Adam and the Big Bang

What Google returns on when searching on the Kentucky Ark.

What Google returns on when searching on the Kentucky Ark.

Noah’s Ark has been re-built, right here in Kentucky.  It just opened to the public this summer.  It is supposed to bring in many tourists who will see something from Genesis on a Kentucky landscape.  The Kentucky Ark will probably generate plenty of the usual discussion of science versus traditional belief systems—that is (from an astronomy perspective), The Big Bang versus Genesis.

Some years back in the Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal, two authors, Martin Griffiths and Carlos F. Oliveira, wrote a contribution to that usual discussion. Their article, “The Big Bang—a Hot Issue in Science Communication,”* portrayed the communication of ideas from science that challenge traditional belief systems as “an ideological war that is worth the fight.”  They said—

The Big Bang theory strikes at the heart of human philosophical and cultural meaning, uprooting a secure humanity from a known place in the Universe to one of unimaginable smallness, adrift in the unfathomable sea of space.  This is the core of its contentious state for those who seek a more comforting and meaningful alternative.  It is also a reflection of the place of science and its communication in our society—where does science fit in our culture?  It is up to scientists to ensure that we replace one set of meaningful values with one of equal meaning that is deeply rooted in a new culture that addresses an understanding of our place in the cosmos.

Bad idea.  Those of us interested in astronomical outreach should put distance between ourselves and such notions of ideological war and replacing values and culture.  We should stay away from pitting the Big Bang against Genesis, for that is a recipe for endless conflict with one tradition and culture after another.  Ideas like the Big Bang can be more effectively communicated to the public by respecting the traditional belief systems and cultures that are embodied in the Kentucky Ark.

Force people to choose between a scientific idea (such as the Big Bang) and a competing knowledge claim based in a traditional belief system and culture (such as a universe created by God in six days approximately 6000 years ago), and many will choose to reject the science.  The people lining up for an Ark visit this summer (and the line to see this land-locked boat will probably be the envy of many a science museum or planetarium) are likely to belong to a circle of friends and family members who share Creationist ideas.  Even were one of these folks to have an interest in science and to lack any inclination to see great theological significance in the true age of the Universe, he or she could face serious social consequences, including disruptions to important relationships, were he or she to set aside Creationist ideas in favor of the Big Bang.

Thus the astronomer who truly wishes to effectively communicate the Big Bang to the broadest possible public needs to be able to do so in a manner that does not force people to choose.  The astronomer needs to be able to communicate in a manner that does not partake in an ideological war, that does not attempt to replace values, and that does promote openness to understanding the Big Bang theory.

I will now describe a method for doing just that.

For over two decades I have been communicating the Big Bang to the public in the Ohio River Valley region of the United States, in college courses and in public astronomy programs at my college’s observatory.  Creationist views are common here—the Creation Museum, operated by the same “Answers in Genesis” organization that built the Ark, is just upriver from my home city of Louisville, Kentucky.  Any discussion of the Big Bang in those classes or programs is likely to evoke questions from my audience, often starting with whether I “believe” in the Big Bang.

My answer is, of course, that I do not.  Rather, I believe in the Theory Of Alien Schoolchildren, or TOAS.  The TOAS says the entire Universe was created at the moment our class or program began, by highly advanced alien schoolchildren, as part of a school science project (or, if you prefer, a computer simulation).  In fact, the Universe has only existed since that moment, and the alien schoolchildren just programmed into their project our memories and the appearance of a deep past.

The discussion (which just took on a much lighter tone) can now cover a number of important points.  First is that, absent a time machine, the TOAS cannot be disproven.  This provides a chance to acknowledge, and to get my audience to acknowledge, that ideas involving the past cannot be tested in the same way as theories such as conservation of momentum.  Second is that, ultimately, the TOAS is scientifically irrelevant—we can only deal with the past the Universe appears to have.  If there is a note from my wife in my pocket reminding me to take care of some important errands on my way home from the class or program, I had best act on that; whether or not my wife’s request ever “really” happened is irrelevant.  Alien schoolchildren may have created the universe just an hour ago, but the universe they created was a mature universe, with all that implies.

It is then pretty easy to discuss the Creationist view: perhaps God indeed created the universe 6000 years ago; but when He did so He created a mature universe—one whose age, by all appearances scientists can see (and scientists can only deal with the past the Universe appears to have), is 13.7 billion years, born in the Big Bang.

