June 15, 2006

The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 2)

Location, Location, Location
(Part 2 in a 4 part series)

Let's get back to this idea, premised in part 1, that we are not so special in God's mind because we are only an average world flung off in a remote corner of the universe.

If we were really important, where would God place us? Perhaps right in the middle of the action, right at the center of some glamorous cosmic construction? (Of course, this all assumes that it is not God's intention to humble us, but I don't need to go down that road to make my points.) Let's walk through the universe and its possibilities.

Just what are the grandest structures in the universe in which God might place us? Well, galaxies are where the action is, but even these come in clusters. Maybe God should have placed us in one of those super clusters (like the nearby Perseus Cluster) containing thousands of galaxies. The bad thing about that is when you've got so many nearby massive neighbors, collisions and gravitational disturbances can result. And if one of those neighbors is a high-energy emitter, which is increasingly likely the more that you have, then it can be bad news for anything unshielded nearby.

Okay, let's start with a safer little cluster of galaxies, like our own Local Group by the way. But at least God could put us in a nice, big, impressive galaxy. The biggest ones by far are the elliptical galaxies — giant ellipsoid (egg-like) masses of stars. But the problem with these galaxies is that they are generally the product of galactic collisions, and are made up primarily of older red giant stars, which are not good hosts for planets (more on that later). They have little free gas, dust, and heavy elements for planet making. Their stars are densely packed, which would be devastating to the orbits of any existing planets (this problem will be a recurring theme). And, so far as we know, they always contain one or more giant black holes at their core, which spray out some rather nasty particles and radiation whenever matter comes within proximity. All in all, an ill-suited place to be.

Okay then, how about a nice big spiral galaxy? These are actually quite lovely and diverse places. While not as massive and star-packed as the giant ellipticals, they have a similarly dense nucleus and spiral arms. What about right in the center of one of these cosmic pinwheels? Well, unfortunately we've got similar gravitational and radiation problems as with the ellipticals in that large spiral galaxies tend to also contain super-massive black holes. Even the arms of the spirals are pretty dense, which increases the likelihood of gravitational interference with other stars and escalates the chances of crossing paths with a supernova or other nasty neighbors. And the problems are much the same for any of the massive star clusters that can be found throughout most galaxies.

Another bad thing about densely star-packed areas is that even if you could manage to survive in such a region you wouldn't have the pleasure of seeing outside of the forest for all the trees (so to speak). That is to say, you wouldn't have a night sky, and you'd never witness the cosmos in certain electromagnetic wavelengths due to all the interference. In the spiral arms you'd have even more problems of this nature, since this is where you find most of the free-floating dust and gasses. While it might make for some interesting local effects, given the right illumination, in this region it's possible that you might not even be able to observe many of your stellar neighbors due to the obstruction.

So, just where is a good place to be? Well, as it turns out, spiral galaxies are not all bad. There are certain regions within them that are fairly cozy, and we don't have to go to the lonely fringe of the galaxy to find them. In fact, if God preferred the formation of our sun and planets from materials at hand, they would most readily be found nearer the central area. This is because you need a certain abundance of gases and stars to begin with, which are more sparse in the periphery, in order to facilitate the various rounds of star birth and death that manufacture the heavier elements. You see, the original material of the universe was primarily hydrogen, and (short of divine intervention) the heavier elements are only produced in the fusion engines we call stars and during their explosive death throws (i.e., novas and supernovas). Heavy elements — carbon, oxygen, silicon, iron, etc. — are important for planet forming and for imparting certain desirable characteristics to stars (and, or course, for life). It can take time to build up and release a significant amount of such materials, and this tends to happen in the galaxy from the inside out. All this boils down to a galactic habitable zone that falls somewhere between the inner core and the outer edge, yet not directly within the densely packed arms.

The bottom line is that the less populous space between the arms of the spirals is a perfect location for life, and, as an added bonus, would let the inhabitants have a clear view of both the nearby arm(s) of their own galaxy and an unobstructed view outside of the galaxy. And if that world were in a nice circular orbit near the corotation radius of the galaxy, then it would seldom risk crossing through the spiral arms. You'd also want an orbit that stayed well within the plane of the galaxy so as not to peek above or below the shielding dust of the inner rings and be exposed to the volatile output of the galactic core. Our own solar system happens to be situated in just such a place.

At this point it is worth mentioning that most of the stars in the universe happen to be locked up in hostile environments like elliptical galaxies, star clusters, galactic cores, and spiral arms. By comparison, the number of stars that are in the right kinds of positions within the right kinds of galaxies is miniscule. And even when we begin to look at stars that might be in prime real estate we find that very few of these make a friendly host.

But before I begin down the path of illustrating the kind of local variables required for life (e.g., stars and planets), let me just emphasize the fact that our world is in a very good place, being both safe and advantageous for viewing the action in the universe at large. Can the charge that we are no place special be sustained? Only if one could say that a babe cradled in his mother's arms looking safely through the window at his world is no place special. And even if there might be other mothers and other arms, it does not make his any less good.


June 01, 2006

The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 1)

Space, Size, and Significance
(Part 1 in a 4 part series)
Psalms 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory and handiwork of God. Christians have always taken this to mean that the beauty, design, complexity, hospitality, and vastness of the universe serve as a testimony to the One who created it. Indeed, who can deny the emotional charge experienced under a crisp, star filled night sky? And it has always been so, whether of the ancients, who possessed nothing but speculation over the nature of the heavens, or of we privileged moderns, whose knowledge of what lies behind and beyond those twinkling lights only adds to the wonder.

