In The Beginning …

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “The Origin of The Universe.”

At the center of this image made by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is a very young and powerful pulsar, known as PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short. The pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star which is spewing energy out into the space around it to create complex and intriguing structures, including one that resembles a large cosmic hand. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/P.Slane, et al.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

It fascinates me the need to divide religion and science. People read Biblical accounts of creation, and they read scientific accounts, and they assume that only one can be true.

And, it seems to me, they tend to read the two approaches accordingly.  If you assume one is right and one is wrong, you read them for their differences, not their similarities.  But the more I read about modern understanding of the science of creation, and the less I’m inclined to read the Biblical creation texts in a constrained way, it’s interesting to see how the two map together.

One of the findings that started driving this home for me was research indicating that time existed before the Big Bang; that is to say, there was “something” before the creation of our universe. It’s a detail in Genesis, but it’s there — God was there before creation. Did He have a context then? There’s a quote in the article from a CalTech physicist: “We’re trained to say there was no time before the Big Bang, when we should say that we don’t know whether there was anything – or if there was, what it was.”

The article goes on to talk about the nature of time, and why it’s unidirectional. At some level, the laws of physics should work in either direction, and yet time seems to move in only one direction. Physicists link this fact to entropy — the gradual move from order to chaos. But for entropy to explain time moving in one direction, it requires there being one, and only one fixed point of order. In other words, there has to be one end-point of time in which everything is in an ordered state, from which everything gradually moves into disorder, creating unidirectional time. To sum it up, for time to make sense, when the heavens and the Earth were created, they had to be in perfect order. They had to be “good.”

It’s worth noting that when the Big Bang theory was first postulated by a Roman Catholic priest, there were believers in the steady state theory of the universe who dismissed it as an attempt to introduce religious ideas into physics — they argued that the idea that there was a singular moment of creation before which the universe didn’t exist sounded like something more out of Genesis than science. Ironically, today, some Christians reject the theory for the opposite reason — that it sounds like something more out of science than Genesis. I would argue that it’s just a place where the two accounts line up; that before scientists reached the idea of a singular moment of creation, it was already described in Genesis.

The current scientific views also generally say that after an initial period of darkness, because of the levels of energy in the young universe, there was ambient light before there were stars. It’s an aspect of the creation story that seems counter-intuitive, that God created light before He created the sun and stars, and yet modern science is giving credence to it.

Wanna get even more funky? Check this out: Large Hadron Collider proves the universe was once a liquid. According to research just a few months ago, “The world’s most powerful particle accelerator smashed together lead nuclei at the highest energies possible, creating dense sub-atomic particles that reach temperatures of over ten trillion degrees. Beyond being awesome, this achievement shows the early universe was actually a liquid.” It’s an unexpected finding, and yet, again, one that was predicted thousands of years ago — “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

It’s frustrating to me that so many people like to make this an “us versus them” thing, picking one account and dismissing the other.  And, particularly so for Christians who dismiss the science because it doesn’t match their interpretation of the scripture.  There is some great science that showed up first in the Bible — things like the fact that the Earth is round and hangs freely in space, things that were recorded in scripture long before science figured them out. Unfortunately, throughout history, you have the church calling people like Galileo a heretic, getting too caught up in defending its interpretation, instead of going back and checking, “Hey, what does the scripture really say about this?” It’s sad watching pride cause the church to say, “You’re wrong,” when it could be saying, “I told you so.”

Me, I prefer to stop trying to force one version or the other to be wrong, I prefer to stop believing that I have to adopt someone else’s version of scripture, and love reading the two versions like they’re two ways of telling the same story — poetry backed up with physics.  And when you read it that way, it’s a pretty cool story.

There Goes The Sun

This is the latest in my series of blog entries taking a fresh look at a variety of topics over the year. I’ve set up a page on the blog explaining the project and linking to my entries. This post’s topic is “The Sun.”

solar mass ejection

Skylab image of one of the largest eruptive solar prominences ever recorded.

The sun. What is there to say about it? It’s hot. It’s bright. It makes day. It’s good to have. I like it.

I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to rethink about the sun.