I can even cite a scriptural analogy for this: According to Genesis, God created Adam as a mature man; on the very day Adam was created he was speaking profound thoughts: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman [Genesis 2:23, KJV]”.  I can then ask the audience:

Suppose an angel carries you back to one month after Creation to meet Adam, but does not tell you to where and to when you are going and who you will meet.  Upon meeting Adam, and having no idea who he is, will you conclude that he is a month old?  No, you will say, “this man is 30 years old at least!”  You will not relate to him as a one-month-old, but as a man, because he in fact is a man.  Even if the angel reveals to you Adam’s identity and true age, you will still relate to him as a man.  So likewise, while perhaps God created the universe 6000 years ago, as a scientist I do not approach the universe as a young universe, but as an old universe, because in fact it is an old universe.  And even if you convert me and I abandon my belief in alien schoolchildren and accept the 6000 year old universe created by God in six days, as a scientist I will still relate to the universe as an old universe.  I will leave to the theologians all discussions of why God chose to create a mature Adam and a mature universe.

Now the members of my audience no longer have to choose between the Big Bang and their beliefs and culture.  I have acknowledged, and hopefully demonstrated respect for, their views.  The discussion, now non-threatening, can proceed to the theory and the evidence behind it.  The audience becomes open to, and sometimes enthusiastic about, understanding and discussing the Big Bang once they realize they don’t have to “believe” in it.  If need be, I can further soften the audience with historical anecdotes about how scientists themselves did not care to abandon the ancient idea of an eternal universe, and expressed disdain for the Big Bang theory: Arthur Eddington** remarking that the notion of a beginning to the universe was “repugnant” to him, but that he could see “no way around it”; Edwin Hubble+ challenging the Big Bang theory years after making the observations that helped to establish it; and of course Fred Hoyle derisively naming the theory.  This helps illustrate to the audience how scientists did not come up with this theory just to annoy Creationists—they were driven to the Big Bang by the evidence they saw in the Universe itself.

As Griffiths and Oliveira point out, ideas such as the Big Bang are under attack in the public domain.  If we adopt the “ideological war” view, they will remain under attack, for the “Other” in this business—groups like “Answers in Genesis,” for example—will fight.  And as the Kentucky Ark illustrates, they have resources.  And, should we somehow triumph over them, we can look forward then to fighting on against a multitude of other groups, large and small, whose traditional beliefs and culture do not support Big Bang cosmology.  Do we wish to fight about the Big Bang with every culture from North Africa to Polynesia?

Humor, respect, and understanding are better than fighting.  Let us discuss the apparent age of the universe rather than the age, lest some alien schoolchildren set us straight some day.  We need a public who understands the Big Bang and other key scientific ideas, and why they are important and scientifically valid.  “Belief” in them is not relevant—I’m still betting on the alien schoolchildren myself.

*Griffiths M., Oliveira C. F. 2010, “The Big Bang—a Hot Issue in Science Communication,” Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal, 10, p. 11.

**Eddington A. 1931, “The End of the World: from the Standpoint of Mathematical Physics,” Nature, 127, 450: “[Going back in time] we come to a time when the matter and energy of the universe had the maximum possible organization.  To go back further is impossible.  We have come to an abrupt end of space-time—only we generally call it the ‘beginning’.  I have no ‘philosophical axe to grind’ in this discussion. Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order is repugnant to me.  I am simply stating the dilemma to which our present fundamental conception of physical law leads us.  I see no way around it.”

+Hubble E. 1942, “The Problem of the Expanding Universe,” Science, 95, 214: “Red shifts are due either to recession of the nebulae or to some hitherto unrecognized principle operating in internebular space.  The latter interpretation leads to the simple conception of a sensibly infinite homogeneous universe of which the observable region is an insignificant fraction.  The alternative interpretation of red shifts as velocity shifts leads to a particular type of an expanding universe which is disconcertingly young, small and dense.”  Hubble goes on to argue that the evidence did not favor the interpretation of red shifts as being due to the velocities of galaxies, and concluded, “...on the basis of the evidence now available, a choice seems to be presented, as once before in the days of Copernicus, between a small, finite universe, and a sensibly infinite universe plus a new principle of nature.  And, as before, the choice may be determined by the attribute of simplicity.”

