Creation: The Story from Science (Part I – Astronomy)

This post continues our discussion on Science and Creation, and will be the first of several posts from me looking at the point of view of mainstream science. Science is a major force within our society. Its advances have taken us to the moon, have opened entire new realms of medical treatments, and have brought us technologies that our ancestors could never had dreamed of. Science, perhaps because of its immense practical benefit, has come to occupy a venerated position within modern culture. However, sciences deals not only with the practical. Science provides tools and methods for attacking many of the questions of origin that have so long occupied men’s minds. Where did we come from? How did life originate? How did the earth and universe come to reach their present state? What are we made of? Many of these are questions for which religion also has answers – or at least they look a lot like questions addressed by religion.

Over the past century, science brought incredible technological innovation, but it also has made revolutionary discoveries that led to overarching theoretical frameworks within the fields that study origins. Perhaps the most important of these are big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, and DNA. In each of their respective fields, these discoveries have led to all-encompassing theories that are woven into intricate tapestries with vast explanatory power. Observation after observation bolsters the framework and adds another thread to the cloth. Because of its methodology, science really isn’t in the business of certainty, but theories with such explanatory power drive scientists to expound their certitude. As I present the scientific picture, I will only have space to touch on a few individual evidences, and it will be difficult to convey the full force of the overarching theories. The reader will have to understand that we are viewing only a few pieces of the expansive puzzle of the current scientific paradigm.

For ages humans have pondered the meaning of the starry night sky, but in the last 30 years the science of cosmology has converged on a coherent picture that explains the broad strokes of the evolution of the Universe since its inception. Cosmology has grown from a speculating theoretical science, where arguments were made only to an order of magnitude, into what is being deemed “precision cosmology,” where global properties of the Universe are known to within a few percent. The observed universe is full of evidence of antiquity, but I will share a few that I am most intimately familiar with.

In order to advance beyond the realm of speculation, observational cosmology had to address the major problem of determining scale within the Universe. That is, we can see all of these stars and galaxies out there, but how do we know how far away they are? This problem was solved over a long period of time with many different techniques that apply on various overlapping scales. This is referred to as the “cosmic distance ladder.” Each successive technique makes up a “rung” of the ladder that overlaps a bit with the previous technique, allowing us to ultimately measure very large distances. Near the base of the ladder is a technique called parallax. This is an easily demonstrated technique. Hold a finger out about a foot in front of your face and close one eye. Now switch and close the other eye. You’ll see that your finger appears to shift from one place to another. Now hold your finger way out at arm’s length and repeat the same process. You’ll see that it still shifts but not as much. By measuring this shift (and knowing how far apart your eyes are) you can calculate how far away your finger is. Astronomers do a similar thing with nearby stars. Except they use the solar system as their “face.” They take pictures of the night sky when the earth is in one location. Then they wait until the earth moves all the way around to the far side of the sun and take another picture of the sky. If the stars are close enough, then they will appear to move slightly from one picture to the next. By measuring these movements, astronomers can measure distances to the stars. However, this technique only works for stars that are pretty close. Most of the other techniques used to determine distances rely on what are called “standard candles.” Basically, there are certain types of objects that we know how bright they should be, either based on standard physics or on observations of many other objects of the same type. The further away an object is, the dimmer it will appear to us (falling off with the distance squared). Therefore, if we know how bright an object appears, and we know how bright it really is, then we can calculate how far away it is.
What cosmologists have found by applying these techniques is that the universe is a REALLY big place. The sun is about halfway between the center and edge of our galaxy, the Milky Way. The Milky Way is so big that it takes light 100,000 years to travel from one side to the other, and it takes 220 million years for the sun to make one orbit around the center of the Milky Way. The nearest galaxy similar in size to our own is the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away. That means that any light we are seeing now from Andromeda left the galaxy 2.5 million years ago. However, these galaxies just make up part of a small collection of galaxies called the Local Group. The Local Group is somewhat isolated from other galaxies, and the nearest “crowded” part of the Universe is the Virgo Cluster. The center of Virgo is roughly 60 million light years away. However, again this seemingly vast area of space is only a very small fraction of the observable universe. The edge of the observable universe is roughly 50 billion light years away (Note: This may confuse those who know that the Universe is only about 14 billion years old, but at such large distances the expansion of the Universe plays a large role such that there is no longer a 1-to-1 correlation between how many light years away something is and how long it took that light to get to us. You can think of it this way. The light is not violating its speed limit, but rather when the light was emitted, the object was much closer so the light really didn’t have to travel 50 billion light years). For a really cool movie that shows a fly-through of the stellar and galactic location data in the nearby universe see this link. The movie starts at earth, flies through several features in the Milky Way, and then goes up out of the disk of the Milky Way, flies by Andromeda, and ultimately makes its way to the center of the Virgo Cluster. This really helps one to appreciate what an incredible and huge place the Universe is. To me it is actually very inspiring.  I will warn you that this is a really huge file (230 Mb), but it is worth the wait if you have a relatively fast connection. You can find a lower resolution version without music here.

