid-1960s, the political and cultural infrastructure supporting the space program was beginning to weaken. It was after the success of Apollo 11, when men finally set foot on the Moon, that the cracks began to show. NASA continued with five of six remaining Apollo missions, because they had already been planned and budgeted, but with the exception of the doomed Apollo 13 mission, the public wasn’t all that interested in these anticlimactic follow-up trips to the Moon.

By the 1970s, the fervor that had kept the Apollo program going was simply no longer there, and going back was of little interest. What were we going to do there that we hadn’t already done? Establishing a Moon base would require dedicating economic and technological resources far in excess what was required for the Apollo missions. Going to Mars was a long ways off. That didn’t much leave in terms of foreseeable goals for manned missions. It also didn’t help that there was an energy crisis at the time, with the emphasis on conserving energy as much as possible. For those reasons, there was little public or political support for continuing to fund NASA at such a high level.

The government shifted priorities and decided to focus on orbiting space stations and satellites, the reusable Space Shuttles, and the much more feasible robotic explorers that could go anywhere in the Solar System for a fraction of the cost and none of the risk of sending human explorers. With this shift in priorities, the military-industrial infrastructure and the technological and engineering manpower that went into designing and manufacturing manned lunar rockets disappeared.

By the 1980s, the Cold War was also increasingly winding down, or at least competition with the Soviets wasn’t seen as such a high priority. When the Evil Empire formally collapsed in 1991, there was nothing against which the U.S. needed to push back. Much like we build body strength by pushing weights, cultural strength is often achieved by pushing back against some external cultural force. But what Americans were pushing back against by the 1970s wasn’t even clear. Gas shortages? The Iranians? Disco? And what do Americans have to push back against today, except perhaps the increasingly confused and demoralized War on Terror? It’s costing the U.S. trillions in the long term, and it has absolutely nothing to do with space. No politician is going to divert any of that money to going back to the Moon.

So, what else is America fighting against? Global warming, trans-fats, a never-ending list of social justice grievances? I hope you see what I’m getting at here. Unlike the America of the 1950s and 1960s, we have no coherent culture. There is no common enemy. More importantly, there are no common values and goals, and no common vision. All you have to do is look at the political landscape to see that we’re a fractured and demoralized nation, and that’s effective death for any culture.

It didn’t take much in the way of physics to land men on the Moon. What it did take was enormous cultural capital — a compelling reason, a monumental economic and technological effort, and the will of a strong, united, and invigorated people. We need a compelling reason to return to the Moon, and the only reason would be to establish a semi-permanent human settlement. Do we have the will to do that? The America of today hardly resembles its former self, so it shouldn’t be surprising in the least that we, as a nation, haven’t taken any meaningful steps towards expanding the human exploration of space.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. There are still parts of America that remain strong and invigorated. One of those parts is in Mojave, California, where there is a burgeoning private space enterprise. Bill Whittle talks about the Free Frontier here:

Kepler’s resurrected!

Kepler spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Kepler spacecraft [Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech]

The space observatory
, that is, not the late great astronomer.

NASA is breathing new life into the currently defunct Kepler spacecraft, which was designed to look for Earth-size exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) in the Milky Way. Partway through its mission, the Kepler spacecraft lost function in two of the four flywheels it uses to orient itself, and, without the ability to steadily point in a given direction, it became effectively dead.

However, NASA scientists have figured out how to use the pressure from the solar wind to stably orient the spacecraft, and it will hopefully resume its mission of searching out the Milky Way for Earth-size planets. The use of the solar wind to stabilize Kepler will limit where the spacecraft can point itself, but it will still be able to collect a lot of meaningful data.

Replay: The free frontier

Traffic’s up after the informal announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

Yesterday [April 12, 2011], on the 50th anniversary of the first man in space, The Atlantic featured an article by Jim Hodges lamenting the decline of American exceptionalism in space:

[In the 1960s] Americans didn’t talk of their exceptionalism. They did exceptional things, and the world talked about it. In many places around the world, in science labs and classrooms, the NASA “meatball” was as recognizable as the Stars and Stripes.

People remember that President Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade [of the 1960s] is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Forgotten is that just before that challenge, he said this as a preamble to it: “I believe we possess all of the resources and talents necessary [to lead the world into space]. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time as to insure their fulfillment.”

The government is certainly not doing that now, and we can’t count on it to do these things ever again.

However, I do not see this as occasion to despair. As well-intentioned as NASA has been, government almost always does things slower, costlier, and with less innovation than private enterprise. In fact, while government has been slashing NASA’s budget and scaling back its goals, private companies out in Mojave have been quietly innovating like crazy:

Asteroid grazes the Earth, humankind almost wiped out!

Or not.

The media have been reporting on a “bus-sized” asteroid that made a close pass by the Earth last Saturday. “Close” is a relative term — in astronomy, it generally means much further than you might think. In this case, the asteroid, called HL 129, came closer than the orbit of the Moon, which is about 240,000 miles away. By way of comparison, the much larger asteroid, 99942 Apophis, is predicted to come much closer to the Earth in the year 2029 — a mere tens of thousands of miles, which will make it visible to the naked eye from some locations on Earth — and yet a collision with the Earth has been mathematically ruled out based on what we currently know about Apophis.

