Star Gazing

© Ben Earwicker, www.garrisonphoto.org
© Ben Earwicker, http://www.garrisonphoto.org

What kind of star did the Magi think they were following? Coming from east of the Holy Land, they may well have been from Babylon or Persia, both of which had a rich tradition of astronomy. They would probably have had a very sophisticated understanding of the movements of the heavenly bodies. On the other hand, they (understandably) knew nothing about plasma and the nuclear fusion that powers every star in the sky.

The idea of tracking a great flaming ball of gas and energy might sound less romantic than the wise men’s tale, but it does stir the imagination. To my mind, the formation of a vast and ancient universe is a magnificent prelude to the visit of God himself in human form.

2014 has seen an unprecedented level of space exploration. Continue reading

Two Ways to Truth

Photo from Test of FAITH. © The Faraday Institute
Photo from Test of FAITH. © The Faraday Institute

Many of us have looked up at the night sky and felt a sense of awe and wonder before the universe. This experience made Revd Dr Rodney Holder, former Course Director at the Faraday Institute, want to be an astronomer from about the age of seven. Here, he reflects on his work as an astrophysicist and how that connects with his faith.

Nowadays, because there is so much light pollution in Britain, I most often get that feeling of awe and wonder when I’m on holiday. A few years ago my wife and I were in Croatia, staying in a small hamlet, and on balmy nights we sat out on our balcony and gazed up at the sky, counting shooting stars. On another holiday we were in Peru, high up in the Andes, when we saw the night sky of the Southern hemisphere in all its glory for the first time.

The writer of the Psalms must have Continue reading

Reimagining Job

Orion Nebula, NASA, ESA, M. Robberto & Hubble Orion Treasury Project Team
Orion Nebula, NASA, ESA, M. Robberto & Hubble Orion Treasury Project Team

I recently got together with some scientists and theologians to study part of Job. The final few chapters (38-42) of this book are a description of God’s role in creating and sustaining the universe and everything in it: the Sun and stars, Earth and sea, weather and wild animals. Stars move in their courses, weather changes and animals behave in their different ways. We didn’t make any of these things ourselves [1] and we have very little control over them, even with today’s scientific knowledge.

But are we any less awe-struck because we now understand how some of these processes work? If so, how can we identify with the Continue reading

Predictable Universe?

Two planets. Gilderm, http://www.sxc.hu/
Two planets. © Gilderm, http://www.sxc.hu/

Over the last few years, the universe has started to look increasingly friendly to life, and scientists who previously said they didn’t expect to find living things on other planets are beginning to change their tune. NASA’s Kepler telescope may be largely non-functional, but the search for other organisms in the Universe is just beginning.

Last month at the Faraday Institute, astrobiologist Stephen Freeland gave a lecture entitled, ‘Will alien life share our genetic code?’ – a topic which would have been on the border of science fiction a couple of decades ago, but is now a serious question. Continue reading

Big Bang, Big God

big bang big God coverThe development of the Big Bang theory is an example of how faith responses can contribute to the scientific discussion in a positive way. Rodney Holder, an Anglican priest and former cosmologist, has contributed to this conversation for a number of years. He has just published a new book, ‘Big Bang Big God: A Universe designed for life?’ that aims to bring the debate to a wider audience.

Until the 1920’s, the scientific consensus was that the universe is a static entity: it has always been there, and it always will. Einstein’s general theory of relativity linked matter, time and space and Einstein came up with a solution which gave a static, eternal universe. In 1927 the Catholic priest and physicist Georges Lemaitre came up with another solution, in which the universe was expanding.

A couple of years after Lemaitre came up with his new model, Edwin Hubble discovered astronomical evidence for an expanding universe – the famous redshift. Then in 1931 Lemaître came up with a further solution in which the universe expanded from a highly compact initial state which he called the ‘primeval atom’. Some scientists objected to Lemaitre’s proposal. Einstein thought it was ‘abominable’, and the Cambridge Professor of Astronomy Fred Hoyle derisively called it the ‘Big Bang theory’, Continue reading

A Quaker Astronomer Reflects

Spiral galaxy NGC 300, 7 million light years from Earth. NASA
Spiral galaxy NGC 300, 7 million light years from Earth. NASA

As a young child I detected the cosmic microwave background – the radiation left over from the Big Bang. That doesn’t mean I was a child prodigy, it just shows that we had an old fashioned dial TV. About 10% of the static in between channels is caused by the remnants of that first explosion. I am staggered that even a five year old can detect the whisper of the universe’s origins.

The Astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell shared this fact during her presentation at the Wesley Methodist church as part of their Science Meets Faith lecture series this month. It was a fascinating talk, and she was very honest about her own faith and how her science had affected her beliefs.

In the beginning, said Bell Burnell, all of space, matter and energy was contained in a space smaller than a grain of sand. Then time began with bang, and space unfurled like a new leaf from its bud. As space expanded and the radiation from the big bang cooled, energy converted into mass and particles formed. After millions of years, those particles came together and began to form stars Continue reading

The Theologian and the Telescope

Jasmaine Mathews, www.sxc.hu
© Jasmaine Mathews, http://www.sxc.hu

The main purpose of this blog can be illustrated by a single story: that of the theologian and the telescope. The theologian is a colleague from another department in Cambridge, and the telescope belonged to some friends of his. As we talked over lunch one day he mentioned that he and his family had visited these friends the previous evening. It had been a clear night, so they spent part of the evening looking at the stars. My colleague was an avid amateur astronomer as a teenager, but over the years he had lost his love for science. He had been involved in abstract discussions about science and religion for so long that he had forgotten that the experience of science itself can foster awe, wonder and – for people of faith – worship. His recent experience with the telescope reminded him how beautiful and fascinating the universe is. He rediscovered his love for science.

The joy of science is the freedom to wonder and ask questions – to exercise imagination and curiosity. It is also the joy of discovering new things, the shock of awe at what is found, and an enjoyment of its beauty. The theologian Austin Farrer said that Continue reading