There are countless processes observed in the universe that apparently require millions or billions of years to occur. My thesis work is on galaxy mergers, which typically take a few billion years to occur. There are many ongoing galaxy mergers that have been observed. Since they take so long, all we see are snapshots somewhere in the middle of the process. One of the neat things that happens in a galaxy merger is that tidal forces pull long “tidal tails” out of the galaxies. Much in the same way that the moon causes the oceans to bulge, one galaxy passing another galaxy will cause the stars in each galaxy to get pulled out. Unlike the daily tides in the ocean, because galaxies are so large, it takes hundreds of millions of years to raise tides. I think that merging galaxies are one of the most incredible sights to see in the Universe. Here is an image of two merging galaxies with tidal tails. These particular galaxies are called The Mice.

The Mice, two merging galaxies with tidal tails.  Hubble Space Telescope.
Computer simulations constructed using well-understood physics allow us to calculate the process of a galaxy merger. The most important influence is simple Newtonian gravity. Here is a computer simulation intermixed with comparisons to a number of observed galaxy mergers. As you can see, the simulation is capable of creating images that look almost exactly like what we observe.

In addition to ongoing galaxy mergers, we can also observe mergers that happened some time ago. If we look within the Milky Way we see long streamers of stars near the outskirts of the Galaxy. The stars in each group are moving all together, and we can tell that they don’t belong within the Milky Way. They are the ripped apart remnants of small galaxies that fell into the Milky Way a long time ago. It takes a long time for galaxies to be ripped apart like this. Remember, that one revolution around the Milky Way takes 200 million years, and the merging process would take at least several revolutions.

Modern cosmology has provided us with an overarching theory, that each year is confirmed by more data coming in from observational astronomers. It really is amazing the extent to which we now understand how galaxies form and change over time and also how the universe as a whole has changed over time. There are still many details to be worked out, but it seems unlikely that cosmology will see any other paradigm shifts. This leaves the young earth creationist with quite a hurdle to overcome. It is difficult to explain how light could have even gotten here from such distant locations, much less to come up with an equally successful overarching theory for how galaxies form.

Some young earth creationists have suggested that the speed of light may not be constant. Perhaps it was much faster in the past. However, the speed of light is intimately tied to many other processes in physics. If you change the speed of light by very much then the Universe as we know it would cease to exist. It seems that the only possible way out is to claim an “appearance of age.” God created the light from distant galaxies en route. While this can’t be disputed scientifically, it seems to me to be theologically unsatisfactory. All of this light is telling us a complex story of things that happened in the past. If it were created en route, then all of this story is fabricated. Not only that, but the character of light itself changes as it flies through the Universe. Light becomes stretched out from the expansion of space, and also becomes redder as it passes by more and more dust particles. We observe both of these effects in distant starlight. The further the light has traveled, but more we see of these effects.  Thus, this created light not only would be showing us events that never occurred, it also would have to be modified to look like it had traveled very large distances. A God who creates with this sort of manipulation and deception doesn’t sound to me like the God of the Bible.  As a Christian, I feel that I have to take both the Bible and the evidence within God’s creation seriously.  As an astrophysicist, it is clear to me that creation tells us of its antiquity.  In fact, I think the unexpectedness, the immensity, and the beauty of the observed universe speak to God’s boundless creativity, His awesome power, and His care for the creation.

-Matt, the elder brother

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10 Responses to Creation: The Story from Science (Part I – Astronomy)

  1. Susan says:

    Very interesting. I haven’t looked at the large file yet.

    I also find it interesting that you find the “apparent age” theory theologically disturbing. For some reason, it is not a problem to me if God wanted to create in total mystery. I don’t think it’s the same as purposeful deception. And aren’t there many verses that say His ways are past finding out? I have often thought that if I had a God who could be figured out by me, He wouldn’t be much of a God.

    At any rate, I’m not sure why this “deception” would bother you but that it doesn’t bother you that with your theory, the Genesis account could be called “deceptive.” Or does the Genesis problem bother you, too, just not as much? Do you feel you have the academic and career freedom to embrace what you want to, or is that even a factor?

