by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork," wrote King David of Israel 3000 years ago (Ps 19:1). The order and beauty that David saw in the sky spoke volumes to him about the power and wisdom of the Creator of the Universe (vv. 2-4). In particular, David marveled at the brightness of the sun and the regularity of its daily journey across the sky (vv. 5-6).


People have always looked to the heavens with a combination of awe and wonder. Our curiosity about the stars and planets gave rise to astronomy, one of the oldest scientific disciplines.


The Earth is an excellent vantage point from which to observe the heavens. Indeed, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez has argued that the same factors that make our planet ideal for human habitation also make it an optimal location for conducting scientific research.1 This suggests that God intended mankind to pursue the study of astronomy.


Christian Astronomers

A number of astronomers have sought to glorify God through their research. A famous example is Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who was convinced that the motion of the planets must have some simple, elegant explanation and set out to find it. Carefully studying data on the position of Mars compiled by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Kepler discovered three beautiful mathematical laws of planetary motion.2


Four hundred years after Kepler, we have much more information than he did about the stars and planets, and even more reason to affirm the words of Ps 19:1. Not surprisingly, then, there are astronomers who look to the heavens through today's powerful telescopes and see the hand of a Creator. One of those astronomers is Dr. Jennifer Wiseman.


As an undergraduate at MIT, Wiseman helped discover a comet (the Wiseman-Skiff Comet) in 1987. She went on to earn at PhD at Harvard in 1995, and eventually to become a senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. In 2010 she also began to direct the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


On March 2, 2019, Wiseman shared insights about astronomy and mankind's place in the universe in a lecture at Miami University. In his introduction of the speaker, Dr. Edwin Yamauchi pointed out that Miami was an appropriate setting for such a lecture. One of the leading astronomers of the twentieth century, Allan Sandage (1926-2010), began his undergraduate career at Miami where his father was a faculty member. Sandage, like Wiseman, was a Christian as well as an astronomer.


A Beautiful, Active, Fruitful Universe

Dr. Wiseman's lecture was illustrated by beautiful images obtained with the impressive array of observational equipment available in 2019. Wiseman explained that our various telescopes complement one another, with each one filling an important niche in the task of collecting astronomical data.


Since the earth's atmosphere blurs and filters light, space telescopes operating outside the atmosphere have been a major advance. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990 and subsequently repaired by astronauts, orbits the earth every 90 minutes. It picks up visible, ultraviolet, and some infrared light. The new James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2021, is designed to see additional infrared light. Since light from distant galaxies is infrared by the time it reaches us, this will enable us to learn more about those galaxies. X-ray space telescopes are also important.


On the other hand, telescopes on the ground, like the ones at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, have a wider field of vision than space telescopes. And radio telescopes like the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico and the Very Large Array in New Mexico, pick up radiation from interstellar gas clouds. Collectively, Wiseman said, the world's telescopes are like an orchestra under the direction of astronomers as virtuoso conductors.


As an example of the output of our powerful telescopes, Wiseman showed a picture of the Omega Centauri Star Cluster. A variety of stars can be distinguished in the picture, thanks to the superior resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. She explained that "fuzzier" parts of the picture indicate nebulae, where stars are forming from clouds of gas and dust.


Wiseman then displayed a picture of a nebula in which the gas cloud largely consisted of hydrogen. As massive stars form, she said, fusion reactions in the stars produce helium. Light produced in these reactions shines into the gas clouds, and "winds" and radiation in the new stars push the gas away, creating some beautiful visual effects in the nebula picture. Meanwhile, smaller stars continue to form more slowly in the gas cloud.


Wise emphasized that our pictures from space portray a dynamic, active universe. Using biological language, she described the universe as "fruitful," with stars continually being "born" and going through a "life cycle." The telescopes show us stars at various stages of that cycle.

In the early part of the cycle, stars are often surrounded by disks of dusty debris. There is speculation that some of the material in these disks coalesces into planets that then orbit the star.


At the end of the cycle, stars become unstable and release their outer atmospheres in vibrant ways, forming more nebulae. Fusion reactions produce heavier elements needed for life, like carbon, iron, nitrogen, and oxygen. When the stars explode, these elements are dispersed into space and become part of a new round of star formation as the cycle continues.3 We might think of stars, Wiseman said, as God's factories for manufacturing these elements.


