December 14, 2019

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 4.

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 4.

Chapter 6 is entitled “A Larger, Stranger God: How Science Expands Your View of God.”  The chapter is basically a parable starring Tycho Brahe, the last great European astronomer to never use a telescope.  Tycho was a bit of an weirdo eccentric; here is a short video summary of his life.  He died from drinking too much beer and refusing to get up and go pee (sounds more like a geologist than an astronomer, but every good geologist knows you only rent beer, but I digress).

Tycho Brahe

Tycho never accepted Nicholas Copernicus’ idea that the Earth moves around the sun.  He had many reasons for rejecting it.  Contrary to popular belief, Copernicus had proved nothing, and Tycho knew it.  Anyone could see that the Earth stood solid underfoot.  Moreover a moving Earth violated the physics of his day.  No great wind blew as it would if the Earth were turning; objects thrown up in the air did not land to the west; and the stars failed to display annual parallax that would have confirmed its motion.

But Tycho’s greatest problems with Copernicus had nothing to do with science.  They concerned God: (1) humanity had seen itself as toiling near the lowest reaches of the cosmos while God serenely ruled from his throne far above the stars atop all things.  This cosmic model provided a fit setting for the human-divine drama of medieval Christianity.  So what could it mean for Earth, whose fixed place in the cosmic basement had for centuries made both scientific and religious sense, to be raised high above the sun and set in motion, no less?  It confused the relationship between God and humanity, with no hard scientific evidence to back it up.  (2) If the Earth moved around the sun the distances to the stars would have to be enormously greater than imagined, or else the stellar parallax could be observed.  If Copernicus were right, an incomprehensively vast ocean of nothingness would necessarily extend between the highest planet and the stars.  This radical expansion of scale is what bothered Tycho profoundly.  “Why would God have created so much empty space?” he asked, and in the end stated that, even if there had been no other absurdities to the Copernican theory, this alone would be sufficient to rule it out forever.

The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri, both binaries.

We think Tycho’s incredulity now quaint and naïve, but I think we do him an injustice.  Scientific measurements continued to expand the scale of the cosmos.  In 1833, a Scot named Thomas Henderson was named the director of the Royal Observatory in South Africa, where the bright triple star Alpha Centauri wheels high overhead all year round. Henderson began measuring the position of Alpha Centauri and discovered the stellar parallax that Tycho could never see.  It led him to calculate the star’s distance as 20 trillion miles (he was actually short by 6 trillion miles), six hundred times farther than Tycho’s worst nightmare of a distance. Let’s consider this distance in relation to the solar system.

If the sun were shrunk down to the size of a basketball and placed at the base of the Washington monument, Earth would be represented by a peppercorn 80 feet away.  A blueberry at a distance of about 1600 feet, at the edge of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, would serve nicely as Uranus.  The entire solar system would fit within the limits of the National Mall, including Pluto and many comets that spend most of their time far beyond the orbit of Neptune.

On this scale, Henderson’s star would not reside inside the city limits of Washington DC, nor would it sit anywhere within the greater metropolitan area.  In fact, it would not be found in the states of Virginia or Maryland, nor anywhere in the continental United States.  On our sun-as-a-basketball scale, the two brightest stars of Alpha Centauri, our very closest neighbor star system, would be represented by a beach ball and a bowling ball lying about 1600 feet apart – the same as the distance between the basketball sun and blueberry Uranus – on a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The third star, a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri, lies nearer to us than the others.  In our scale model, it would be represented by a golf-ball sized object floating about two hundred miles off the east coast of Hawaii.

In 1924, an unexpected discovery re-upped the cosmic distance scale many thousands of times.  Astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that our own Milky Way Galaxy, itself many thousands of times farther across than the distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri, floats among an uncountable number of other galaxies.  The human imagination fails utterly when faced with the distances between these galaxies.  Moreover, in 1929, Hubble demonstrated that distances to remote galaxies are growing daily. In 1999, it was discovered that this cosmic expansion, long assumed to be slowing down, is actually speeding up.  The universe is not only growing larger every day; it’s growing larger faster every day!

The biblical character of Job, like Tycho, thought he had a handle on who God was.  God, he supposed, was a lot like him: fair, reasonable, and concerned with the happiness of human beings.  If you prayed to him and worshipped him with the right sacrifices, your life would be blessed – until it wasn’t.  Job didn’t give up on God, but he wanted God to show up – until he did.  God answers Job out of the whirlwind and gives him a tour of the universe, which even from the perspective of time of the biblical writers, still shrank the human world and civilization to appear small and unimportant.  Unlike Tycho, Job gets the point.  The Job story beautifully balances the cosmic and the personal. Job’s vision of the universe forces him to expand his understanding of God and even to admit that he does not understand.  Wallace says this:

Christianity stands as one among many religions found on our humble planet.  Our local, particular faith seems mighty provincial in a cosmos such as ours.  Maybe a God that large, that strange, that invested in nonhuman worlds, that deep and mysterious, cannot be contained by our one local faith.  If this expanding and evolving and practically infinite cosmos is what is next to God, what must God be like?  And how in the world can we know?

