Reverence for the heavens

Reverence for the heavens
Is this what our own Milky Way Galaxy looks like from far away? Similar in size and design to our home galaxy, spiral galaxy NGC 3370 is about 100 million light-years away, toward the constellation Leo. Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)

For some, the contemplation of the cosmos is a religious experience. Vatican astronomers say this can lead to profound insights about ourselves and the nature of the universe.

Our is just one small point of light in the swirl of suns that shape the disc of the . The galaxy’s hundreds of billions of stars are strewn so widely apart, it would take a spaceship traveling at the speed of light one hundred thousand years to travel the distance. The starry wheel of the galaxy turns around a massive black hole, a point of infinite density with gravity so complete that not even light can escape.

The structure and scale of our galaxy is astonishing. But ours is just one among hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.

Little wonder, then, that the contemplation of the cosmos can evoke the same emotions as religious awe and reverence. According to Father Paul Pavel Gabor, an astronomer for the Observatory, this is not always a positive experience. Just as some may experience fear and trembling when contemplating God and Heaven, there are those who become similarly overwhelmed when confronted with the astronomical proportions of the heavens.

“They find it quite awe-inspiring, but in the wrong way,” Gabor notes. “When I show people pictures of the local cluster of , just to give them a sense of the scale of things, the reaction quite often is, “Oh dear. I’m completely insignificant, and I’m uncomfortable about this whole universe thing.”

Reverence for the heavens
Science, and particularly geometry and astronomy/astrology, was linked directly to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this 13th century manuscript is a symbol of God's act of creation. God has created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles, to seek these principles was therefore to seek and worship God. Credit: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

In Gabor’s view, one way to counter this despair is to have faith in a higher power, to believe in a God that created the universe as a gesture of love.

“Faith tells you that the universe is not something to intimidate you, but it is something given to you as a gift, by somebody who wants to give you something nice, something pretty,” he says. “So looking at those astronomy pictures, you can either feel that the glass is half full, and believe that you’re really being given something here, or you can feel the glass is half empty and this is just frightening and you want to hide in your little rabbit hole somewhere.”

Whether you are terrified or thrilled by the grandeur of the universe, there is no disputing its elemental nature: it is the source of us all. As Carl Sagan once said, “We are made of star stuff.” The chemical elements that shape the breadth of creation also form our galaxy, our planet and even the cells of our bodies. Exploring the cosmos therefore is one way to get close to a “grand creator.” This notion is reflected in the final lines of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem “High Flight”, which President Reagan read at the memorial service for the Challenger astronauts:

with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

The Great Architect

The term “cosmos” means “ordered world”. For most of recorded history, humans have believed that God created the ordered universe out of chaos. This belief is still shared by a majority of people around the world today, but aspects of that faith have changed as our scientific knowledge of the cosmos has grown. For instance, Gabor’s colleague, Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, says that while many people believe God created the universe, they think its very enormity makes it impossible for God to take any personal note of us. This mote of dust we call planet Earth is insignificantly tiny in comparison to the smallest of stars, and each of our lives lasts for the briefest of cosmic moments.

Reverence for the heavens
Timeline of events that followed the Big Bang. Rather than matter and energy erupting into a pre-existing space, modern Big Bang theory holds that space and time came into being simultaneously with matter and energy. Recent observations, including those by NASA's WMAP orbiting oberatory favor specific inflation scenarios over other long held ideas. Credit: NASA

“Some people will refuse to believe because they still haven’t grasped what kind of God we’re talking about, a God that is so “other” that it is possible,” says Consolmagno.

This philosophical notion of a God for whom all things are possible, and who is beyond our basic human capacity of understanding, finds an echo in the still mysterious nature of the universe. For instance, most of the universe is currently attributed to the obscure categories “dark energy” and “dark matter”. Writing in Scientific American, the astrophysicist David Cline noted those terms are really just expressions of our ignorance.

Another area of scientific ignorance is the time before the Big Bang. What, if anything, happened before the universe began its current outward expansion? The Roman Catholic priest Georges Lemaître originally proposed the idea that the universe expanded from an initial point (which he called ‘the primeval atom’), and the Catholic Church supported the Big Bang theory even before most cosmologists did. This “day without yesterday” was seen as being consistent with the creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) as described in the Book of Genesis.

According to a recent Reuter’s news report, Pope Benedict XVI said that "God's mind was behind complex scientific theories such as the Big Bang". The Pope did not cite the Big Bang specifically, but spoke more generally about the creation of the universe:
"The universe is not the result of chance, as some would like to believe. In contemplating it, we are invited to read for ourselves something quite profound: the wisdom of the Creator, the inexhaustible imagination of God, his infinite love for us. We should not let ourselves be limited by the concept of theories that only arrive at a certain point and which -- if you look closely -- are not set up as rivals of faith, but don't manage to explain the ultimate sense of reality. In the beauty of the world, in its mystery, in its grandness and in its rationality how can we not read the eternal rationality, and how can we do nothing less than to be taken by hand as it leads us to the ultimate unique God, creator of heaven and earth."

-- Read the entire homily (in the original Italian):

In another talk given at a different time, Pope Benedict said that one way we could try to understand the universe better is through mathematics:

“[Galileo] was convinced that God has given us two books, the book of Sacred Scripture and the book of Nature. And the language of Nature -- this was his conviction -- was mathematics, so it is the language of God, a language of the Creator. The surprising thing is that this invention of our human intellect is truly key to understanding Nature, that Nature is truly structured in a mathematical way, and that our mathematics, invented by our human mind, is truly the instrument for working with Nature, to put it at our service, to use it through technology.”

-Read the entire translated homily

Consolmagno says that some wonder whether mathematics was invented by man to describe Nature, or whether we discovered the mathematical properties that were built into Nature by a higher power.