So, maybe this still sounds troubling, but there are two reasons I don’t worry about asteroids hitting the Earth. The first is, unless the asteroid is very large — on the order the size of the one that’s believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs — then its destructive power is limited, and anyway it will most likely land in a large body of water or somewhere else that’s unpopulated by humans. (The likelihood of an asteroid hitting the Earth is inversely proportional to its size.) The second is, there’s not much we can do about an asteroid like HL 129. Despite our best efforts to monitor the skies for such objects, HL 129 was discovered only a few days before it made its close pass. That’s not nearly enough time to do anything about it, as it would take a minimum of a year to several years in order to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. So, why worry? As Christians, we are told not to worry about tomorrow; I think Matthew 6:25-34 also applies to asteroids.

Captain Kirk honored by NASA

From Trek News:

On Saturday, NASA awarded Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, William Shatner, with the Distinguished Public Service Medal, at his annual Hollywood Charity Horse Show in Los Angeles.

The award, presented to Shatner by NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator, Communications Bob Jacobs, is “the highest award bestowed by the agency to non-government personnel.” and is given “for outstanding generosity and dedication to inspiring new generations of explorers around the world, and for unwavering support for NASA and its missions of discovery.”

“William Shatner has been so generous with his time and energy in encouraging students to study science and math, and for inspiring generations of explorers, including many of the astronauts and engineers who are a part of NASA today, ” said NASA’s associate administrator for the Office of Communications David Weaver. “He’s most deserving of this prestigious award.”

Without question, Star Trek was a big influence on me and my love of all things space, so I can well believe that it — and Captain Kirk, in particular — inspired many people to pursue careers in science. Congratulations to Mr. Shatner.

An X-ray sky

It may look like abstract art, but it’s actually an image of the entire sky in the X-ray part of the spectrum.

The ROSAT All-Sky Survey Map

This image was produced by the ROSAT survey. ROSAT is an X-ray observatory that, like its sister, the Hubble Space Telescope, is in orbit around Earth. The only way to observe celestial X-rays is from extremely high altitudes or in space, since Earth’s atmosphere absorbs them.

The curved blue stripe in the image is the disk of the Milky Way galaxy, and the bright white spots are supernova remnants.

Recommended reading:

NASA releases images of a solar flare

NASA has released images of an M-class flare on the Sun taken by its Solar Dynamics Observatory. Solar flares are bursts of energy released from the surface of the Sun, in which charged particles like electrons and ions, as well as neutral atoms, are expelled. These flares are energetic enough that the particles are able to zip across the approximately 150 million kilometers from the Sun to the Earth in just a couple of days. M-class flares are mid-level in intensity—the highest are X-class—and are not directly harmful to life on the surface of the Earth. These flares can, however, disrupt satellites in Earth orbit.

This particular flare occurred on April 2nd.

Giant impact theory of Moon’s formation challenged by new evidence

Scientists are puzzled over the water content of the Moon:

The amount of water present in the moon may have been overestimated by scientists studying the mineral apatite, says a team of researchers led by Jeremy Boyce of the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences.

Boyce and his colleagues created a computer model to accurately predict how apatite would have crystallized from cooling bodies of lunar magma early in the moon’s history. Their simulations revealed that the unusually hydrogen-rich apatite crystals observed in many lunar rock samples may not have formed within a water-rich environment, as was originally expected.

The prevailing model for how the Moon formed involves a Mars-sized planet crashing into the Earth, ejecting bits of the Earth into space, and some of these bits coalescing into what is now the Moon. If that’s the case, then the Moon should be similar in composition to the Earth — except that lighter elements, like hydrogen (which is a component of water), are believed to have escaped the Moon’s relatively weak gravity and drifted off into space, leaving the Moon rather dry.

In 2010, scientists took samples from the Moon and found apatite crystals, which contained a lot of hydrogen, suggesting that the Moon wasn’t as dry as previously thought. Now, however, with scientists concerned that the amount of hydrogen in these crystals overestimates the amount of water on the Moon, the “giant impact” theory of how the Moon formed is called into question:

“We had 40 years of believing in a dry moon, and now we have some evidence that the old dry model of the moon wasn’t perfect,” Boyce said. “However, we need to be cautious and look carefully at each piece of evidence before we decide that rocks on the moon are as wet as those on Earth.”

This study shows that scientists still have much to learn about the composition and environment of the early moon.

“We’re knocking out one of the most important pillars of evidence regarding the conditions of the formation and evolution of the moon,” Boyce said. “Next, we plan to determine how badly apatite has distorted our view of the moon and how we can best see past it to get at the moon’s origin.”

This is how science works. New evidence refines — or sometimes completely blows away — a theory/hypothesis. You can never be so wedded to an idea that you overlook important evidence that contradicts your model. It’ll be interesting to see if this latest evidence overturns the giant impact theory, and, if so, what the next favored model will be.