Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Universe: a Magnificent Tent

Folks have looked up and been impressed for a long time:
"1 Think! The heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it."
(Deuteronomy 10:14)

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft."
(Psalms 19:2)
That galaxy is M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Back when I was in high school, a fair number of books I read called it the "Great Andromeda Nebula." More up-to-date books occasionally called it an "island universe." (September 26, 2014; July 15, 2014)

Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi described M31 as a "little cloud" in "Book of Fixed Stars," more than a thousand years after Deuteronomy and Psalms were written — which is what it looked like before astronomers had telescopes.

The first spyglass was probably made in the Netherlands. A spyglass was good for "seeing faraway things as though nearby:" like the flags of ships. That'd be vital for owners of the Netherlands' merchant fleets.

Then Galileo tweaked spyglass design, made a nice profit selling his spyglasses to merchants, published "Sidereus Nuncius," and was eventually placed under house arrest. I gather it was politics, Galileo's abrasive personality, and folks who mistook poetry for science, that got him in trouble.

Galileo as the shining embodiment of reason, locked in epic struggle against the dark forces of superstition and oppression, makes a good story: but is more myth1 than history. (January 9, 2015; April 25, 2014; October 26, 2009)

From the Dome of Heaven - - -

Years ago, an enthusiastic Christian informed me that our sun goes around Earth, not the other way around — because Joshua 10:12-13 says so. He may have been sincere, but I think he's wrong.

On the other hand, despite what Job 9:6-7 says, I've never known a Christian who said that Earth is flat. (October 3, 2014)

I could be a Christian, following our Lord, if I believed that a solid dome kept the 'ocean of heaven' from flooding the earth I walk on.

But my faith doesn't demand that I ignore what we've learned in the two dozen or so centuries since Mesopotamian culture provided poets with imagery we read in the Old testament.

I'm a Christian and a Catholic, so studying this wonder-filled universe and using what we learn to develop new tools is okay. Science and technology are part of being human. Ethics apply, of course. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2293-2295)

Faith isn't reason: but it's reasonable, and certainly not against an honest search for truth. (Catechism, 31-35, 159)

Besides, as I say rather often, scientific discoveries are invitations "to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator." (Catechism, 283)

Speaking of which, although size isn't everything — in the two and a half millennia since Job was written, we've learned that our world is huge.

- - - to the Edge of the Observable Universe

(From Andrew Z. Colvin, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia; used w/o permission.)
(Diagrams of the Virgo Supercluster, left; and Local Group, right.)

Our Milky Way galaxy, labeled — indistinctly at this scale — in red on the left-hand picture, is near the center of the Local Group, a collection of more than 54 galaxies.

Light from the Andromeda Galaxy, that largish white smudge in the Local Group, takes about 2,500,000 years to reach us.

The Local Group is one of more than 100 groups and clusters in the Virgo Supercluster. The Local Group's position in the Virgo Supercluster is labeled in red.

Light takes about 110,000,000 years to cross the Virgo Supercluster. It's one of millions in the observable universe.

Superclusters were the largest known structures in the universe — until we started mapping filaments and walls of superclusters.

(From Andrew Z. Colvin, under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GNU Free Documentation License agreements; via Wikipedia; used w/o permission.)
("A simulated view of the entire observable universe, approximately 93 billion light years (or 28 billion parsecs) in diameter. The scale is such that the fine grains represent collections of large numbers of superclusters. The Virgo Supercluster – home of Milky Way – is marked at the center, but is too small to be seen in the image."
(Andrew Z. Colvin, via Wikipedia))

Scientists have been studying the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation: photons released when the universe cooled down and became transparent, some 380,000 years after the Big Bang. It's some 46,000,000,000 light years away "now."

The universe is only 13,798,000,000 years old, give or take 37,000,000, but photons from the CMB started traveling when the universe was a lot smaller. I've mentioned cosmic expansion before. (April 17, 2015)

"...Whatever God Wills...."

Do I approve of the universe being this big, or this old?

My take on that question is — it doesn't matter:
"Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done."
(Psalms 115:3)
God's God, I'm not, and I'm quite willing to take reality 'as is.'

"...Though the Heavens Grow Thin like Smoke...."

The last I checked, scientists have quite a few ideas about what will eventually happen to this universe. Since we've only recently started collecting data on dark energy, dark matter, and how reality works on nanoscopic scales, my guess is that today's ideas will soon be heavily revised: or discarded.

I'm not going to make the mistake of confusing poetry and science. (July 18, 2014)

However, I'm quite sure that this universe will change: and eventually end.

That isn't, for me, a particularly comfortable thought: but my preferences won't change reality. Not on a cosmic scale.

The idea that this universe, magnificent as it is, won't last forever is hardly new.

Thousands of years back, it was compared to useful but temporary things like tents and garments:
"He sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; He stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in."
(Isaiah 40:22)

"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)
The end of this universe isn't, I think, the end of reality. And that is another topic. (November 2, 2014)

More opportunities for "greater admiration:"

1 A bit about faith and reason, religion and science, Catholic style:
"...From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our own day, the Galileo case has been a sort of 'myth', in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was the symbol of the Church's supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of 'dogmatic' obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth. This myth has played a considerable cultural role...."
("Faith can never conflict with reason," Pope St. John Paul II (1992) (via Caltech Newman Center))

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2)...."
("Fides et Ratio," Pope St. John Paul II, on the relationship between faith and reason (September 14, 1998)

"...Thomas observed that creation is neither a movement nor a mutation. It is instead the foundational and continuing relationship that links the creature to the Creator, for he is the cause of every being and all becoming (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q.45, a. 3).

"To 'evolve' literally means 'to unroll a scroll', that is, to read a book. The imagery of nature as a book has its roots in Christianity and has been held dear by many scientists. Galileo saw nature as a book whose author is God in the same way that Scripture has God as its author...."
("To participants in the Plenary of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences," Pope Benedict XVI (October 31, 2008))

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