And, really, why bother? Some friends of mine rethought the sun for all of humanity better than any of us are ever going to back in 1973, and you can read about their thoughts in the seminal space history volume Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story,available wherever, um, it is sold.

So, lacking any Earth-shaking insights about the sun, I’m going to go in a different direction. One, ironically, dealing with Earth-shaking insights about the sun.

The sun, they say, has about seven billion years of life left in it. Which, really, isn’t that bad, considering that 7 billion years, they say, is about half the age of the entire universe thus far. Of course, the Earth won’t receive the full benefit of those 7 billion years; the planet will be gone long before the sun in one of a variety of ways.

Somewhere around the 5 billion year from now mark, the sun will expand into a red giant, becoming so large that will encompass everything through the orbit of Mars, easily including the current orbit of this little planet we call home. For those not sure about the science, being inside a star would be hazardous to the health of any life on the planet.

Of course, I’m careful there to say the orbit of Earth, rather than Earth itself. There are those who believe that the sun will not, in fact, swallow Earth. By the time the sun expands that large, it will, they say, have lost such a substantial portion of its mass that the orbits of the planets will change, and that Earth will be spiraling outward into space as the sun expands. This, to be sure, doesn’t really help anyone on the planet any; rather than meeting a fiery end, they’ll meet a frozen one.

Other scenarios focusing on solar heating or rogue stars give a lifespan of anywhere from 500 million to 30 billion years for some form of life on the planet, give or take.

The point is this — We’re all doomed, so why bother?

Just kidding, of course. Sure, the planet’s doomed, but we individually are gonna be gone long before that, so Earth’s eventual demise shouldn’t affect your personal “why bother” meter either way.

The point, really, is this — the natural processes that govern our universe dictate a natural end to our world, in whatever form it may come.

Ultimately, I believe science and religion are two halves of one thing, the quest for understanding of creation and its Creator. You cannot truly understand one without the other. I believe in a God who has created a universe based on a finely tuned set of operating principle, and a believe in a universe that speaks to the nature of its Creator.

Going a step further, God has created a world with an expiration date. I do believe that God acts in addition to and sometimes outside of the operating principles he established, but I believe He generally lets them do their thing. And those operating principles dictate a world that, without requiring any action on His part, will come to an end.

Now, me, personally, I don’t believe the human race has another 30 billion years in it, of 5 billion, or even half a billion. But I do believe, left to its own devices, humanity will come to a natural end.

Again, that doesn’t mean that God won’t end humanity’s physical existence before that. But, increasingly, I’m not entirely sure how I believe about the end of the world.

I’ve struggled with the issue for a while. I believe God was deliberate in creation. It strikes me as very cool, for example, the way Earth has been designed to provide us with power of varying levels as our intellectual sophistication increases, starting with fire, which is both easily understood and easily harnessed, and going on through electricity, which has only been fully understood and harnessed during the lifetime of the United States, or the atom, not fully revealed until the last century. Throw things like petroleum in there, and the amount of planning ahead that He put into it is really pretty outstanding.

And then throw in things like antimatter and zero-point energy. History would indicate to us that if God created a universe in which it was possible to harness energy from the reaction of matter and antimatter, He did so with the idea that we would do so. He designed the universe that way not frivolously, but deliberately; it was another tool He created for us to use.

Likewise, He put the moon in our backyard, close enough that we could, eventually, touch it. I tend not to believe He did this unthinkingly; that He was surprised when we landed there. If that’s the case, then I tend to believe He put the other fun toys in our solar system there for us to play with as well.

We’re just not there yet.

And that makes me believe that He’s not quite done with us yet.

I’m not entirely sure what I do believe about eschatology, but I have a hard time agreeing with those that argue that the end is imminent, that God is going to end the party before we’ve finished opening His presents. I believe He put the moon touchably close so we would go there, and that He thought it was really cool when we did. I imagine God was beaming on July 20, 1969 in the way that only a proud parent of kids who have done something amazing can. I imagine if He doesn’t get to see us explore the really cool red planet he made for us and put right there in our neighborhood for us, He’s going to be kind of disappointed.

