I’ve been retired from my job at Perkins Observatory for more than a year now, and I must confess that I miss it.
As odd as it may sound, what I miss most are the hard questions that some people asked.
I’m not talking about the technical queries. I can always look up the spectral characteristics of Seifert galaxies if somebody asks.
I am referring to the much harder philosophical and religious questions that cause people to be skeptical of modern astronomical discoveries. Those questions reflect a deeper concern about our very human relationship with a vast and confusing cosmos.
Two questions come to mind.
The first question often came during this time of year as Jews celebrate Chanukah and Christians celebrate Christmas: Why don’t you tell more stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition?
Frankly, that tradition is not rich in star lore. Jews and Christians don’t place their God and heroes among the stars. Still, a notable constellation reference appears in the Bible’s Book of Job, and there is, of course, the magical Christmas star mentioned in Matthew.
Job is upset with God, because he has tried mightily to follow God’s law, and all he’s gotten from his efforts are pain and poverty. There seems to be no justice in the world. In response, God asks Job, “Can you tie the chains of the Pleiades or loose the straps of Orion?”
Seen in the light of modern astronomy, unfastening the “straps,” the belt stars of Orion, is a tall order indeed.
Just after dark right now, you can find Orion about halfway up to the top of the sky in the southeast. The three bright stars of his belt form an almost perfectly straight line. Their arrangement makes them the most recognizable star grouping in the heavens.
Virtually every culture in history has its own special name for them. Early Christians saw the three Magi, who visited the Christ child soon after his birth. In Polynesia they were the “Three Canoe Paddlers.” The Hindus called them the “Three-Jointed Arrow.” To the ancient Chinese they were “The Scale.” Western seafarers imagined a “Golden Yardarm.” The French envisioned a “Rake,” the Germans “Three Mowers,” the Australians dancing “Young Men,” the Laplanders a “Tavern,” the Greenlanders “Seal Hunters,” and so on.
To the Old-Testament Jewish culture, they represented God’s inscrutable power, as the passage from Job suggests.
The ancients saw the stars as unchanging, their positions and brightnesses established by the creator of the universe. They reflected that creator’s power. As Psalm 19 suggests, “The heavens recite the glory of God, and the sky tells of the work of His hands.”
Job had to learn that his human gifts were no match for God’s, and the stars seemed a good way for him to learn.
The top star of the belt is called Mintaka, an Arabic word that means “belt.” It is the closest of the three stars at 1,500 light-years away. At six trillion miles per light-year, that’s far away — nearly as far as bright, naked-eye stars get. Its brightness in the sky is caused by its phenomenal energy output. Minaka is a hot, young, blue star producing 20,000 times more energy than our daystar, the sun.
But it’s a piker compared to the middle star of the belt, a ferocious energy-producer called Alnilam, the “String of Pearls.”
Alnilam emits 40,000 times more energy than the sun and is one of the hottest stars known at about 80,000 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface. (Compare that to the sun’s rather chilly 10,000 degrees.) It is also the belt’s farthest star at 1,630 light-years away.
The belt’s top star is named Alnitak, “The Girdle.” Its energy production is about midway between the other two stars at 35,000 suns. It is a bit closer to us than Alnilam at 1,600 light-years.
The three stars look bound together like the holes in a belt, but they aren’t. We know what Job could not. Orion’s girdle is made up of stars that are placed at incredible distances from each other. If you stood on a planet orbiting Alnilam, you would see the other two stars on opposite sides of the sky. Their apparent closeness is an illusion created by our limited Earthly point of view.
Although they are moving away from each other at ungodly velocities, from the standpoint of a hundred human lifetimes, they seem to move not at all. In the far distant future, if humans survive to look at the heavens, Orion’s belt will have disappeared, its stars scattered to the far ends of the great deep.
From the Bible’s point of view, only the Lord of the Heavens can “unfasten the belt of Orion.” In fact, he is doing it now, but slowly and with immeasurable grandeur, as befits the creator of our vast and marvelous universe.
A second complaint I used to hear during the holiday season always cut me to the quick. Some Christians claimed that astronomy is an attempt to supplant God, to replace the miracle of creation with soulless and Godless mechanisms.
That argument surely sends Hiram Perkins, the founder of the Perkins Observatory, spinning in his grave. Professor Perkins was fond of saying that he founded the facility because he wanted to inspire the public to experience for themselves “the glory of the Creator through the glory of His magnificent creation.”
When I write about these matters during the holiday season, I always feel that I must speak for Hiram Perkins. Here is what he might say:
According to the Christian Book of Matthew, when the Creator wanted to announce the birth of His only son and savior of humanity, He chose to do so with the birth of a star:
“… there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.’”
Thus began the wise men’s quest for meaning in a confusing and sorrowful universe. It led them to a stable, the humblest part of that universe, but even there they found what they were seeking.
“Lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
Deep in their hearts, stargazers are on the same quest.
They are looking for the miraculous. And they can find it in the most fundamental building block of the cosmos — a simple star like the one that shone briefly in the sky 2,000 years ago.
Consider that the existence of any star is a kind of miracle. Every star is an enormous hydrogen bomb that explodes with the power of trillions of our puny thermonuclear weapons every second.
The star’s explosive power makes it want to fly apart. Its enormous gravity makes it want to collapse. In the case of our own star, the sun, those two opposing forces have existed in perfect balance for five billion years.
Our Milky Way galaxy has three hundred billion of those miracles. The universe contains perhaps six trillion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Each star is a miraculous improbability, and yet the universe contains a mind-melting array of them.
In the end, we owe our lives on this planet Earth to the tiniest fraction of the energy produced by only one of those grand improbabilities.
And yet, complex and immutable laws of nature govern the birth of stars. Those same laws govern everything else — from the fall of a leaf to the grand rotation of a galaxy. We do not yet understand those laws completely. Perhaps we never will.
People of faith, instead of rejecting some of those laws and their supposed consequences based on ill-considered Biblical interpretation, should contemplate the vast intelligence of the mind that created them.
That is what Hiram might say, and I must write the words. I owe him at least that much.
He could hardly have known when he broke ground for his observatory nearly a century ago that thousands of his spiritual children would visit it every year to see for themselves the miracle that is their universe.
He could hardly have known that he would give my rootless life a measure of meaning and purpose as I stood beside the telescope and saw the looks of purest joy on the faces of those children, their eyes flooded with the light of distant stars.
Ultimately, it is in that perfect joy, even more than the stars themselves, that I began to glimpse the mind of God. And that, all ye seekers of the miraculous, is the greatest holiday gift of all.
Thanks, Hiram. Merry Christmas and Chanukah Sameach to you and all your many children.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.