Are we real?

An interesting idea has reached the blackboards of scientists that would normally stay on the blackboards of philosophers. Simply put, are we real people in a real universe, or might we just be characters in a large computer simulation? This follows the reasoning presented in a BBC article earlier this month.

Well, what if the universe was made small enough relative to its creator to fit into one of the 'test tubes' in the lab, or was able to be represented as bits in a massive "universal computer game?" As a scientist, all I am qualified to ask is the following: how can we start a scientific discussion on the topic?

Philosopher Nick Bostrom suggests that there are only three possibilities. The first option is that intelligent civilizations will not ever conduct experiments such as constructing our entire universe in a 'video game.' This is because before they get sufficiently powerful to do so they are instead destroyed by war, disease, misuse of resources or the unhappy coincidence of a collision with a massive asteroid.

Second of all, perhaps a civilization does advance to that point but chooses not to conduct the experiment for moral/ethical reasons. Thirdly, a civilization did succeed and we are the result! Well, why would other beings build complex computer simulations anyway? Aren't we just anthropomorphizing our latest penchant for video games onto them? Imagine that however many arms or legs or wings an advanced creature may have, they will find greater reach in their ability to explore, save, or conquer if they invent and then employ computers to solve their problems.

Humans have advanced computer technology astonishingly rapidly in the past 50 years. Imagine an advanced civilization that is 100,000 years or more ahead of us. Could their simulations be so powerful as to simulate, well... us?

Nobel laureate George Smoot asserts that of Dr. Bostrom's three options, the first one is unlikely. While disease, war, and famine have threatened human existence, we have always managed to hang on to life. On option two, making a simulation may seem unethical if it serves to ascribe a false sense of consciousness onto us poor humans. But, what if another civilization sees a simulation instead as a more _ethical_ way to help life without actually conducting experiments on living things?

This leaves option 3, that we are a part of an ongoing experiment, not quite going away... If true, is there the possibility ever to find a 'bug' in the creator's program?

Teleconference Tomorrow: What Is NASA’s “Surprising News” About Jupiter’s Moon Europa?

Image diagraming the location of faint water vapor plumbs found in 2012. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/L. Roth/SWRI/University of Cologne

Image diagraming the location of faint water vapor plumes found in 2012. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/L. Roth/SWRI/University of Cologne

Even if you don't follow science news, you probably have heard about a teleconference NASA is holding tomorrow. The event will share, to quote NASA, "surprising evidence of activity (on Europa) that may be related to the presence of a subsurface ocean." Tomorrow (Monday) at 2:00 EDT (1:00 CDT), we will learn what this "surprising evidence" is that NASA has discovered. The only other "hints" offered by NASA about what has been discovered is that the images were taken from the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the past, Hubble has been involved in other fascinating discoveries about Europa. In December of 2013, NASA announced that water vapor plumes were on Europa's surface, detected because of auroral emissions from oxygen and hydrogen. When this vapor was announced, NASA explained that a likely source of these vapor plumes would be a subsurface ocean that is venting through the cracks on Europa's surface. The article further explained that there wasn't enough information to confirm this hypothesis. Has NASA found further evidence that these plumes come from an ocean underneath Europa's icy crust? Has NASA found something new on Europa that is different from the 2013 findings? We'll all find out tomorrow!

Ultraviolet Images from the Hubble of 2012 vapor plumes. Image Credit: NASA/L. Roth

2012 Ultraviolet Images from Hubble show evidence of vapor plumes. Image Credit: NASA/L. Roth

If you wish to listen in on teleconference, NASA will be providing an audio feed for the general public. To eavesdrop on the teleconference, click here. In addition to observing this little icy moon with Hubble, NASA is currently working on a mission to Europa to hopefully confirm their watery speculations. An actual mission date has yet to be set, but is hoped to launch sometime in the 2020's.

There is much speculation online, most of it ridiculous and sensationalized, as to what will be announced by NASA. My speculation is that what will be presented is simply one more piece of the puzzle that helps us understand our Solar System. If there is further verification of a vast ocean under Europa's surface, the findings will most likely help scientists develop new and better questions to further their exploration of this icy little world. However, we should not misinterpret these "small steps" as being of little importance. Instead, we should see in these announcements a lesson that coming to truth takes time and patience. Put another way, "little steps" are necessary to lead us toward a profound understanding of the world we live.

