Sunday, September 21, 2014

Scientific Discoveries: an Invitation to "Even Greater Admiration"

ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM, OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.This universe has been around for about 13,798,000,000 years, give or take 37,000,000. That's the current best estimate, from 2013.

It's big, too. The photo shows part of the Hercules Cluster of galaxies. Light from that bunch of galaxies traveled for about 500,000,000 years before reaching us.

What we see is the Hercules Cluster as it was around the middle of the Cambrian here, roughly when the first trilobite showed up.

Taking the universe 'as is' makes sense: for me, anyway. I would much rather learn more about this wonder-filled creation, than insist that the Almighty is limited to what folks knew a few centuries back.

Truth Cannot Contradict Truth

Since I believe that God made the universe and the things of faith, I must also believe that honest research cannot contradict faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)
"...God can not deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth...."
(Dei Filius, Vatican Council I, 248 (1870) (quoted in Catechism, 159))
Faith and reason, religion and science, get along fine: or should. (Catechism, 39, 159, 286)
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers"
(Catechism, 283) [emphasis mine]
Wondering how things began and where we're headed is part of being human. Learning about God's universe is what we're supposed to do. (Catechism, 282-289, 2293)

Sometimes we get surprised by what we learn. That's happened quite a bit in the last few centuries.

Living With Change

"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, 540 BC - 480 BC)
Two dozen centuries later, change is still very much a part of this creation. God made a universe that is being created: which is good, and which is moving toward perfection:
"Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created 'in a state of journeying' (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call 'divine providence' the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection:
"By his providence God protects and governs all things which he has made, 'reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well.' For 'all are open and laid bare to his eyes,' even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.161"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 302)
I figure we've got a choice: accept the idea that we live in a changing creation; or not.

On the whole, I think it's prudent to accept reality.

Continental Drift and Personal Preference

(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("Plate motion based on Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite data from NASA JPL. The vectors show direction and magnitude of motion."

A year or so back, I read a science textbook written with 'religious' people in mind. It was excruciatingly careful about explaining that continental drift was just a theory: and hadn't been 'proven.'

I sympathize with the authors, who probably wanted to provide adequate educational materials while not offending folks who don't want this creation to be particularly big or old.

Not liking the idea that continents move isn't limited to painfully pious folks. About four decades back, I had a geography/geology professor who loathed and despised continental drift. That attitude helped me decide on a major in history, and that's another topic.

King Cnut and the Limits of Executive Authority

The last I heard, we're still not sure about exactly what forces have been moving continents around, forming new ocean floors along mid-ocean ridges, and recycling old crust along subduction arcs.

That continents move, carried along on tectonic plates: by now, that's an observed phenomenon.

A person might prefer that Earth's crust stay put: but that preference has as much effect on reality as King Cnut's ordering the tide to stop.

Thanks in part to improved technology, like the satellite-based Global Positioning System, we're still getting surprises: like when a city in South America jumped westward by roughly 10 feet. That was a big earthquake. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 10, 2010))

About Cnut and the limits of executive authority, my guess is that his command was intended as a reality check for over-enthusiastic courtiers.

Psalms 115 and the Universe

As Psalms 115:3 says, "...whatever God wills is done." The Almighty could have created a timeless universe: complete, perfect, and unchanging: or one that was only a few thousand years old.

That's not what happened, though.

This universe apparently cooled for about 379,000 years before electrons and protons could combine, forming neutral hydrogen. That's when our universe became transparent, over 13,000,000,000 years ago.

I'd be impressed by God's power if the universe was only a few millennia old, and a few thousand miles across. As it is: I'm really impressed.
"4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

"But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

"For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

"And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? "
(Wisdom 11:22-25)
The universe is big and old — but God is infinite and eternal, almighty and ineffable: beyond our power to describe or understand. (Catechism, 202, 230)

God is also very much in charge, and has something more than this universe in mind.
"Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?"
(Psalms 139:7)

"3 Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed."
(Isaiah 51:6)

"and: 'At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands.

"They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment.

"You will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.' "
(Hebrews 1:10-12)

"Then the sky was divided 13 like a torn scroll curling up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place."
(Revelation 6:14)
And that's yet another topic.

Somewhat-related posts:
More about King Cnut:


Harold said...

One of the reasons I knew I'd be a cosmologist is because, as a child, I was fascinated with creation. Its what keeps me up at night and wakes me up in the morning.

Love reading your blog.

Brian Gill said...

Thanks, Harold. I agree: It's a fascinating universe.

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