He then concludes:

Let’s try to be less like Tycho and more like Job.  Let’s not let our idea of God keep up from knowing and loving what God has made, and let’s allow the cosmos to help us know God better.  Let’s not throw away science or faith because the universe is different from what we thought or might even prefer it to be.  Let’s allow the cosmos to guide us toward an unexpected and mysterious God.

I’m on board with Wallace here.  The larger and more mysterious the cosmos is revealed to be the more those facts deepen and make more mysterious the incarnation.  The incarnation is why I am, and remain, a Christian.  It is both deeply cosmic and deeply personal.  Anyone remember the Joan Osborne (written by Eric Bazilian) song; “What if God Was One of Us”?  It never got played on Christian radio stations, which is both ironic and sad.

(We didn’t write this song, but listen)

If God had a name, what would it be

And would we call it 2 His face

If we were faced with him and all his glory?

What would you ask if you had just one question?

Yeah, yeah, God is great

Yeah, yeah, God is good

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!

[Chorus:]

What if God was one of us?

Just a slave like one of us?

Just a stranger on the bus

Trying to make his way home

If God had a face, what would it look like

And would you want to see it

If seeing meant that you would have to believe in things like heaven

And Jesus and the saints and all the prophets?

Yeah, yeah, God is great

Yeah, yeah, God is good

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!

Yeah

Yeah, yeah, God is great

Yeah, yeah, God is good

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob (slave) like one of us?

Just a stranger on the bus

Trying to make his way home

Like a holy rolling stone

Back up to heaven all alone

Nobody calling on the phone

‘Except for the Pope maybe in Rome

But He ain’t home, he ain’t home, he ain’t home!

No, no, no, He ain’t home!

Oh yeah, oh!

(What if God was one us?)

Comments

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  2. “If the sun were shrunk down to the size of a basketball and placed at the base of the Washington monument, Earth would be represented by a peppercorn 80 feet away… On our sun-as-a-basketball scale, the two brightest stars of Alpha Centauri, our very closest neighbor star system, would be represented by a beach ball and a bowling ball lying about 1600 feet apart – the same as the distance between the basketball sun and blueberry Uranus – on a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.”

    And the nearest star that *might* have an Earth-like planet is about 10 times that distance from us. And it took over half a human lifetime for one probe (Voyager) to get from the peppercorn to the edge of the Mall.

    We aren’t leaving this planet. Best we take care of it.

  3. “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” Anne Lamott

  4. When I was a child I had one of those old ‘How and Why Wonderbooks’ for children about astronomy. I’ll never forget reading that “primitive” man, sitting around his own campfire, believed that the stars were the campfires of other wanderers in the heavens. It made them feel less alone in a mostly incomprehensible world.

    I also remember when my grandfather died my grandmother telling me that the dead were up in the clouds looking down on us. She was a simple country woman who never learned to read and I have no idea where she got this idea. When you’re a child you drink these things in without filter and it has haunted me ever since. I was delighted years later to discover that the Chinese had a similar image where the Taoist Immortals sit in the clouds looking down over the ages “while earth and sea change places”.

    And just now I’ve remembered my friend Jeffrey in elementary school drawing a picture of God’s throne surrounded by the angels located on the dark side of the Moon!

    • ” I was delighted years later to discover that the Chinese had a similar image where the Taoist Immortals sit in the clouds looking down over the ages “while earth and sea change places”. ”

      reminds me of Yeats’ poem ‘Lapis Lazuli’:

      “Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
      Delight to imagine them seated there;
      There, on the mountain and the sky,
      On all the tragic scene they stare.
      One asks for mournful melodies;
      Accomplished fingers begin to play.
      Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
      Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”

  5. Burro (Mule) says

    One thing that crosses my mind constantly is the tiny, even on a Galactic scale, of the sphere 2000 light years in radius which would be the possible effectual range of the Incarnation. Here is picture of the Milky Way galaxy with a 6000 year radius painted around the location of the Sun on one of the minor galactic spiral arms. That is how big the cosmos is supposed to be according to the YEC crowd.

    I have never figured that out how that could be. “Answers in Genesis” was no help.

    The Church is still undivided to an observer on Zeta Orionis. There is the germ of a good science fiction story in there somewhere.

    • Nice visual, that!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As JM Jones (in the blogroll) once put it, where did God set up the rear-projection projectors for the 6000ly distant screen at the edge of the universe?

        Never mind that this would be God FAKING all the evidence for a big old universe then threatening Eternal Hell if you actually believed all that evidence. (A cosmic grand deception a lot of Christians have no problem with.)

    • Great comment, Burro

  6. I’ve forgotten now which hymn it was, about the great Glory of God, but when I was maybe six, I remember in the car on the way home from church coming up with the notion that God lived in the center of the sun.

    Just another example of your wonderful phrase

    When you’re a child you drink these things in without filter and it has haunted me ever since.

  7. Those early European astronomers were quite the interesting bunch, eh? I’m trying to think what they might equate to today. Eccentric CEOs?

  8. Mike the Geo… thanks for the entertaining and informative post. The vastness of the created universe is amazing–and also impossible–to consider.