I can't help but see in the patient, little steps of science a wonderful analogy for our faith life. For me, God has not come in "flash bang" moments, but in the smaller movements of life. At times, many of these movements seemed very insignificant. However, with time, they emerged as containing a necessary preparation for profound moments of growth in my love and understanding of God. In that spirit, let us eagerly anticipate tomorrows announcement about Europa as an exercise in continuing our exploration of both the world we live in and the one who brought this world into existence!

Below is a video from NASA on Europa. Enjoy and have a blessed week!


For those who were not able to listen to the teleconference, here is a nice summary of what was discussed about Europa. Enjoy!

From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God

This article first appeared in The Tablet on 11 September 2010, pp 4-5, following the publication of the book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design

This cartoon by Paul Thomas ran with this Tablet article

Cartoon by Paul Thomas, from the Tablet

Stephen Hawking is not the first scientist to declare God obsolete. But his latest findings following his researches into the origins of the universe provoke profound questions about our perceptions of God and the relationship between science and theology.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist... It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Such were the fighting words excerpted in the press from Stephen Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow. So no need for God, science has it all sorted.

In the late 1920’s, the Belgian mathematician (and Catholic priest) Georges Lemaître had proposed that the universe was evolving from an initial condition of high energy – what he called a “cosmic seed” and others (notably his friend and rival, Fred Hoyle) dubbed the “Big Bang.” The evidence of astronomy gathered since then has demonstrated pretty convincingly that such a bang did occur. But what was the origin of the initial cosmic seed?

For years, Stephen Hawking has been working on a theory suggesting that quantum fluctuations in a primordial vacuum could provide a setting that would by itself, by chance, produce that initial singularity in space-time. As the cosmologist (and my fellow Jesuit at the Vatican Observatory) Bill Stoeger has explained it, “[James] Hartle and Hawking... showed, by using the concept of imaginary time – by which one treats time exactly like a spatial dimension – and by conceiving that there was no initial 3-dimensional spatial boundary to the universe, that we can in a consistent way obtain from the cosmic wave-function a universe like the one we inhabit.”

Describing it in those terms sounds great in a popular science column, but actually making the maths work out is a different matter. From the sound of the press releases, however, apparently Hawking now feels he’s succeeded.

Hawking is as good as anyone working today when it comes to visualizing, and expressing mathematically, the nature of physics at extreme conditions. For me to judge the physics of his work would be presumptuous, exposing my own ignorance of his field... any more than I would take seriously anything Hawking might have to say about my own research in meteoritics.

Or theology. Suppressing any number of snide comments I could make about the conclusions he draws from his work about God, however (if he hadn’t been able to come up with a theory to start off the universe, would that have caused him to publicly confess God existed after all?), the fact is, Hawking is right. There is no need for a God to start the universe off.

But he’s by no means the first scientist to point this out. When the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace explained his advanced mathematical description of planetary orbits to Napoleon, the emperor interrupted him to ask about the role of God. Laplace is said to have replied, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

Napoleon’s question was a reference to Isaac Newton’s original work on gravity and orbits. Because there is a law such as gravity, Newton had been able to explain the orbits of the planets. But Newton realized that the interaction of one planet on another might well perturb the stable simplicity of any given planet’s orbit. This gap in his explanation, the fact that the orbits were nonetheless stable, he posited was a demonstration of the action of God. Newton had only just invented differential calculus; Laplace, building with brilliance upon a hundred years’ further development in the field, was able to show that the orbits could be stable without recourse to supernatural intervention.

Newton was a Deist, one who did not see God as personally involved in the lives of individual humans but rather as merely the “prime mover” in Aristotle’s sense, the original source of motion from which all other motions derived. His use of physics as a way of demonstrating the necessity of such a God made a big impact in the 17th and 18th centuries. There was no split between science and religion; rather, religion could be based on the firm certainties of Newton’s laws. To quote Alexander Pope, “God said ‘Let Newton Be’ and all was light.”