Individual stars become part of large groups of stars called galaxies. In pictures of galaxies, the stars are often arranged in a spiral configuration. It is believed that our Milky Way Galaxy has this kind of spiral shape, with the earth on one of the galaxy's "spiral arms." There also seems to be a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.


Pairs of galaxies can be drawn together by gravitational attraction and merge to form a new larger galaxy. Wiseman noted that if things go on as they are, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are projected to merge in some four billion years.

Data collected by today's telescopes has shown us that the Universe is enormous in both space and time. Our Milky Way Galaxy is about 150,000 light years in diameter and contains over ten billion stars, one of which is our sun. The "nearby" Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light years away from us, and it is just one of over ten billion galaxies in the universe.4


The Hubble Space Telescope has provided us with images of distant galaxies, some as far as 13 billion light years away. Such images give an idea of the size of the universe, and they also give information about the history of the universe. Light from thirteen billion light years away takes thirteen billion years to reach us, which means that the Universe has been around at least that long. And images of galaxies from that distance away give snapshots of what those "baby galaxies" were like thirteen billion years ago.


Philosophical and Theological Questions

Dr. Wiseman then transitioned from astronomy to philosophy to consider the question of whether the physical universe shows evidence of purpose, as Ps 19:1 suggests. She noted that scientists have given a wide range of answers to this question. Some do not see purpose in the universe. For example, physicist Steven Weinberg has said, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."


On the other hand, Owen Gingerich, another Christian astronomer, has stated, "Quite possibly, the purpose of the universe is to provide a congenial home for self-conscious creatures who can ask profound questions and who can probe the nature of the universe itself." As evidence of such a purpose, Gingerich has noted "how magnificently tuned the universe is for the emergence of intelligent life."5


Gingerich's remarks also touch upon another age-old question: How widespread is life in the universe? Wiseman mentioned that people have speculated on the possibility of extraterrestrial life since ancient times. For example, the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) believed that there must be life on other worlds.


Today's astronomical tools have provided new opportunities to look for possible extraterrestrial life. In our own solar system Europa, a moon of Jupiter, has ice on its surface with water vapor underneath. The presence of water raises the possibility of the existence of some kind of simple life there.


We now know about the existence of many exoplanets (planets outside our solar system). At this point, astronomers are finding evidence for over a thousand additional exoplanets each year. Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our sun, has a planet orbiting in its habitable zone. Seven planets that are about earth-sized have been detected in the system of a star called Trappist-1, and three of them seem to be in the habitable zone. To investigate the possibility of life on an exoplanet, researchers will look for the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere, liquid water, and signs of biological activity.


If it turns out that there is extraterrestrial life, what would be the consequences? Polls have shown that for over 90 per cent of the adherents of any of the world's major religions, the existence of extraterrestrial life would not pose a problem.


Some have seen the vastness of the universe as evidence of the insignificance of the human race. Physicist Carl Sagan exemplified such an attitude when he said, "Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people."


But is our significance determined by our physical quantity and position in the universe? Dr. Wiseman addressed this question at the close of her lecture. She argued that human significance is determined by the fact that the Creator of the Universe made us in his image and placed us in charge of the earth (Gen 1:26-28). The Psalmist was moved to marvel about this fact in Ps 8:3-8: "When I look at 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, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas."


In a sermon the following morning at Oxford Bible Fellowship, Wiseman shared additional thoughts on the universe and humanity's place in it. She asserted that in the universe we see great beauty and evidence of God's power and creativity. The physical laws of the universe are evidence of God's sustaining faithfulness. We see God's love in the way that life is nurtured.


She added that in Christian theology, human worth is implied in the fact that the eternal Word, through whom "all things were made" (John 1:3), "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Jesus' coming as a man to redeem mankind shows how much value God places upon human life.


1See The Privileged Planet: How our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, Regnery, 2004.


2See for example Kitty Ferguson's book Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens, Walker and Compnay, 2002.


3Wiseman indicated that our sun is not a "first generation" star.


4See for example Deborah Haarsma and Jennifer Wiseman, "An Evolving Cosmos," pp. 97-119 in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, Kenneth Miller, ed., Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2003.


5See http://gateway-to-destiny.com/files/yes_gingerich.pdf In 2003, Gingerich elaborated on evidence for design in the universe in a lecture at Miami University. For a report on this lecture, see "Is There a Place in Science for Belief in Design?" in Issue 16 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 35


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On 13 Jan 2020, 16:34.