The Christmas season is now fully upon us. The stores are full of shoppers, and the sky is finally filled with the bright stars of winter. Orion fights his eternal battle with the bull Taurus. Newly born Rigel, Orion’s left foot, shines blue hot with the promise of a short but happy life. Betelgeuse, the Hunter’s left shoulder, is on the verge of a cataclysmic demise.
As always, my mind turns to the programs we have at Perkins this lustrous time of year. Some of our more thoughtful patrons ask the big questions about the universe and our place in it. Only occasionally do they ask them when they are they eight years old.
A few years back in early December, I was giving a program for a bunch of second graders at Perkins Observatory. I talked about the birth and death of stars and how supernovas created the iron in human blood and the calcium in human bones. We would not be here but for the death of stars 10 billion years ago.
As I spoke the words, a second-grade student raised her hand. She fixed me in her best steely-eyed stare and said, “I thought God made me, not stars.”
“Sure He did,” I said. “All I’m saying is how God did it.”
Granted, astronomy attempts to explain some of the things that we used to explain by saying, “God did it.” Some folks assume that when scientists make these explanations, they are also saying God didn’t do it.
That assumption is false. Throughout history, many scientists, notably the incomparable Isaac Newton, tried to explain the universe for the edification of God. They believed that their creator created natural laws according to which the universe functions. They believed that those laws were beautiful and that they reflected the glory of the creator.
To understand the universe was to understand the mind of God. To understand the vastness of creation was to get a small idea of the vast power of the creator. (Christians, please refer to Psalm 19, Verses 1 – 2.)
Still, a few astronomical conclusions seem to come into conflict with certain beliefs held by some Christians. Astronomy says that the universe began with a cataclysmic event called the Big Bang. Billions of years passed before humans graced the Earth.
The universe was not created in seven days. It took billions of years. In a sense, the universe is STILL being created. It changes in a predictable way if we can only understand the rules that make it function.
In fact, astronomers think they understand what was happening in that universe back to the tiniest fraction of a second after creation. But in that tiny fraction of a second – in that small finitude – there is room enough for an infinite creator.
So if I say, “We are all made from star dust,” I don’t mean to say God didn’t make us. As I said to that second grader, “Where do you think He got his raw materials?”
As I went on to explain, the Biblical book of Genesis says that we are made from the dust of the earth. Genesis doesn’t mention where the dust came from. Astronomy says that it came from dying stars.
Genesis is mute on a lot of things that modern science has created, but we don’t usually question them. The Bible doesn’t mention toasters, but we have learned over the vast expanse of time to toast bread and eat it.
A warm slice of crisp bread is a gift from the creator. So is the power to learn about the universe. That power led to toast as inexorably as it led to our knowledge that we are all made from stardust.
Quite frankly, as the definitive, propeller-headed astronerd, it’s not so important to me exactly what you believe about a creator – or the lack thereof.
Thus, if you choose not to believe in a creator, know this:
The universe is governed by exquisitely beautiful laws, and humans have the power to know those laws. As we strive to do understand the universe and all its parts, we bring out what is best within ourselves. When we struggle to understand the glory of creation, we glorify ourselves. For those who seek to understand it, the universe turns out to be a pretty good place to be alive.
If you choose to believe in a creator, know this:
• God wrote his book of laws not just in the Bible, Torah, Koran, and Mahabharata. He also wrote them in the universe.
• Believe if you will that God created those rules, but The Creator also created our unquenchable desire to understand them.
Who knows? You just might find that creator in a quiet moment alone, staring upward at the stars.
P.S. I was reminded of the second-grader above by her father, who showed up recently at Perkins Observatory for one of our regular Friday programs. Turns out that he fed her the question. I asked him if he remembered my answer. He did not.
Certain fundamentalist sects delight in confronting and trying to confound science types. So be it. The universe in all its glory, created or non-created, remains the same.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.