But this God of the Gaps is theologically treacherous. The most obvious danger is that (a la Laplace) once the gaps are filled by natural laws themselves, then the “proof” of God’s existence is turned on its head; one instead seems to show that there is no need for God, after all. The Jesuit theologian, Michael Buckley, has argued that precisely this pattern is what gave rise to modern atheism.

A more subtle problem is that such of version of God reduces him to just one force alongside other forces in nature. Rather than supernatural, present in the beginning, outside space and time, God becomes a pagan nature deity, responsible if not for thunder and the growth of crops, then at least the primordial big bang and the growth of the universe.

There is an irony, of course, in Laplace’s dismissal of Newton’s concern. In the two hundred years since his Napoleonic quip, mathematicians have discovered chaos theory and astronomers now understand that planetary orbits can indeed be chaotic. There is good evidence that the early orbits of planets were unstable. Just because the solar system has been relatively quiescent for the past four billion years doesn’t mean it always was that way, or always will be.

Likewise, Hawking’s conception of “spontaneous creation” may someday look as quaint as “spontaneous generation” compared to evolution. Indeed, I would hope so. That’s the sign of a healthy field.

Meanwhile, we may wince at Hawking’s misapplication of the challenge first posed by Newton’s contemporary, Gottfried Liebnitz, in an essay “On the Ultimate Origin of Things.” To ask “why is there something instead of nothing” is very different from asking “how did things get started?” To cite again Fr. Stoeger, “The Creator empowers the physical processes to be what they are. The Creator does not replace them. Creatio ex nihilo is not an answer to the question of temporal origin; Creatio ex nihilo is, instead, about the ultimate ontological origin of reality.” (I am quoting from his chapter in the Vatican Observatory’s 2009 book, The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican.)

That said, however, Hawking does us an important favor by eliminating such an image of God. The “god” that Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in is one I don’t believe in either. God is not a force to be invoked to swell a progress, start a scene or two, and fill the momentary gaps in our knowledge.

God is the reason why existence itself exists. God is the reason why space and time and the laws of nature can be present for the forces to operate that Stephen Hawking is talking about.

What’s more, I believe in such a God not because of the absence of any other explanation for the origin of the universe, but because of the person of Jesus Christ -- in history, in scripture, and in my own personal life of prayer. And even more strongly, I have faith in this God not merely because the universe exists, but because it is beautiful and fun to play in... that play we call science.

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds: Have We Found Planet X?
  12. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  13. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  14. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  15. Across the Universe: Recognition
  16. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  17. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  18. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  19. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  20. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  21. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  22. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  23. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  24. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  25. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  26. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  27. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  28. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  29. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  30. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  31. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  32. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  33. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  34. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  35. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  36. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  37. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  38. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  39. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  40. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  41. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  42. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  43. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  44. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  45. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  46. Across the Universe: Errata
  47. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  48. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  49. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  50. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  51. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  52. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  53. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  54. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  55. Across the Universe: Obedience
  56. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  57. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  58. Across the Universe: Europa
  59. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  60. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  61. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  62. Across the Universe: False Economies
  63. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  64. Across the Universe: Japan
  65. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  66. Across the Universe: Oops!
  67. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  68. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  69. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God

View the entire series

Hot off the ‘Press’ at Aeon: Opposition to Galileo was scientific, not just religious

Visit the original version of this post at Aeon.

In 1614, when the telescope was new technology, a young man in Germany published a book filled with illustrations of the exciting new things being discovered telescopically: moons circling Jupiter, moon-like phases of Venus, spots on the Sun, the rough and cratered lunar surface. The young man was Johann Georg Locher, and his book was Mathematical Disquisitions Concerning Astronomical Controversies and Novelties. And while Locher heaped praise upon Galileo, he challenged ideas that Galileo championed – on scientific grounds.

You see, Locher was an anti-Copernican, a fan of the ancient astronomer Ptolemy, and a student within the Establishment (his mentor was Christoph Scheiner, a prominent Jesuit astronomer). Locher argued that Copernicus was wrong about Earth circling the Sun, and that Earth was fixed in place, at the centre of the Universe, like Ptolemy said. But Locher was making no religious argument. Yes, he said, a moving Earth messes with certain Biblical passages, like Joshua telling the Sun to stand still. But it also messes with certain astronomical terms, such as sunrise and sunset. Copernicans had work-arounds for all that, Locher said, even though they might be convoluted. What Copernicans could not work around, though, were the scientific arguments against their theory. Indeed, Locher even proposed a mechanism to explain how Earth could orbit the Sun (a sort of perpetual falling – this decades before Isaac Newton would explain orbits by means of perpetual falling), but he said it would not help the Copernicans, on account of the other problems with their theory.

