As the holiday season begins, I am reminded that I have been writing some version of this astronomy column every week since 1988. During that time, I have sometimes felt trapped between two seemingly divergent worldviews.
From the standpoint of some professional astronomers, I’m not very knowledgeable about astronomy. My pursuit of the night sky and its wonders is frivolous at best.
Conversely, a few evangelical Christians have treated me as an expert and then hectored me about topics such as the Big Bang and the universe’s age.
Their divergent attitudes reveal a more profound disagreement between the two sides. Some evangelicals and astronomers are at war over such fundamental concepts as when and how the universe was created.
The centerpiece of that conflict often seems to be the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31 to most astronomy aficionados.
M31 is one of the icons of stargazing, which folks like me refer to, somewhat defensively, as amateur observational astronomy. Why so defensive? Here’s why.
More than four decades ago, during my misspent time in graduate school, I stood with my homemade telescope in the parking lot of Perkins Observatory.
Centered in the eyepiece was the tilted spiral of M31, its bulging core at the center and its spiral arms extended to either side — a spectacular view, if I do say so myself.
Beside me stood a professional astronomer taking a break from using Perkins Observatory’s Schottland Telescope for research. He had wandered outside to ensure, I think, that I was not breaking into his car.
Have a look? I offered. “Kid,” he said dryly, “If I want to look at M31, I’ll go into the Perkins library and look at a picture of M31.”
Gotcha! Yes, I was an amateur. Yes, he was doing real science, and I was just hacking around. And, yes, he knew more at that moment about M31 than I would ever learn in a lifetime of “just looking.”
He knew, for example, that M31 is a flattened disk of hundreds of billions of stars. At 150,000 light-years (900 quadrillion miles) wide, light takes 150,000 years to traverse its width.
M31 shines from a distance so great that the light from its 300 billion stars takes 2.5 million years to reach our planet.
Early in the 20th century, the discovery of M31’s great distance added to the mounting geological and astronomical evidence that the universe was extraordinarily ancient. Even more-distant galaxies indicate that the cosmos has been around for at least 13.7 billion years.
The professional astronomer approached my astronomical obsession with sardonic amusement.
A few evangelical Christians responded with outright hostility. Some groups came to Perkins Observatory for our public programs as a test of faith, and it’s hard to blame them.
The great distances to the galaxies raise impediments to the belief in some scriptural passages. If M31 is millions of light-years away, then the light we are seeing now took millions of years to get to our eyes on Earth. Therefore, the universe must be very old.
However, a tiny subset of Christians, the young-Earth creationists, argue that Earth and the whole universe of galaxies are only about 6,000 years old.
The intellectual foundation for a young universe was built during the 17th century when two generations of theologians — and, yes, scientists — used the Bible to calculate the universe’s age. Theologian James Ussher used the chronology of the Old Testament to argue that the universe began on October 23, 4004 BCE.
The greatest astronomer of that same century, Johannes Kepler, came to a similar conclusion using the same method. Later in the century, so did the intellectual giant Isaac Newton.
Our society is thus caught up in a philosophical conundrum that causes some evangelicals and astronomers to be at odds. For some evangelicals, the ancient text of the Bible is correct about all things. Astronomers depend primarily on direct observation of the universe they see today.
As a result, some Christian groups visited Perkins Observatory as a test of faith. They sometimes linked arms outside before a public program and prayed for strength before they entered. Often, they corralled me after the introductory talk and questioned every mention of the Big Bang, the rapid inflation of the universe that began 13.7 billion years ago.
My response was always the same. Nobody said God didn’t cause the Big Bang to happen.
One night at a public program at Perkins, the leader of a Christian group calmly argued that the great distance to M31 and the young age of the universe could easily be reconciled. God, he claimed, must have created the galaxy and its light traveling toward us at the same moment in 4004 BCE.
How do we bridge the spiritual chasm between modern religion and science?
For starters, everyone concerned should go outside and look at the universe. High in the southeast, just after dark, is a fuzzy oval, visible to the unaided human eye for a thousand centuries.
We have known for only a century that the Andromeda Nebula, as the galaxy was called in earlier times, is a galaxy of stars.
Astronomers, consider sympathetically the anger and pain that those young-Earth creationists must feel. Cherished religious beliefs crumble to dust with one informed glimpse of the Andromeda Galaxy.
And be patient. Entrenched religious beliefs take a long time to fade.
Of course, Ussher, Newton, and Kepler were wrong, but they used the best data available at the time, even though the Bible was never meant to be a complete and continuous chronology.
As noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “Ussher represented the best scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology.”
Christians, do not curse astronomers. On the existence of a creator, astronomy remains mute. It simply informs us that if God created the universe, God did so very long ago.
God never claimed that the universe is young. Ussher, Kepler, and Newton did. Neither modern religion nor modern astronomy should have to bear the burden of their faulty interpretations of scripture.
Nor should we trivialize those interpretations out of hand. Gould argues that Ussher’s chronology represents “an honorable effort for its time… . Our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.”
Astronomers, show some respect for the old astronomical traditions, even if you think they defy logic. They tell us much about how our vision of the universe has changed.
More importantly, they tell us much about the human condition, then and now, and elevate our emotional attachment to the nighttime sky.
Looking back from the vantage of old age, I wish I had described to the jovially dismissive professional astronomer how the Andromeda Galaxy got its name.
M31 is nestled in the arms of the constellation Andromeda, princess of Ethiopia and archetypal maiden in distress. The sky captures her legend in a mythological moment frozen in time.
Andromeda has just been rescued from the ravenous clutches of the nearby constellation Cetus, the Sea Monster, by the brave constellational hero Perseus, also nearby.
Riding on the back of the winged horse Pegasus, Perseus has just slain Cetus. When we see Andromeda, she is astride the winged horse’s back, her terrifying moment of death transformed into the glorious ecstasy of flight.
And she will fly there for a thousand generations more, the onrushing darkness cool against her face, her heart filled with perfect joy and perfect freedom.
Over the years, I have observed the Andromeda Galaxy more times than I care to admit. I have seen it in telescopes big and small, binoculars of all shapes and sizes, and many times in the binoculars I was born with, my own blessed eyes.
More than once, I have felt the mythological Andromeda’s joy of discovery and the same sense of liberation. I have felt my heart soar to the galaxies.
I have boldly gone in spirit where no one will ever boldly go in reality. M31 is simply too far away.
To me, a distance like 2.5 million light-years is neither an emotionless fact, as it is to the astronomer, nor an evidentiary impediment, as it is to some evangelical Christians. I have felt that great distance as a bolt of lightning up my spine, a sharp intake of breath, a catch in the throat, a slow exhalation.
Christians, go outside and look at the 300 billion stars of the Andromeda Galaxy. Marvel at the power of a deity who could create such a place not just once but six trillion times over — for such is the number of galaxies in the universe your God created.
Astronomers, feel the wonder and majesty of the cosmos. Christians, does not Psalm 19:1 say the “heavens declare the glory of God”? As it turns out, the heavens are vaster and more glorious than the people of Biblical times ever imagined. That is astronomy’s gift to you.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.