I’ve been reading lately, somewhat accidentally, on alternate schools of thought on Biblical prophecy. In particular, I’m intrigued by the view that most, if not all, “end-times” prophecy was actually fulfilled in the first century, as Christ indicated to his apostles it would be. I’m not entirely sure I fully understand that scriptural interpretation, but, then, I don’t really fully understand the more commonplace modern interpretations, either.

I also tend to believe that if those prophecies refer to something yet to happen, they are intended more for us to recognize them when they do than to try to figure out when they’re coming. I think there are far more practical things for Christians to do with their time than to try to puzzle out something even Christ said He doesn’t know. If it’s coming, it’ll come when it comes.

In the meantime, I think we should spend less time worrying about when bedtime is and more time enjoying the toys He gave us.

Clearinghouse Post

Stuff that I’ve made notes about in order to write about, and now I am:

Best. Shirt. Ever!

Best. Shirt. Ever!

I am SO buying this shirt. I’ve got to some TWOLHA shirts I like, some of which just have the name on them, another that I like for reasons similar to that one, and yet another that’s still back-ordereed that I like for other reasons.

But that one — wow! If someone had been designing a shirt for me personally, they’d have a hard time doing better than that. It’s so me it’s unreal. (Although — an earlier draft didn’t include a couple of the words on the final version, but did include “Dance,” which I liked. But, oh well, you know.)

I WILL buy one.

That’s No Moon

… But it may have been in the past. Per io9:

If analysis of new images of Jupiter are to be believed, the planet may have found itself with a new ring recently, which may answer the question of what happened to disappearing moon S/2000 J 11…

That “something” is possibly a new ring around the planet, something that may be the result of the mysterious “disappearance” of Jupter’s moon S/2000 J 11 shortly after its discovery in 2000. The team believes that the new possible ring is actually what remains of the moon, after it collided with Himalia at some point in the last few years and was destroyed.

Crowded House

I played in another Face2Face improv show at Sam & Greg’s Pizzeria and Gelateria last night. Wow, it’s come a long way in three weeks. As I mentioned last week, I left the first show rather dubious. I left the second optimistic, cautiously. Last night — I’m a pessimist, so I’m waiting for things to change, but, wow. We had a packed audience, to the point of being cramped. We’re going to do something very soon to address that. And they were a great audience. My friend Emily was there for the first time in, like, a year, so it was very very cool seeing her back! She even dragged her gracious beau Jack along.

I think we’re also starting to hit our stride as far as working in the venue; beginning to get a strong sense of the things that do and don’t work there. It’s fun that the venue has a different feel to it, and I’m enjoying figuring it out.

Man On A Mission

My co-author Owen Garriott’s son Richard had a movie made about him. It won an award. That’s cool.


For the first time ever, scientists have observed a quantum superposition in an object visible to the naked eye. If “quantum superposition” means nothing to you than the fact it would make a great name for a Muse album, then think “Schrödinger’s Cat.” If that means nothing to you, then you should probably skip the link. In summary, they Schrödinger’d something you could actually see. If you could actually see it, which, of course, you couldn’t, because observation contradicts superposition, obviously. Stories like this make me wish I was more scientifically inclined.

Twin Stars

station and shuttle

I was lucky the first time. I walked out of my office on Wednesday, and was struck by two incredibly bright stars in the sky in front of me. When I noticed they were moving, I realized what I had accidentally happened across — the International Space Station and the space shuttle Atlantis moving in tandem across the sky. They were the brightest objects in the sky, and were beautiful.

The space station, just a couple of degrees, perhaps, ahead of Atlantis, was the brighter of the two, but I was amazed at how bright the smaller shuttle was as well. Atlantis faded out before the station as they disappeared, and as she did, ISS turned red, something I had never witnessed before.

Last night, the sighting wasn’t luck — I even set an alarm on my phone so that I wouldn’t forget to go look. As a result, I got to see the entire pass, longer and brighter than the one the night before. Once again, they were dazzling. I assume it had to be the angle, but from the ground it looked like they were racing across the sky, with station pulling farther and farther ahead of shuttle as they passed across the sky. The picture above was taken with my iPhone near the end of the pass, as they were already starting to dim. Station is in the center of the picture, with shuttle dinner around 11 o’clock from station. The picture doesn’t do them justice.