What were those problems? A big one was the size of stars in the Copernican universe. Copernicus proposed that certain oddities observed in the movements of planets through the constellations were due to the fact that Earth itself was moving. Stars show no such oddities, so Copernicus had to theorise that, rather than being just beyond the planets as astronomers had traditionally supposed, stars were so incredibly distant that Earth’s motion was insignificant by comparison. But seen from Earth, stars appear as dots of certain sizes or magnitudes. The only way stars could be so incredibly distant and have such sizes was if they were all incredibly huge, every last one dwarfing the Sun. Tycho Brahe, the most prominent astronomer of the era and a favourite of the Establishment, thought this was absurd, while Peter Crüger, a leading Polish mathematician, wondered how the Copernican system could ever survive in the face of the star-size problem.

Locher thought much was up in the air and ripe for study. In light of the star-size problem, he thought that the Earth clearly did not move; the Sun circled it. But the telescope made it clear that Venus circled the Sun, and that sunspots also went around the Sun. Brahe had theorised that all planets circled the Sun, while it circled Earth. Locher noted that Brahe might be right, but what was clear was that the telescope supported Ptolemy.

Ptolemy had explained those oddities in planetary movement by theorising that, as planets circled the Earth, they also rode on a smaller circle, or epicycle, creating an odd motion like a ‘Scrambler’ ride at a carnival. Locher wrote that, prior to the telescope, this was just an idea – no one knew if epicycles really existed. But the telescopically discovered moons of Jupiter were proof of epicyclic motion: the moons rode in circles around Jupiter, while those circles rode with Jupiter on its orbit. The telescope had proven Ptolemy correct; it was just that Venus and sunspots (and maybe all the planets) had their epicycles centred on the Sun. Locher thought the epicycle question could be probed further through telescopic observation of Saturn, and in particular of the protrusions seen on Saturn (at the time, no one understood these to be rings). Locher argued that a long-term study of how those protrusions change might show that Saturn rode on an epicycle.

But a study of Saturn was not the only programme of telescopic research that Locher proposed. He was particularly excited by Jupiter’s moons. He explained that by using a telescope to carefully gather data on when those moons passed in front of Jupiter and when they were eclipsed by its shadow, astronomers could calculate angles and geometrically determine distances between the Sun, Earth and Jupiter in a whole new way.

Unfortunately for Locher, he turned out to be wrong about the Earth not moving (the apparent sizes of stars would be shown to be spurious, an effect of optics). Worse, Galileo in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) made sport of a certain ‘booklet of theses’, namely Locher’s Disquisitions, quoting from it without identifying its author or title. He caricatured Disquisitions, then ridiculed the caricature, portraying the ‘booklet’ as the work of a befuddled establishmentarian, hung up on the ancient idea of an immobile Earth. Galileo gave no clue that the ‘booklet’s’ author was complimentary to him, excited about new telescopic discoveries, encouraging further telescopic research, and wielding solid arguments against Earth’s motion. Locher was forgotten, while Galileo’s caricature became accepted as history, and applied to the entire debate over Earth’s motion.

That is unfortunate for science, because today the opponents of science make use of that caricature. Those who insist that the Apollo missions were faked, that vaccines are harmful, or even that the world is flat – whose voices are now loud enough for the ‘War on Science’ to be a National Geographic cover story and for the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to address even their most bizarre claims – do not reject the scientific process per se. Rather, they wrap themselves in the mantle of Galileo, standing (supposedly) against a (supposedly) corrupted science produced by the ‘Scientific Establishment’. Thus Locher matters. Science’s history matters. Anti-Copernicans such as Locher and Brahe show that science has always functioned as a contest of ideas, and that science was present in both sides of the vigorous debate over Earth’s motion.Aeon counter – do not remove

Christopher Graney

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Pasting the Legends onto the Maps of the Heavens (Part Two)

We continue on with the discussion of Ms. Henrietta Leavitt, whose careful studies of the brightnesses of stars led to a means to measure the distances between the galaxies. Following her certificate for studies at Radcliffe College, Ms. Leavitt secured a research position at Harvard College Observatory measuring the brightnesses of stars.