  2. James says:

    I think the deception issue is troubling, if framed from the right perspective. Essentially, if the young-earth creationists are right, then God has created a universe that appears to have been created one way, while really having created it another way. It is much more than simply being bigger than we are, beyond our comprehension, and generally mysterious. It is somewhat like “The Truman Show” where an entire world has been designed to seem one way to Truman, whereas the truth (that his life is a TV-show) is masked from his understanding. Although I can’t speak for Matt, these are my thoughts.
    The second issue, however, falls more in my domain, and this is exactly what we will be investigating in the coming weeks. What I will be fielding is the interpretive possibility that Moses (and God) didn’t ever intend for Genesis to be interpreted literally (young-earth creationism). In fact, it might be that Moses gave us specific evidence to help us come to that very conclusion. If this is true, there is no “deception,” simply misunderstanding. This example is also disanalogous to the scientific one, because there are layers of culture, history, context, and time that must be properly understood in order to interpret an ancient text such as Genesis. These are not exactly present in the scientific situation.
    Like always, we appreciate your thoughts. Something I have heard this week at Training Camp that I really resonated with was this: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” True dat.

  3. Matt says:

    James is pretty much speaking for me, but I’ll say a few words in response as well. In principle, apparent age isn’t a problem. For example, I wouldn’t have a problem with God creating Adam as a full-grown man. However, applying an apparent age theory to explain what astronomers see as they observe the Universe is qualitatively different. The problem is precisely that it is NOT a mystery. As we look out at the universe around us, a clear picture emerges of how things have changed over time. There is a coherent story written in the stars, one that is actually not that hard to interpret if we look carefully. Furthermore, because of light travel time, as we look out in space we actually see events occurring long ago. When we look across the galaxy, say at a distant supernova, it is as if we are looking toward a distant city that sent out a messenger 100,000 years ago to tell us of the great explosion that occurred there. That messenger is only now arriving even though the event happened 100,000 years ago. Furthermore, there are things about the messenger that tell us he has been running for a long time. He looks hot and tired, wants a drink of water, and tells us about what an incredible journey it was (you can gleam a lot of information from a photon). If the messengers were really only sent a few thousand years ago, then God sent them out, and told them, “Now this is your story…,” but none of the things they are telling us really happened. To go back to the analogy with Adam, looking at the observed universe and saying that God created it with an apparent age is not analogous to saying God created Adam as a full-grown man. Instead, it analogous to saying God created Adam with a lifetime of memories implanted into his brain. He remembers his parents, his brothers and sisters, and an entire story of events leading up to the point of creation. It all makes a coherent story, and by looking at the world around him he has no way of knowing that any of it is fabricated.

    Regarding your second point about science making Genesis appear deceptive, I simply don’t think that it does. James will be talking about this more, but my opinion is that viewing the Genesis creation account as a scientific description of creation is a modern invention, and that this was neither the traditional way of interpreting Genesis nor the intention of the author. I also don’t feel that this belief is something that I have chosen because I feel restrained in my academic freedom. On the contrary, it is something I have decided on my own after studying the science and a number of theological viewpoints on the issue. I certainly am not going to let the academic community dictate my beliefs.

  4. Cheno says:

    I like this blog. I always get excited when it pops up on my google-sanctioned RSS “feeder.”

  5. Matt says:

    Glad we can excite you Cheno. Perhaps it’s the long pauses between our “thoughtful” posts leaving you in anticipation.

  6. David Covington says:

    My views on creation have certainly changed with time, but my current mind set is that all of our understanding is simply a model of the reality that has fallen upon our experiences. My children have often heard me say that we understand new concepts only as they relate back to what we already understand. The problem arises when we encounter (to borrow from Monte Python) something completely different. The example I always use is Calculus. Geometry and Algebra interrelate and naturally lead to Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry, but somehow when we get to Calculus, there is a discontinuity because the concepts of neighborhoods and limits introduced there have no counterparts in prior study. As a result, it is not uncommon for students to struggle with Calculus as this point. In like fashion, our understanding of the world around us, whether physical or spiritual, is an ever maturing model of world and God, completed only when we stand in the presence of the Author and Finisher.

    I am more prone to look back in time to what the scientific community held near and dear 100 years ago and see how that looks and feels in the light of our current understanding – then extrapolate forward 100 years to imagine what our understanding of the world might be in 2108. (I doubt we will make it that far.) The year Hubble died was the year I was born, when the common man was just encountering the reality that the universe is expanding and grappling with the implications. Regardless of how well the pieces fit, your understanding is still just a model. Many times we hear someone say the Trinity is like water at the triple point which can be liquid, solid, and gas at the same pressure and temperature. Of course the true nature of God, which the Trinity forms the core, has no counterpart in what we currently can understand, so such a comparison is a very weak model, but a model none-the-less.

