Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 20, 2008

Planets, Galaxies, Huckabee, & Finding God in the Blurry Details

(The Andromeda Galaxy, or M31… The Milky Way’s nearest neighbor) 


Went with the CMLC kids on Friday to the Adler Planetarium. A stellar experience, except that we had only about two hours there, and I would think 6-8 hours is closer to what’s needed to really do the museum and theaters. Oh well, all the more reason to go back as a family sometime soon.

My son Graham came with us, which was nice. He’s been a space nut practically since he became a conscious being. We probably helped, of course, by decorating his bedroom with glow-in-the-dark stars and a poster of the Cone Nebula and a photo of the moon in close-up, and another of the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. But he also seems naturally inclined to have the curiosity, analytical mind and tenacity to make a fine astronomer or physicist one day. He can tell you what a gibbous moon is. (In fact, I defy anyone to try keeping him from telling you.) He could name all the planets, in order, at age three. Now he’s just five, and he’s already been to the planetariums in St. Louis, Boston, and Chicago.

Here’s fun fact #1 for today, five ways to say moon in other languages:

maan (Dutch), luna (Spanish, Italian), mane (Norwegian), JIYHA (Russian/Czech), Loosin (language unknown… it’s probably phonetic version of some Asian language –anyone out there wanna help me out?!)

Speaking of foreign languages, while looking up JIYHA, I came upon the following construction. It’s one more reminder why, for me and most others, appreciating the beauty and mystery of the stars and planets is arrived at via poetic or theological means, not via the much more difficult path of theoretical physics and applied mathematics:


Not that I fear the use of scientific language, or am opposed to learning what’s hard. Just the opposite, in fact. I’m in awe, not just of the complexity of the systems themselves, but also of the great minds that can see it all clearly enough to try describing or explaining it. I know that for the right set of trained eyes and sharp mind, it is just as beautiful (and more useful… perhaps), to describe the universe with those methods as it was for Van Gogh to paint his famous Starry Night

Furthermore, I take it on faith that if we understood the universe fully (not that we ever could… it’s pure hubris to even put that out there as a goal), then nothing in the resulting equations would contradict the existence of God (or a robust theological system’s way of describing it all). A god who could be proven or disproven by use of any equation would be no God, as He/She/It would be in essence natural, and not supernatural (supernatural = literally “above nature”… as a creator or at least an observer, also as an agent of action and change, in my opinion). Even if you start with the so-called Big Bang and extrapolate from there, something (someone?) could still have caused the explosion, and someone could still be steering the developments that have happened since… even if He/She/They usually steers according to strict, predictable scientific rules.

Yet despite my religious stance, I’m not inclined to throw my support behind Mike Huckabee, nor anyone else who would use traditionalist social attitudes and religion to hinder the teaching and general advancement of good science. For example, the real physical evidence for biological changes in species over time –including the human species– is too great to ignore.

It’s certainly irritating that our interpretive skills are still so poor, and that people with biases (and conflicts of interest) on both sides of the evolution/Creationist/I.D. argument have muddied the water the past hundred years or more. But I’m still holding out hope that we’ll figure out as much as we need to know, so we can reconcile with our past as a species, if not completely understand it.

If you want to get some perspective on how tiny and ignorant we are in the grand scheme of things, consider this: The Milky Way is just one single galaxy among over a billion, and that’s in just the 2/3rds of the viewable universe which we’ve been able to catch a glimpse of up till now. (There’s still a third we have not touched or mapped.) And in each of those billion galaxies, there are billions of stars. And we’re not even getting into the more creative theories, like the one which says numerous other universes could possibly co-exist with our own, but with entirely alien, unknowable characteristics (each following its own rules of physics, logic and cosmology).

Confused yet? Maybe not. But if you aren’t at least astounded by the magnitude of what’s out there, and by the sheer number of possibilities, then you need to wake up that inner child of yours (or your actual child, if one is available) and give him or her a good shaking. After they’re awake, have everyone put a heavy coat on (it’s minus-3 degrees F here tonight), grab a pair of binoculars, and let that essential sense of wonder wash over you. It may even lead some genius in your own household toward wanting to explore that universe and explain it better, to the rest of us dull, earth-bound mouth-breathers.

The elegance of the universe is just too cool to be ignored.

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