To risk sounding like a smart aleck seven-year-old, technically speaking you can only prove things mathematically. If you need to know that one plus one equals two, don’t go to a chemistry lab. The natural sciences deal with objects and forces that can be observed and measured. Scientists look at the evidence from their experiments and try to come up with a way of thinking about the material world that makes sense.
For example, if I travel around my local area and see nothing but brown cows, then I could try out the statement that “all cows are brown”. I couldn’t prove that all cows are brown. I could never rule out the existence of a different-coloured cow somewhere in the world. Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Continue reading →
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.
For Christians, science can enhance our worship, both individual and collective. CS Lewis wrote that worship completes our enjoyment of something,[i] and enjoyment of creation has always played a part in fostering worship. Monasteries and retreat houses often include open spaces or gardens where people can draw near to God through being surrounded by nature, and church buildings and cathedrals often contain natural motifs.
The Psalms are very early examples of worship songs that express joy at the glory of creation. In other parts of the Bible the immensity and grandeur of creation is also used to invoke a feeling of awe and worship. Perhaps the most powerful expression of this is found in the book of Job. In the last few chapters, God describes the great sweep of his works in nature. We now understand some parts of the processes described – the formation of Earth, weather and animal behaviour, for example – but the whole is just as awesome as it was thousands of years ago. ‘And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?’ (Job 26:14) Continue reading →
The astronomer Dr Jennifer Wiseman visited Cambridge recently to speak about her work on ‘exoplanet’ discovery. Exoplanets are planets in solar systems other than our own, and until 1989 they were the stuff of science fiction. Now we know there definitely are other planets in the universe, some of which may be like Earth. The discovery of life on other planets – perhaps single celled organisms – in the next few decades is a real possibility.
Our universe is active and fruitful. We live in an abundant universe, and can celebrate that with new knowledge. The changes made to the Hubble telescope in 2009 have brought us beautiful new pictures that show the universe in greater depth than ever before. This one of the Omega Centauri star cluster shows a startling variety of stars.
The universe is beautiful, and the range of telescopes that astronomers use are like a symphony orchestra, with many different instruments contributing to our knowledge of the universe. Continue reading →
Following on from last week’s post, I’m looking for material for new worship songs using scientific discoveries, in the hope that someone might take the bait…
What about the amazing discoveries made through the Hubble Telescope? The pictures from this incredible piece of technology in the sky grace our coffee tables, computer monitors and television screens every day. Hubble has filled in many of the gaps in our knowledge about how planets form. Before high-resolution images were available astronomers could only guess some of the details, but now a clearer picture has emerged – quite literally!
Planets form in vast clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. A new planetary system forms when part of the cloud clumps together and begins to collapse under the force of gravity. The compression at the centre of the cloud is so great and causes so much heat to be generated that a new star is formed. The remainder of the dense cloud rotates around the star and begins to flatten into a disc. Planets begin to coalesce within this circulating dust ring. The new planets grow larger and larger, gathering up the remaining dust until a new group of planets is formed orbiting around its own star.
It’s incredible that we can know about star formation in such detail, given that it happens so far away, and over such a long period of time. The discoveries from space telescopes such as Hubble provide plenty of fuel for the imagination, and increase our picture of how big our creator God is. Our universe was created through the same Jesus who appeared to a small nation on the tiny planet that we call home. It’s hard to keep those two things in your head at the same time…
And I can’t write on Hubble without mentioning that Dr Jennifer Wiseman, the chief scientific officer of Hubble Telescope, is a Christian and has written her own thoughts down in an article for BioLogos about science as an instrument of worship. She also gave a talk at the Faraday Institute on life on other planets.
Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.
But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of ‘life on other planets’ if that discovery is ever made.
from the essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’ by CS Lewis, 1958