    I anticipate when we find truth in the presence of God, the real answer will be “none of the above”. Of course this leads to fatalistic agnosticism if taken to the extreme. In no way should we stop seeking to understand the world around us from every aspect: logic, philosophy, faith, mathematics, science. Perhaps in some small way we will find that we were right in our simple understanding, but I expect the real answer to be far more magnificent than we could have discovered on our own.

    So given all that introduction, what moves us to even ask the questions? [referring to “Where did the world come from?” and “Why am I here?”] We are made in the image of God. I believe corollary to that is an inner drive to make all the pieces fit. Something inside us wants to figure it out. From Hitchcock to National Treasure to CSI to 24, we want to solve the puzzle, break the code, find the bad guy. Of all the pieces that we have to try to fit together, “Science” and “Religion” are perhaps two of the biggest. And as I stated before, the best we can do is form the most defensible model and await further discovery and revelation to update the model.

  7. John says:

    Matt, good posting. I do have two kind of ‘technical’ questions. Presuming the Big Bang happened, and the Universe is expanding, where exactly is our galaxy? Are we towards the outside of the ‘bubble’ or the inside? Another analogy-if the Universe is an onion, are we the outside layer, a middle one or deep in the center? Second question: how do we know that the Universe is about 15 billion years old? I presume we calculate that time line because we can ‘see’ 15 billion years of light. Let me use this word picture: If the photons are like little ‘bullets’ racing past the Earth, what about those bullets that have already passed us? Perhaps there came from stars, which long burned out, say some 30 billion years ago, but our technology only can reach back to 15 billion years, and the other ‘bullets’ of light (15 billion years worth) have passed our little planet? Maybe I’m thinking too Newtonian and not Einsteiny enough, but I’m just curious . . . Thanks for your response. Remember, I’m just a dumb layman.

  8. Matt says:

    John,
    Since the Big Bang has come up a couple of times I’ll write a brief post on it soon that will also answer your questions.

  9. nopockets says:

    Dad,
    I really enjoyed your input on this one. One thing which particularly struck me was the following comment:
    “I anticipate when we find truth in the presence of God, the real answer will be “none of the above”. Of course this leads to fatalistic agnosticism if taken to the extreme. In no way should we stop seeking to understand the world around us from every aspect: logic, philosophy, faith, mathematics, science. Perhaps in some small way we will find that we were right in our simple understanding, but I expect the real answer to be far more magnificent than we could have discovered on our own.”

    For me, this really rings true because (and this is going to sound scary, but it’s really not), one thing I have struggled with on topics such as this is that I find I can reach a point where it all seems like I’m headed towards the path of fatalism or agnosticism because it’s just too much when things stop making sense. I have had to learn to balance seeking to understand the world around us and seeking God.

    The main thing for me is keeping the seeking God part first. I have found that when you abide with Him, often a new way of thinking is imparted and past questions are either answered or become irrelevant in light of new understanding. I would encourage all of you to seek God with a fervency while taking a look at the subject of origins – anything you learn while alongside the Creator is bound to be better anyway. In the end, the answer is most likely going to be something very magnanimous and I am excited to see that day, though I’ve always wondered if, at the feet of our Lord, I will care anymore from whence we came.

  10. JazzRockFusion says:

    What a great forum, where people can discuss different aspects, interpretations, and understandings of the universe around us without insults and condescension!

    Many of these posts highlight the differing POV of “Old-Earth Creationists” and “New-Earth Creationists.” Theology and Physics are similar (or should be) in that they make deductions and inferences based on sets of assumptions. Two intelligent, thoughtful people can look at the same set of data and come to different conclusions.

    My conclusions (my “understanding” if you will) about Creation have evolved over time as I have learned more and as I have come to grips with how much I don’t know. I came to a point where it makes sense to me that there is a Creator and that it doesn’t make sense that life came to exist through random interactions over time. But that’s my conclusion. I can explain it, defend it, and explore it, and I observe that intelligent, thoughtful people come to a different conclusion.

    With that said, I was an Old-Earth Creationist most of my life until a physicist friend observed that if he were creating a forest, he would probably make it complete – some older trees, some saplings, and some seedlings, rather than simply create seeds. In the same vein, if I were to create a universe I might choose to create it complete – weathered rocks, different degrees of radioactive decay, and light that was already in transit (proportionally-aged photons and all.)

    I could create such a universe without any deceptive motives but out of completeness and thoroughness, just as I would create full-grown first people. So perhaps the question of the universe’s “Age at Creation” is like Einstein’s “Gravity vs. Elevator” idea – there is no experiment or measurement you could take in a moving elevator that could discern acceleration/deceleration from changes in gravimetric force. Maybe we just can’t know until we can see creation from the outside looking in, and maybe the question has limited relevance in everyday existence.

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