Three thoughts came to mind watching them.

— First, that I’m glad that I got to see them again. Successful multiple sightings have been rare for me, with the most notable being the STS/ISS/ATV triple sighting a while back, and with only five flights remaining after this, every opportunity, and every successful sighting, become precious.

— Along those lines, it’s weird to think that, depending on weather and the ground track, last night may be the last time I see Atlantis. She has only one flight left, and it’s entirely possible that next time she won’t pass over while undocked, or that cloud cover will prevent me from being able to see her. I know the end of the shuttle program is coming, but it’s those little realizations that make it more real.

And I’m glad I got to see her again. This year has been a good one for me and Atlantis, OV-104 — I saw her with my own eyes in May when she launched, and then on television when she landed, again in person in October on the pad when I went for the Ares I-X launch, on television for the STS-129 launch, in person as she passed overhead the last couple of nights, and then again on television when she landed this morning.

— Finally, seeing the two of them together is a beautiful sight, to be sure. But far more amazing is to sit and think about what you’re looking at. Two spacecraft, flying separately through orbit after having undocked from one another, carrying a total of 13 people. Two of the most complicated and awesome creations built by mankind, outshining every star in the sky. As I’ve said many times, I’m only a very very very very very very small part of this agency, but moments like those two nights make me very proud to be a part of it at all. We do good work.

…Assuming Homeostasis

Last night, I attended a meeting of the Huntsville chapter of Reasons to Believe, an international organization dedicated to the study and promotion of the classic Rod Stewart song (“If I listened long enough to you …”).

Actually, it’s a “science-faith think tank” that believes that maybe the scientific study of the physical rules of the universe and faith in the God who created them shouldn’t be incompatible. Last night’s session, for example, was telepresented by Jeff Zweerink, author of Who’s Afraid of the Multiverse, which looks at whether or not scientific theories positing the existence of multiple universes preclude belief in God. For example, if the fact that our universe is established to have a beginning proves that it must have causation, would the existence of a multiverse that existed before and outside our universe belie the need for special causation? (Short answer to both questions: No.)

To be honest, I left the talk unsure as to whether it was more simple or more complicated than I expected. Either it glossed over a lot of topics without really delving into them just for the sake of acknowledging them, or it assumed that the audience would already know enough about those topics that they could be mentioned without explanation. I’m either smarter or dumber than I think, but don’t know which. (And said ignorance might imply an answer, huh?)

After the meeting, some of us migrated over to Starbucks for a great, rambling discussion that used the talk as a springboard for some interesting discussions. The best part, though, was possible John’s frequent qualifying of things with “assuming homeostasis.” Basically, he would argue that a lot of scientific theories on the development of the universe or Earth are based on the assumption that certain physical rules or processes are constant, while in actually there may be evidence that they have operated differently in the past. “Assuming homeostasis,” then, is the assumption that things have always worked and will continue to work the way they do now, making it essentially the technical translation of the Southern expression, “The good Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise.” I’m already in love with it, and will be looking for ways to work it into conversations in the near future. So consider yourself warned.

The other interesting part of the evening was that the RTB event was held at Whitesburg, my old church. I don’t believe I’ve been inside there since late June, and even then it was a rare thing.

That same weekend that I last went to Whitesburg, I got my new iPhone. When I did, I hooked it up to my computer, and restored the last back-up from my old iPhone onto it. Even though it was a brand new phone, it now “remembered” being the old phone — text messages received long before it was built, words that the dictionary had picked up from me using them, notes I’d written on its predecessor, etc. It’s not the same phone; it has different hardware, a new name, and has gone on to have its own apps and songs and so forth.

That was exactly how it felt being at Whitesburg last night — like I was someone else entirely, who had memories of the past that had been restored onto me, as real and realized as if they were mine, but somehow a thing apart. Very strange.

But, clearly, that was me who was there …

… assuming homeostasis.