In this discipline known as stellar photometry, images of stars are acquired and one by one compared to 'standards.' Ms. Leavitt noticed that while the vast majority of stars that she could study in the Milky Way shone steadily, a small subset of stars instead varied in brightness with a regular cycle of dimming and then brightening up again that lasted weeks to months.

In an epic comment of understatement, she wrote that "It is worthy of notice that the brighter variables have the longer periods." Then she studied stars in the nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud, and found additional variable stars with similar properties as the ones found in the Milky Way.

She understood that these were the same types of stars in both galaxies, yet the ones in the Large Magellanic Clould were fainter. If you could get a stopwatch and count the number of beats a star makes in the distant galaxy then you could use it to measure the intrinsic brightness. Compare that to the brightness it appears to have to get the distance.

This is similar to saying that because we can read the wattage on a flashlight we can put the flashlight at the other side of a football field obtain an estimate of its distance. If we did not know the wattage of the flashlight ahead of time, then if we saw a faint light coming from a some distance away we would not know if the light hailed from a tiny keychain flashlight right in front of our noses or from a spotlight placed a large distance away. Ms. Leavitt gave us the means to read that 'wattage' of the star!

Get off the Sofa – Stellarium a beginners guide to the software with videos and instruction

Virginia creepers are turning red, evening light drops noticeably, a chilled breeze tosses  leafs around the garden . Thoughts of winter constellations and log fires warm my heart as we lean towards autumn.  Magnificent Orion is slowly making a return  with its extremely detailed nebula, a sketching target of mine.  Once several years ago I saw it in a very dark sky , the detail was outstanding even in my 8 inch dob. I observed what looked like cracks  in the molecular cloud, it was so totally mesmerizing  however my view was  soon eliminated by fog creeping up and over me .  A drawing  to look forward to attempting  as M42 is truly special. We look from our gardens at a place where stars are born . Observing M42 we also look back in time about 1,500 light years.  The future and the past combined , a wonderful sight, a complex drawing.

My hopes are for a comet in outburst similar to 17/P Holmes in 2007. Perhaps a supernova will grace our eyes with wonder . Anything can happen , the observable universe is vast, populated with star making nebula, magical moons and a unique beauty to constantly lift your spirit. So if you are an armchair astronomer with  just a passing interest , perhaps the following information will get you outside a little more often.

Stellarium is a free real-time sky software. It shows you the sky above your head from any place on Earth at any time , past, present or future.  It's marvellous for planning to share the sky with others in particular for observing the moons of Jupiter or Saturn.   If I am sharing Jupiter's moons at a public session it would be my habit to consult Stellarium and do a drawing of the positions of the moons at the projected time of the star party.  When people look through my telescope at Jupiter  I can then name the visible moons as they see them and offer a description of the moons along with  the history of Galileo's discoveries.

For me one of the best features is the active real-time tool which links to the (MPC) Minor Planet Centre to enable you to choose a visible comet and include it in the software.

Here is how you do it in step by step order

Firstly make sure your clock and calendar on your computer are correct and that the location you are observing from is set to a city near you in the location window of the software. The software is defaulted to Paris so unless you live in Paris you need to change the location for yourself. ( see video below)

Including a comet in Stellarium

  • Open the Configuration window = Press F2 on your laptop
  •  Click on the Plug In tab  then on the left hand side scroll down and click on Solar System Editor
  • Click Configure , then click Solar System Tab
  • Click Import orbital elements from MPC
  • In List choose select type Comets
  • Under select a source choose MPC list of observable comets
  • Click Get orbital elements
  • Choose a comet that is bright or becoming bright .  ( use other sources for that such as Heavens Above )
  • Choose add the object
  • Close the configuration window
  • Press F3 on your laptop , the Search window will pop up
  • Type the comets name exactly as it was in the MPC list
  • You comet will be pinpointed

Now the comet and its projected  movements across the sky will be in your software and it will also be at the end of your eyes  binoculars or your telescope  when you get off  that sofa and look up.

If you are unfamiliar with comets or how to know if one is in your sky you can follow the information provided by Heavens Above or many other online resources.

As an educator I would never assume that everyone is familiar with downloading or using this software. So I made these two videos below to assist armchair astronomers and teachers during an MSc in Education Training Management (eLearning) program I attended at Dublin City University.

Download Stellarium

Using Stellarium



Discovering the “New Creation”

One of my favorite Biblical Scholars is NT Wright. His fresh, engaging, and accessible reflections make studying Scripture delightful. Drawing upon his expansive study of Scripture and his pastoral experience as an Anglican Bishop, NT Wright’s understanding of Scripture always strikes me as intellectually deep while being profoundly accessible and pastoral. One of the main Scriptural insights of NT Wright is what can be call a “New Creation” theology. This theology seeks to weed out a soft Gnosticism that sees life on earth as a temporary annoyance as we wait for the beginning of eternity. Instead, New Creation theology affirms the coming together of creation in its current state (broken, yet beautiful) with God’s redemptive love and grace that breaks into creation, restores creation, and brings about a New Creation. A simple way to explain NT Wright’s understanding of New Creation theology is that God comes to set humanity right so that, through humanity, God can set creation right. Therefore, NT Wright’s New Creation theology not … Continue reading

From the Cabinet of Physics: Chladni Sees Sound with Sand

I enjoy the sort of scientific demonstrations we might call “illustrations:” they make visible something about sound, or heat, or motion that would otherwise pass unseen. Here is an example from the field of acoustics. Out of the Cabinet of Physics come brass plates, of various shapes and sizes, each supported on a single leg at its center. An object like this can be persuaded to make a sound—one might thwack it with a spoon, perhaps, and hear it chime. In today’s video, it is more effective to stroke a plate with a violin bow. Sound is produced by motion. When stroked to produce a tone, some parts of the plate move more than others. We see pale sand being sprinkled onto the dark plates. A sand grain that lands on a rapidly-moving portion of the plate will be jiggled, and will bounce to another location, perhaps to be bounced again. If it lands on a location that is scarcely … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call

This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2010 Fifty years ago, a young radio astronomer named Frank Drake got time on the new radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, to listen in for intelligent signals from two nearby sun-like stars. It was the birth of SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Within a year he had presented, at a seminar in the observer’s lounge of the Green Bank observatory dormitory, what has come to be called The Drake Equation: a string of probabilities that would have to be determined to calculate the odds of finding an extraterrestrial civilization. How many stars have planets? How many planets have life? What are the odds that the life is intelligent in the sense of building radio transmitters powerful enough for us to detect? And what is the typical lifetime of such a civilization before it collapses? In 2010, I was part of a workshop held in that same lounge on “SETI … Continue reading

The Observatory at Thomas More College

Astronomical observatories are great places to visit.  It is fun to see the telescopes and the buildings, and to meet the interesting people who run them.  Therefore different observatories seem like good topics for any astronomy blog.  Since this is “The Catholic Astronomer” blog of the Vatican Observatory, and since the V.O. is run by a Catholic institution, observatories that have that feature in common with the V.O.—sister observatories, in a sense—seem like great subjects for this particular blog. So what astronomical observatories are run by Catholic institutions?  The observatory of Thomas More College, for one.  The number of colleges with observatories is not large, the number of Catholic colleges with observatories is even smaller, and the number of small Catholic colleges with observatories is really small.  Thus Thomas More, a small Catholic college located in Kentucky just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, is a remarkable place. And so this summer I paid a visit to Thomas More and its observatory.  … Continue reading

Pasting the Legends onto Our Maps of the Heavens (Part One)

At the turn of the 20th century, astronomers were struggling with the question of how far away the ‘island universes,’ or other galaxies, are from us here in the Milky Way. It took the work of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt at Harvard College Observatory to tell us. Ms. Leavitt was tasked with discovering the set of stars that change their brightness with time, the so-called ‘variable stars.’ She discovered nearly 1800 variable stars and noticed that some of them dimmed and then brightened again with predictable regularity. She measured the length of time it took for each variable star to undergo a full cycle of dimming and then brightening up again in a book published in the year 1908. At the end of book she noted that the brighter variable stars had longer such measured periods. In between suffering from various illnesses and an unfortunate loss of hearing, she returned to this finding to establish an important relation regarding the set … Continue reading