    I was doing a meditative exercise once that was geared toward “hearing God’s voice.” During the exercise, here is what I sensed God telling me:

    First, He said impressed upon me this thought: There are places I have created that humans will never touch, nor ever SEE. Why would I do that?

    Then,when I came back with a “I dunno,” He said, “It’s to show you: That’s how much I love you. It goes beyond places you can see, beyond places you can touch.”

    Needless to say, I was left weeping.

    • David Cornwell says

      Reminds me of my dad’s favorite hymn:

      “The love of God is greater far
      Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
      It goes beyond the highest star
      And reaches to the lowest hell.

      “Could we with ink the ocean fill,
      And were the skies of parchment made;
      Were every stalk on earth a quill,
      And every man a scribe by trade;
      To write the love of God above
      Would drain the ocean dry;
      Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
      Though stretched from sky to sky.”

      Wouldn’t be a bad starting gate for good theology.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The biblical character of Job, like Tycho, thought he had a handle on who God was.

    A lot of the “theologians” who get razzed on this and other blogs have gone well beyond that. They Have God All Figured Out.

    The larger and more mysterious the cosmos is revealed to be the more those facts deepen and make more mysterious the incarnation. The incarnation is why I am, and remain, a Christian. It is both deeply cosmic and deeply personal.

    And keeps God on a one-to-one human level, no matter how Deep Space or Time become.

    I’ve often said that the Incarnation should make Christians the most able of Abrahamics to deal with Deep Space and Deep Time. But the total opposite it true — we’re the LEAST able to deal with it, and keep retreating to our 6000-year-old, ending tomorrow (at the Latest), Earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky Punyverse..

    Anyone remember the Joan Osborne (written by Eric Bazilian) song; “What if God Was One of Us”? It never got played on Christian radio stations, which is both ironic and sad.

    Not surprising. It was SECULAR (i.e. HEATHEN) in the first place. As well as not being a typical Christianese 7-11 praise/worship chorus.

    • Our pastor, as part of a sermon, once played a video of Joan Osborne singing What Becomes of the Broken Hearted with the Funk Brothers. I don’t remember the rest of the sermon but I remember that 🙂

    • David Cornwell says

      At 81 years of age, I quit standing and stop singing at verse 5.5. And on my next trip, I take earplugs.

    • “The larger and more mysterious the cosmos is revealed to be the more those facts deepen and make more mysterious the incarnation. The incarnation is why I am, and remain, a Christian. It is both deeply cosmic and deeply personal.”

      “by His Incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with EVERY person”
      ( Evangelium Vitae)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        But then if the pond is so huge, how can *I* be The Big Fish?

        A lot of times (especially among the Anointed) that’s the Unspoken reason for a Punyverse.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The third star, a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri, lies nearer to us than the others. In our scale model, it would be represented by a golf-ball sized object floating about two hundred miles off the east coast of Hawaii.

    At 80 ft per Astronomical Unit, that scales out to 12-13000 AU — around 70 light-days or 20% of a light-year. THAT is a wide orbit.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Henderson began measuring the position of Alpha Centauri and discovered the stellar parallax that Tycho could never see.

    Because Tycho lived and died before the telescope; he was the last of the big-name naked-eye astronomers.

    And yes, the guy was WEIRD. Got the bridge of his nose sliced off in a duel (over who was the better mathematician) and wore a brass (not gold) prosthetic for the rest of his life. Like most scientists of the time, he also practiced Alchemy (science and magick had not differentiated) and either mentored or took advantage of his assistant Johann Kepler (by holding on fast to his copious notes and only letting Kepler have a crumb here and there).

    After Tycho’s death, Kepler got hold of Tycho’s notes and ended up (through the notes and geometry) figuring out the inverse-square law and the first explanation of accurate orbital mechanics (elliptical orbits consistent with an inverse-square attractive force). Half a century later, Newton would elaborate Kepler’s explanation into Gravity, Motion, and a complete consistent system of Physics..

    (Incidentally, Kepler made his income as an astrologer and Newton wrote more on Bible-Code Numerology and Alchemy than he did Physics and Mathematics. Remember how science and magick hadn’t completely differentiated?)

  12. John Randy Royse says

    I first heard the Joan Osborne rendition of this song on Saturday Night Live and was simply blown away, as in “What did I just hear???” Who was that? Can the Holy Spirit look like that woman? And who else would put those words in her mouth??

    And it’s the personal, vivid, vibrant way it sweeps into your heart and mind and blows away all the preconceptions and weeds that have taken up residence there……

    Listen if you dare…..

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4CRkpBGQzU

  13. “But Tycho’s greatest problems with Copernicus had nothing to do with science.”

    Not entirely true. Geocentrism (for its time) also had iron-clad math rigor.
    It’s predictions for the positions of the heavenly bodies worked just as well for an observer in Athens as it did for an observer in Alexandria, Ptolemy’s trig was unimpeachable in that regard.
    Prediction and repeatability are the hallmarks of science, and the Geocentric model had both.
    What’s my point some would ask?
    Simply this, their are times when science can be as fickle as thistle down on a shifting breeze.

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