“Maybe it’s a little bit of both,” he says. “The thing that always astonishes me, beyond the fact that the universe is mathematical, the makes sense. The mathematics is beautiful. When a student grasps what Maxwell’s equations tell them, there’s this leap of joy that’s as great as looking at the sunset that Maxwell’s equations can explain. Why it should work at all is something no philosopher has been able to figure out.”


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Jan 14, 2011
"In Gabor’s view, one way to counter this despair (in realizing your insignificance) is to have faith in a higher power, to believe in a God that created the universe as a gesture of love"

Yea, that's the ticket, lie to yourself, believe in magic.

Jan 14, 2011
Brace yourself...I feel a storm brewing for these comments.

Jan 14, 2011
Yea, that's the ticket, lie to yourself, believe in magic


Clarke's Three Laws are three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke. They are:

1.When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.
2.The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3.Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Jan 14, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jan 14, 2011
The appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the wonderful laws of physics is a miracle. Nobody can explain it. For me, believing in a Trascendent Agency which created the Universe is logically inescapable.

Jan 14, 2011
"Some people will refuse to believe..."

This statement presupposes that religious belief is a matter of choice. It isn't. Those who can't accept invalid arguments and wishful beliefs arn't immoral or being stubborn. It has been my experience that most religious believers think that unbelivers have some ulterior motive in rejecting the believer's unsound arguments. This is an immature view.

Jan 14, 2011
Sorry I can't help it: "Consolmagno says that some wonder whether mathematics was invented by man to describe Nature, or whether we discovered the mathematical properties that were built into Nature by a higher power."

If there is a God, the mathematics He used to create the universe is quantum mechanics. To me the fact that scientists discovered how to make sense out of quantum mechanics is the true miracle. (I'm old enough to remember when "the problem of infinities" was a real problem, originally solved by a patchwork quilt of renormalization. Today those tricks of mathematics that made the infinities go away are just taught as: "This is the way you do the math so you get a usable answer.)

Jan 14, 2011
Clarke's Three Laws are three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke.


It's appropriate to quote a fiction writer in defense of religion.

It irks me how church officials love to point out that the understanding of god is beyond our comprehension, so we shouldn't question it. However, the officials themselves seem to be more than willing to tell us all about god and what he wants from us. Funny, that.

Jan 14, 2011
At least I find it refreshing that the Church accepts the scientifically based age of the universe. I still come across people who believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old. When I ask why we can see objects more than 10,000 light years away, they say "maybe God made it look that way to test our faith!"

Jan 15, 2011
Our understanding of the size of the universe is based on the, as yet unproven, assumption that light continues to travel at the same speed wherever you are in the Universe. It's reasonable to assume - but 'c' is not necessarily a constant outside our solar system. To me light years are flexible units, big but how big?

Jan 15, 2011
To me light years are flexible units, big but how big?
Then your reality doesn't exist.

Jan 15, 2011
"Truthing", seeking to grasp the design pattern of the universe, is a creative approach to life that can be practiced in art, music, religion, science, etc.

Dogma, claiming to have truth, is as dangerous in science as it is in religion.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo

Jan 15, 2011
Consolmagno says that some wonder whether mathematics was invented by man to describe Nature, or whether we discovered the mathematical properties that were built into Nature by a higher power.

If it wasn't for the final 'by a higher power' part, both assertions would be true.
As soon as you have two or more objects that can be counted and a mind that can reason symbolically, you've invented mathematics, and the rest is history.

Jan 22, 2011
The appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the wonderful laws of physics is a miracle
Oh horseshit. The laws of physics MUST match the laws of mathematics. Just not ALL of the laws. For instance we do NOT live a Euclidean universe.
Nobody can explain it.
I can. The Universe exists because it can, by fitting the rigors of math and logic. Since by math and logic it can exist why the heck should it not exist?
For me, believing in a Trascendent Agency which created the Universe is logically inescapable.
I just escaped it. That isn't logic you are using. It is faith.

Ethelred

Jan 27, 2011
Frajo, can you will yourself to believe that 2+2=5? Can you will yourself to disblieve it?

Jan 28, 2011
Are you a lawyer or politician by any chance?

Jan 30, 2011
soulman said:
As soon as you have two or more objects that can be counted and a mind that can reason symbolically, you've invented mathematics, and the rest is history.


There is not just one mathematics, but an infinite number of possible mathematics derived from different axiom sets. Many of these new branches of mathematics are interesting extensions of previous mathematics, although some, like non-Euclidian geometry, replace one axiom with another.

To me, as a mathematician, the amazing thing is how often these new mathematics later turn out to be useful in explaining some aspect of reality. Right now, physicists are applying Hawking's model of black holes, including evaporation to other physical systems which can be constructed in the laboratory. (I guess it is possible to conceive of a lab where you can create black holes and watch them evaporate. I certainly don't think the LHC is that lab, although it comes close. ;-)

Jan 30, 2011
"Truthing", seeking to grasp the design pattern of the universe, is a creative approach to life that can be practiced in art, music, religion, science, etc.

Dogma, claiming to have truth, is as dangerous in science as it is in religion.


Humility and reverence may be natural consequences of realizing how little we know compared to the enormity of the cosmos.

Five decades (50 = 2010-1960) of "truthing" were required for us to finally realize that what we call the Sun is actually a brightly glowing sphere of waste (91% H and 9% He) from the neutron star ~700,000 km below!

See “Neutron Repulsion” [db (DOT) tt/9SrfTiZ], The APERION Journal, in press, 2011, 19 pp.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo


Jan 30, 2011
If you can't find the paper, try these videos:

1. youtube.com/watch?v=AQZe_Qk-q7M

2. youtube.com/user/omatumr#p/u/1/sXNyLYSiPO0

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