But far from evoking awe toward the creator, some skeptics see the vast scope of the creation as justification for their skepticism. There are various ways the objection is presented, but it generally runs something like this: "Why should God care about us small, insignificant creatures that live on a common place, orbiting an average star, in the outer reaches of an insignificant galaxy, tucked away in a remote corner of the universe?"

To frame this as a formal argument, they might say the following:
a) If there were a God who really cared about humans, He would have placed us in prime real-estate.
b) We are nowhere special.
c) Therefore, there is no God who particularly cares about us (or we are at least not the pinnacle of creation).

Of course, this argument could be adjusted in various ways, like saying there are trillions of habitable locations and so maybe we are just one of millions of randomly evolved species. But all these arguments still depend on a certain idea about the hospitality and architecture of the cosmos. The actual facts turn out to paint an entirely different portrait.

Before I get to the science (beginning in part 2), let me just address the wrong-headed philosophical idea that may underlie this objection.

There is a sense in which the smallness of man, the infinity of space, and the vast number of stars is supposed to diminish the importance of humanity. But this would seem to suggest that size equals value. Shaquille O'Neil may be more impressive to watch than Gary Coleman, but they are equal in their intrinsic value. Indeed, it is the intrinsic value of humanity compared to, say, the size of a galaxy that is at issue.

We demonstrate our understanding of this value distinction in that we find a one-ounce diamond to be more precious than a mountain of gravel. And we do not shed tears when stars go supernova like we do when humans die. For that matter, think for a moment about what you'd rather spend eternity with: a Red Giant star or a real-life human; or, a million galaxies or a million other self-conscious, personal beings?

We are not just quantitatively different from the furnishings of the universe, we are qualitatively different. And on top of that, if God has created us for His special purposes, and especially stamped His image upon us as the Bible teaches, then we are infinitely more valuable than all the inanimate mass and energy in space.

The objection then may turn to the idea that there are millions of other life forms in the universe, thus drowning our significance in a sea of equally (or more than equally) "special" beings. What place, then, for a God to concern Himself so intimately with us mere earthlings, as the Bible teaches?

Well, this would be a compelling question if it were something more than mere speculation. And saying that it is "probably" true presumes the whole materialistic project that life can get started on its own (which I've addressed elsewhere) much less evolve to a self-conscious entity. When and if SETI or NASA gives us some clear confirmation of intelligent neighbors, then it would be meaningful to seek a theological response in light of it. Even then, it is not as though no response can be given. In a cosmos ruled by an omnipresent and omniscient God, there is room for even the remotest atom to be the object of His meticulous attention.

But if we earthlings are the only game in town, then, as the late Carl Sagan said, the universe seems like an awful waste of space. The problem with this objection is that it is a misuse of the word "waste" and an unwarranted constraint on God's creative license.

Remember the image of the billionaire who lights his cigars with 100 dollar bills? In a certain sense, God's unlimited power permits Him to operate with this kind of extravagance. He is free to create as much or a little as He pleases, and if He chooses to create galaxies or whole universes for nothing other than His own pleasure, or for the heavenly host, then that is His prerogative. The difference is that the billionaire can rightly be said to be wasting his resources simply because there are others who could benefit from the incinerated money. You can only waste what can be put to use, or better use, elsewhere. But can the same be said of God and His creation?

The whole idea behind the objection is that the waste of the universe is because there is no one else to make use of it. The complaint arises because of the abundance, not because it is failing to meet a need found elsewhere. You can't waste something if no other possible consumer of it exists. Now, if God had created one crowded universe and also one that was virtually empty, then perhaps that would qualify as a "waste."

The "waste" complaint would seem to conversely imply that if God were more economical, then He would have created nothing more than a single star and planet. Heck, maybe all the extra water and land on earth is a waste too. But then I'm sure the objection would become, "that seems like an awful waste of His power." The implication is that God must create exactly what is needed to provide for the beings He has made, or that whatever He has made must necessarily be filled with beings like, or other than, us in order to qualify as "use." Presumably, God should "use" it all or have some designated purpose for every cubic light-year of it. This seems presumptuous both to assert how God is required to create and to assume that God does not indeed have some use for the entire creation.

Aside from how the universe may serve some heavenly purpose or future purpose for ourselves, there are benefits that have always been enjoyed as a result of it, and with time we are even more fully appreciating them. The local stars have always been a delight to us, and as the Bible says, have helped us to mark the times and seasons. In modern times we have been exploring the depths of space, learning much about our own local domain and the very laws of physics as a result. In fact, we would never know of the vast reaches of space in order to call it a "waste" if we had not already probed it with our instruments.

How very dull and constraining it would be if we inquisitive humans did not have this grand showcase and laboratory at our disposal. What a beautiful, awesome, and educational thing that God has offered to us. I defy even the most scientifically illiterate person to look upon a deep space image of a galaxy or nebula and maintain his emotional neutrality. And even an agnostic like Sagan otherwise believed that "Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe."

The universe is indeed serving its purpose, and we are just the right kind of heavenly-minded creatures able to both understand it and appreciate it. That is true of each of us even though we are but one in 6 billion, and would remain true even if the universe did happen to be peppered with other beings just like ourselves.

You may continue the series here:
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 2) - Location, Location, Location
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 3) - It's in the Stars
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 4) - Habitat for Humanity


Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN