Measuring the Distance to Stars

Measuring the Distance to Stars

Measuring the distance to stars is not as hard as you might think. As an earth science teacher at Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana, I enjoyed seeing a student’s eyes light up when they came to understand some scientific fact. They had thought it was beyond them, and suddenly it made sense. Knowing the distance to a star was always one of those facts. Let me show you how easy it is:

Look at a picture on the other side of the room. Hold your finger in front of your face and close one eye. Line up your finger and the object on the wall. Now close that eye and open the other eye, Does your finger appear to jump? If you drew a line between your eyes and extended a line from each eye to the picture, you would have a triangle. The apex angle at the picture is controlled by how far away it is from you. If you do the same experiment with an object that is closer, there will be a different angle.

The illustration on the right shows the Earth making its yearly orbit around the Sun. A line from the Earth to the Sun will establish a triangle. In six months, it will look like objects at the apex angle have moved. How much they will have moved depends on how far away they are. My classes do simulations of these measurements on the football field, and it becomes apparent how easy measuring the distance to stars can be.

The measurement unit astronomers use is based on how far away a star must be for the angle at the apex to be one arcsecond. We call that distance one parsec, and it is 3.26 light-years. If the parallax angle is .5 seconds of arc, the star must be 6.52 light-years away. The smaller the angle, the farther away the object is. The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission, which has been underway since 2013, can measure the parallax angle to a millionth of a second of arc. Objects that move such a small amount are tens of thousands of light-years away.

The cosmos is much larger than most of us can imagine. The light we see from some of those stars left the stars hundreds of thousands of years ago. Measuring the distance to stars gives new meaning to passages like Isaiah 40:22: “He stretched out the heavens as a curtain and spread them out as a tent to dwell in.”

If it has taken the light from the stars God created many tens of thousands of years to get here, it is evident that the creation didn’t happen a few thousand years ago. Verses describing the process of creation are untimed and undated. Let us not allow human traditions to challenge the integrity of the Bible. God created time, and He certainly is not limited by anything He created.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Understanding Dark Matter and God

Understanding Dark Matter and God

One of the things that frequently happens when scientists admit they don’t understand something is that pseudoscience and pseudo-religion crackpots go wild with completely impossible claims. The UFO craze is an example. Many people attributed poorly understood natural phenomena to alien visitation. Virtually all UFO claims have been answered and shown to be natural phenomena or manufactured hoaxes. A more difficult question involves understanding dark matter.

Dark matter and dark energy pose a huge challenge to cosmologists and astronomers. Galaxies are spinning masses of billions of stars orbiting a core, which at least most of the time is a black hole. The problem is that the spin of the system is so rapid that the force of gravity is not enough to keep galaxies from flying apart. Scientists believe that there is undetectable mass in the galactic systems to hold them together. They call that missing mass “dark matter.”

There is a similar problem in the motion of galaxies through space. Various experiments have shown clearly that the cosmos is being accelerated at between 72 and 76 (Km/s)/Mpc. The acceleration of the cosmos involves energy far greater than anything science has seen in any thermonuclear reaction to date. If we view the cosmos as embedded in spacetime, then some energy is accelerating spacetime, but we cannot detect what that energy is or how it is generated.

In past centuries and many cultures, this would have been explained by simply saying,” God is doing (or has done) it.” We call that “God of the Gaps.” Atheists quickly point out that when science finds an explanation, that “God of the Gaps” is dead. Our studies of quarks, hadrons, WIMPS, and relativity are offering suggestions that may eventually give an understanding to fill the gap. Understanding dark matter is not a small gap because dark matter makes up 26.8% of the universe, and dark energy makes up 68.3%. That means that the matter we can detect makes up only 4.9% of the universe’s total composition.

There are some critical lessons in this. We need to realize that creating the cosmos is not a simple matter. Just creating space, time, and the substance to make the cosmos is a highly complex process. However, the process is not God. God has used His massive intelligence and design to produce something we are just now beginning to appreciate. When science finds a way of understanding dark matter and dark energy, it will only tell us more about God’s wisdom, power, and intelligence. We are beginning to understand the meaning of Proverbs 8, where wisdom speaks.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

For a current discussion of this challenging area of study, see “Is the Big Bang in Crisis” by Dan Hooper in the May issue of Astronomy magazine pages 21-29, or at astronomy.com.

James Peebles Wins Nobel Prize in Physics

James Peebles Wins Nobel Prize in PhysicsThose of us who have an interest in creation have followed the work of Dr. James Peebles at Princeton University for some time. Since 1964, Peebles has been working to understand the scientific evidence of how the cosmos came into being. For his work, he has won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Dr. Peebles predicted cosmic microwave background radiation, which has been a major tool in understanding the beginning of the universe and in realizing that 95% of the matter/energy in the cosmos is unknown. The “big bang” model describing the universe fits well with understanding God’s role in the cosmos. Peebles has shown that the formation of space/time and matter/energy fits with all available observations, and he has discovered several new processes, such as the baryon model, to describe the physics of the early universe.

The Ostriker-Peebles criterion relating to the stability of galactic formation has helped us understand other galaxies besides our Milky Way. Observing the spin rates in those galaxies has led us to realize that the rapid speeds at which they move require a force that has not been identified to prevent them from flying apart. This realization is the starting point for speculating the existence of dark matter. There has to be a missing mass that is the glue of stable galaxies. Research continues to understand what dark matter is and how it works.

Dr. Frank Baxter once said, “the more we know about the creation, the closer we get to the creator.” The fact that James Peebles has been recognized for his work in cosmology is encouraging. Scientists now agree there was a beginning. The cause of that beginning and the properties of that cause are the next steps toward comprehending the creation of the cosmos.

Proverbs 8:22 finds wisdom saying, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old.” Reading Dr. Peebles’ research is intimidating because God’s wisdom and His works in cosmology are so complex. The study of creation in cosmology has only become recognized as valid science in the last few years. James Peebles has been a major player in accomplishing that, and therefore he received the Nobel Prize in Physics. “In the beginning, God created” may sound simple, but what it describes is incredibly challenging to understand. Dr. Peebles has clearly shown that, but he has also opened the door for more study of how God did the creating.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

What the Mercury Transit Tells Us

What the Mercury Transit Tells UsAbove is a photo of the Sun. If you look closely, you will see a small dot in the upper half near the right side. That is the planet Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun. Mercury made what astronomers call a “transit” of the Sun on Monday morning, November 11, 2019. In our area of the country, the sky was overcast, and it was snowing. However, Bill Ingalls of NASA took this photograph from his location in Arlington, Virginia. I find it interesting to consider what the Mercury Transit tells us.

What’s so special about Mercury passing in front of the Sun? For one thing, it doesn’t happen very often. Although the last time was only three years ago, the next time will be in 2032, but it won’t be visible from North America. The next Mercury transit visible in North America will be in 2049. Since Mercury is closer to the Sun, it passes between the Sun and us every 116 days. However, most of the time, it is either above or below the Sun from our view, and Earth’s atmosphere makes it invisible in the daylight.

Scientists used precision telescopes and equipment to study the transit. They can learn more about the atmosphere of Mercury as it is silhouetted against the Sun. Historically Sir Edmund Halley (1656-1742) watched a transit of Mercury and realized that it could be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun. It occurred to him that a transiting planet would appear in different positions to viewers in different locations on Earth. Measuring the apparent shift between two distant Earth locations at the same time and applying a little math, one could calculate the distance to the Sun. In 1769, after Halley’s death, astronomers used a transit of Venus to calculate the Earth-Sun distance.

Think about what the Mercury transit tells us without even seeing it? Because of the fact that astronomers can know in advance the exact date and time of a transit of Mercury (or Venus), or a solar eclipse (when the Moon passes between Earth and Sun) we realize that the solar system is orderly. We can study the heavens and learn of the Creator. We can see His wisdom and design of our planet and the solar system in which it exists. We can know there is a God by the things He has made (Romans 1:20) as the heavens declare His glory (Psalms 19:1).
— Roland Earnst © 2019

Curtain Opening on the Cosmos

Curtain Opening on the CosmosYesterday we discussed the Hebrew word “natah meaning to stretch out in an accelerative motion. We pointed out that it is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to describe the action of the cosmos. We emphasized that the Bible does not use that word to reveal a scientific fact, but it does show an accurate knowledge of the nature of the cosmos. It is knowledge that science has only verified in the past few years. The same verses that use “natah” also imply a curtain opening on the cosmos.

The verses we mentioned yesterday (Psalms 104:2, Isaiah 40:22, and Isaiah 45:12) describe the nature of the cosmos in a way that shows an understanding of what people often call the “big bang.” When people think about the “big bang,” they seem to have in mind some kind of explosion that created the cosmos. Science has learned that it is not the correct concept. The “big bang” was a great expansion but not an explosion. There is a uniformity of temperature across the cosmos of one part in one-hundred-thousandth of a degree. That fact indicates a smoothness in what took place at the creation event. An explosion doesn’t do that. The creation process started with a fine-tuned balance for a geometrically flat universe (not elliptical or hyperbolic). Instead of an explosion, it is more like a curtain opening on the cosmos.

Passages like Psalms 104:2 and Isaiah 40:22 describe the cosmos as being like a curtain. In Psalms 104:2, the Hebrew word used is “heyry,” which means a hanging drape. In Isaiah 40:22, the word used is “doq.” That word is used only once in the entire Bible and refers to a unique veil or curtain. The picture we get is that God stretches the cosmos pulling the fabric of space as we might open a curtain.

Science is now in agreement with the Bible that space and time began at a singularity. In that event, the material in space was moved, creating the fabric of space itself. Objects in the cosmos did not move through eternally existing space, but rather time began, and space was created as the objects moved. As space was pulled open like a curtain, the material embedded in space moved with it.

This scientific understanding is new, and it comes from the most recent observations available. This curtain opening on the cosmos is not some religious hodgepodge, but a discovery of modern science. The amazing thing is that the Bible writers stated it thousands of years ago. Science is beginning to show us a fuller understanding of the meaning of statements in God’s Word.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Stretching Out the Cosmos

Stretching Out the Cosmos is Like Starting a ChainsawAs a person trained in the sciences and a student of the Bible, I find it interesting how many times a Bible statement demonstrates an understanding of something only learned by modern science. Only recently has science proven that the cosmos is accelerating in its expansion. We can refer to it as stretching out the cosmos. This is no longer debatable but a fact confirmed by various experiments using different techniques and measurements.

The Bible repeatedly refers to the fact that the cosmos is “stretched.” For some examples of this, take a look at Psalms 104:2, Isaiah 40:22, and Isaiah 45:12. None of these passages are attempting to reveal any scientific fact, but all of them refer to God stretching out the cosmos.

The Hebrew word used in those passages is “natah,” meaning to stretch out. The most common use of this word in other places in the Old Testament is to indicate a person’s hand stretched out to point or show motion. In Exodus 8, for example, “natah” is used to describe Moses’ moving his hand or rod (See verses 5,6,16,17). Perhaps many of us would remember starting a lawnmower or chain saw by pulling the starting cord. The Bible tells us that accelerative is the force that moves the cosmos as a whole.

We want to emphasize that it is not the purpose of those passages to reveal any scientific information. However, they are a clear reference to the nature of the force that operates by stretching out the cosmos.

Tomorrow we will see that another word in these passages indicates the nature of the fabric of space itself.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Cosmological Verification of Bible Statements

Cosmological Verification of Bible StatementsThere are many passages in the Bible that contain scientific information that was unavailable to the authors who wrote the passage. Cosmological verification has come through modern science. In a few cases, science has discovered some of those verifications only recently.

An example is Hebrews 11:3, where the writer says, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” The word “framed” is from the Greek word meaning “to make thoroughly fit” (Young’s Analytical Concordance). We now know that quarks and all quanta (which we can’t see) have shaped the formation of the particles that make up our world. The author of Hebrews would not have known this.

Another example is Jeremiah 33:22, where we read, “As the host of heaven cannot be numbered …” The recent discovery that the cosmos is accelerating in its expansion is an incredible verification of that statement. Scientists tell us that the universe is 46.5 billion light-years in any direction. We have known for 100 years or so that the cosmos is distributed so that the further you go into space, the faster galaxies, stars, and planets are moving away. At the edges of the creation, we see objects traveling at speeds over 90% of the speed of light. If the cosmos is accelerating, then objects will pass that boundary of light and will disappear from our ability to see them. It is absolutely true that the objects in space cannot all be measured because we can’t see all of them.

It is not the purpose of the biblical passages to reveal scientific facts. But God seems to have inserted things into the Bible passages that allow cosmological verification. Modern scientific knowledge has reached the point of being able to understand some of God’s creative methods. The more we know of the creation, the better we can understand the Creator. God’s power and creative capacity are incredible.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Ocean Treasure House

Ocean Treasure HouseOceans are essential for life on Earth. As we learn more about the oceans, we realize more and more how important the ocean treasure house is to our survival.

Fish, shrimp, and lobsters are some of the blessings that come from the oceans. Those vast bodies of water contain a great wealth of biomass that can address human food needs. The very fact that these forms of life lay millions of eggs that can provide massive amounts of food quickly is a testimony to the vast ocean treasure house. As humans conserve and farm these resources, we see the potential for food production with minimal environmental impact.

But food is only one of the blessings that come from the oceans. The oceans of the world provide water for the land. Evaporation lifts massive amounts of water from the oceans. The moisture condenses and falls on the continents providing the vital water needed by all land forms of life.

The oceans also moderate temperatures on the land. When Earth is closest to the Sun, its tilt exposes the Southern Hemisphere to the direct radiation of the Sun. Since oceans mostly cover the Southern Hemisphere, the water reflects much of the radiation, and the rest is absorbed and stored in the water. The water carries this heat toward the polar areas of the planet, moderating temperatures and allowing life to exist in abundance at the higher latitudes.

When the Earth is at its farthest distance from the Sun, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, exposing the land to the Sun’s radiation. The land surface absorbs more heat radiation and reflects less of it. The waters in the Southern Hemisphere moderate the climate by using their stored energy to supplement the heat from the Sun.

In addition to their thermodynamic uses, the oceans also control the gases that are critical for life on Earth. Photosynthetic processes taking place in the oceans produce most of our oxygen. The oceans are a significant carbon sink, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that would be in our atmosphere if the oceans did not exist. This not only restricts the adverse greenhouse effects of carbon dioxide but also recycles carbon in ways that benefit the entire planetary ecosystem.

Another ocean treasure house is the minerals they hold. The salt in the ocean is not just sodium chloride (regular table salt). The oceans contain a wide variety of elements that are critical to humans. They include iodine, magnesium, copper, and copious trace elements of biological importance. People who live far from the oceans benefit from these mineral resources because ancient oceans have deposited those minerals on land. Oceans gather and store the elements that humans need. While we have mined these ocean-deposited resources on land, we are now learning to take them directly from the ocean.

As science looks for life elsewhere in the cosmos, it is not likely that we will find it unless we find a planetary environment with oceans comparable to those on Earth. The ocean treasure house is a beautiful feature unique to planet Earth in our solar system. As science observes other stars and other systems, it becomes increasingly clear that planets like ours are exceedingly rare at best. God has provided the ocean treasure house that speaks eloquently of the Creator’s wisdom and power.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

How the Elements Were Created

How the Elements Were CreatedScience has made significant progress in understanding many things about the universe and our planet and the life on it. However, there are many, many things that we have not yet begun to understand. There are also many things we think we understand, but we are still working on better understandings. One question involves how the elements were created.

At the time of the cosmic creation event (widely called the “big bang”), there were atoms with one proton and one electron and some with twice that many. We call simplest element hydrogen, and two hydrogen atoms combine to form helium in the process of nuclear fusion. More and more fusion took place and still is happening in our Sun and other stars. The process requires intense heat and pressure to fuse the atomic nuclei into a heavier atom.

In stars much more massive than our Sun, heavier elements up to iron can are being formed by fusing more and more atoms together. When you go beyond iron, and all the way up to uranium, even the biggest, brightest, and hottest stars can’t squeeze those atoms together. Scientists believe that the heavier elements are created in exploding stars known as supernovae. When they explode, the theory goes, ripples of turbulence form as the supernovae toss their stellar material into the void of the universe. The forces in that turbulence press more and more atoms together to make the heavier elements. As those atomic elements fly off into space, gravity pulls them into lumps which eventually become planets, such as the one on which we live.

A problem with that explanation is that when the atoms are blasted from the supernovae, they are all traveling in the same direction at perhaps the same speed. How can that produce enough force and heat to fuse them together? An alternate explanation is that the explosion within the supernova is not symmetrical, creating areas of greater density. Ultradense and ultrahot regions concentrated in small areas of the exploding mass perhaps give a better explanation of how the elements were created. (See a paper on that published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.)

Carbon is the basic building block of all living cells. Nitrogen and oxygen, which are the next steps above carbon, bond with it along with other atoms to form living molecules. A little higher on the atomic scale are sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, and other elements which are essential to life. Iron, nickel, copper, and other metals are in molecules within our bodies, and we use them in pure form to build our homes, cars, and electronics. The heavier radioactive elements such as uranium deep within the Earth generate the heat that creates a molten iron core that generates a magnetic field which surrounds and protects us. This is a very simple explanation of a very complex system that makes it possible for us to be here.

Science is only beginning to understand how the elements were created and how they are continuing to be created. How did this amazing, complex system come into being with the precision that put life on this planet? We could declare a god-of-the-gaps to say that we don’t understand it and therefore, God did it. It is much better for us to learn HOW God did it. As we begin to see the wisdom required to put this incredibly complex universe together, we become more in awe of the Creator. We don’t have a god-of-the-gaps who “zaps” things into existence like a magician. Our God is an engineer craftsman who creates complexity and beauty that leaves us without excuse. (See Romans 1:20.)
— Roland Earnst © 2019

Hubble Constant and Age of the Universe

Hubble Constant and Age of the Universe
The Associated Press released an article on Friday, September 13, 2019, that read, “Study Finds the Universe Might be Several Billion Years Younger.” The news story sites a study released in the journal Science on September 12. In the study, Inh Jee of the Max Planck Institute in Germany used a new method to measure the Hubble Constant, which scientists use to calculate the age of the universe.

Right away, we have seen some fundamentalists jumping to the conclusion that the headline means the Earth is 6,000 years old after all. The Bible doesn’t tell us how old the creation is. The age of the Earth is a denominational issue for those whose human doctrines won’t work if the Earth is more than 6,000 years old. Our concern is that people understand that this is not an issue about whether God exists or whether the Bible is true.

We can measure the age of the universe by determining the expansion rate of the cosmos, which is the Hubble Constant. Measuring that expansion has been incredibly difficult, and that is what the headline refers to. In previous years the Hubble Constant has been estimated to be 70. Inh Lee and her team used a new technique called time delay gravitational lensing which gave a value for the Hubble Constant of 82.4. That would reduce the age of the universe from the currently accepted 13.7 billion years to 11.4 billion years. Other scientists using other techniques earlier this year have given a Hubble Constant of 74 and 73.3. Previous methods have given a value as low as 67. A lower value means an older universe, and a higher value of the Hubble Constant means a younger universe.

If you know the value of the Hubble Constant, the calculation of the age of the universe is very simple. We all know that travel time depends on two things. If I go 100 miles at 50 miles per hour, how long did I travel? The obvious answer is two hours. Distance traveled is equal to the speed at which you travel multiplied by how long you travel at that speed. We can measure the size of the cosmos by several techniques. Triangulation is difficult because the size is so huge that the apex angle of the triangle is too small to measure accurately. However, triangulation does give us an idea of the vastness of space.

The further light travels through the cosmos, the lower the frequency of the light. That effect is caused by dust particles in space scattering the higher frequency blue light. The effect is called interstellar reddening, and it gives us a good measure of the size of the cosmos. Several other methods involve complex energy production by various stars. All of those methods provide a reasonably consistent measure as to how big the cosmos is. Applying the Hubble Constant to the size of the cosmos provides us with a measure of the age of the universe.

The point of all of this is to get values that science can use to study astronomical processes in deep space. The problem is that our measuring devices are primitive in terms of what we need for such distant objects. What it means to those of us who marvel at the size and complexity of space is that more than ever, “The Heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalms 19:1).
— John N. Clayton ©2019