Astronomy 101


06 Origin

There have been many different ideas throughout history of how the universe came to be. My favourite thought about the knowledge of where we came from is regarding knowledge itself and is from the philosopher Socrates. When praised for being so wise, he allegedly replied

“I know that I know nothing.”

I love this. I love learning, I love learning new ideas and connecting the dots amongst disparate evidence and information; I love accumulating data points to weigh as evidence and reading ancient religious and philosophical texts and studying art, music, literature, and poetry to better understand the universe and humanity’s role in it. But what do I know the more I’ve learned.

I’ve learned that I don’t know very much, and there’s way more I don’t know than what I do know.

What do we know about where we came from? It depends on who you ask and at what point in history. I write this is a Christian who views the Bible as a key part of my world view and cosmological beliefs. I also write this is a Christian who will do my best to use available evidence to discuss and pursue truth and not stick the stuff that doesn’t fit out of sight and pretend it doesn’t exist. I love science, despite the limitations of my understandings and knowledge, and will do my best to convey an evenhanded description of the ways scientists currently describe the beginning of the universe...and I will also include my own thoughts, understandings and conjectures, followed by my admission of failure to fully comprehend, solve, or explain anything. But here’s the deal, to the best of my understanding. Forgive me and thank you.

There are three main scientific theories that have held sway over the centuries. I’m not going to discuss the first two, because they’ve mostly been ruled out. But so you know, they are referred to as the constant state and oscillating model theories. You’ll probably find stuff about new matter being created, consistent densities, deflated balloon analogies, et cetera. Feel free to take to the stars or to the Google with those in hand.

Of course everything we know about what Socrates said is via his most famous pupil, Plato, so we’ll never really know for sure whether Socrates actually said this or whether his fave student ascribed it to him. His famous statement is known as The Socratic Paradox. There’s a lot of things we may never know for sure. But we keep asking questions and forming theories based on the best available evidence. I also sneakily sneaked this bit about Socrates in to remind us - including myself - that there are four lens through which to see the world, and religion is one of them, but not the only one. The other three being Art, Science, and Philosophy.

Big bang theory

This is the one most widely accepted by science, and states that the universe began approximately 14 billion years ago, give or take a hundred million, and that it started out cuter than a tiny little atom. Things were super hot and super dense and started expanding and pretty soon there was a sound almost reminiscent of a...bang!

And boom: things started cooling and a bunch of different things like planets and stars and moons started getting formed.

So in an atom-sized nutshell: there’s a little atom. It gets hot. It gets dense. It gets bigger. It blows up. All the matter blown out from it goes on to create the universe that we now know and scientists use leftover thermal radiation to try and measure not only a timeline for the past, but form a guesstimate of how the universe is continuing to expand and what will happen based on the best evidence we have and the best equipment we have available. Through science, we continue to know more and more.

And also, we learn more and more about how much we don’t know.

Where did that first atom come from? Mr. Green, Mr. Green! *waving hand*

The oldest known collections of stars in the universe have been dated to somewhere between 11 and 14 billion years old, according to space.com

Atoms are all tiny. Super tiny.

This is a reference to the fabulous YouTube series Crash Course; the science and history ones are led by the brothers Hank and John Green.  

Creation theory

This is where things get heated and controversial and tempers flare and school boards get involved and politicians wave their fists and people choose sides…

Science? Or religion? Big bang? Or Creationism, also sometimes called Intelligent Design?

Again, in the spirit of transparency I’ll say this again: I study, write, and learn from the perspective of someone to whom faith is an important part of my world view. As a thousand science fiction stories and films have taught us: there are things seen, and things not seen. And I believe that there are things as yet unexplained by science that may never be. I believe that there is a supernatural figure involved in the machinations of the universe that has had a direct hand in the creation and the comic-tragic arc of earth and her history.

The blueprint for many Christians is the Bible. And this is where the fight begins. Fundamentalist Christians turn to the Bible as an absolute and unerring description of Earth’s beginning that is often aggressively asserted as a replacement for the scientific explanations of “...non-believers and atheists.”

Note: For all Christians. By definition, the Bible is the sacred text for religious belief for one defining themself as a Christian.

Scientists point the other finger and dismiss a “...primeval reliance on myth and magic” to explain phenomena that are now explainable through evidence-based methods.

But do we know everything? And of what we do know...to what level of precision are we confident that we are completely correct? When we look at various points in history where we were absolutely certain that our understanding of a particular phenomena was complete and accurate...and then it changed...how does that impact our ability to retain a certain sense of humility now?

Chuck Klosterman, one of my fave writers on the topics of pop culture and thinking about old things in fresh ways, talks about this in his book ____. He specifically talks

about gravity and poses the question (I’m paraphrasing): What if we take a basic assumption about gravity, that we know how it works now, and we turn out to be completely wrong? What if, in 500 years, humans, or whatever life forms exist, are laughing at us and at our cute little infantile understanding of gravity?

I realise how this can be taken as the cornerstone of conspiracy theory : how can we trust anything in that case? But it’s not. I believe in science as a huge part of what helps us answer fundamental questions about the universe and the earth. I also believe it doesn’t answer every question. And that’s where we can look to other disciplines to help out.

We are a Christian family and are raising our children with that as a major framework for the way we approach and live life. By definition, we are believers: believers in something and someone that exists beyond what is provable. But I am not afraid for me, for our family, for my children to learn and discover truth. That includes science, all of science and the best explanations scientists have to offer.

I believe that Earth exists as something more than an accidental collision of dust and gases. That is the framework I have chosen to start my quest for knowledge from. Does that make it dogma? Yes, I suppose so. I’ve ended up in the no man’s land between warring sides in the ongoing struggle between religion and science; faith and reason.

I believe in more than I can prove. Just a little bit, but that little bit is a big thing. I believe that there’s so much I don’t know and am learning about, via science, of the processes and ways that the universe, and Earth specifically, have changed - and are changing - over time.

If nothing else, I believe in the beautiful home humanity has been gifted, regardless of how you believe it first came into being, and I believe we are expected to take care of it. To safeguard and protect its resources and its life forms; to learn all we can about the natural world and how we can best care for it, to ask big cosmological questions about where we came from and why we’re here, and in the end…

...be able to keep a spirit of humility about everything we don’t know.

Expansion

One thing we can agree on. The universe is getting bigger. We call this expansion. The opposite of contraction.

Every time someone writes something like ‘one thing we can agree on,; it invariably ends up being not true. As such is life.

Ever watch the weather report on television, where masses of colours and arrows are moving around a screen and it’s hard to tell exactly what they mean so you just focus on laughing at the weatherperson’s hair? They usually say something about the Doppler Effect. The Doppler Effect is named after someone whose last name might be Doppler. I don’t know. But the Doppler Effect is important because it’s how we perceive changes in the frequencies of waves.

Specifically, changes in the frequencies of sound and light wave frequencies. Again, the important word is perceived. The way we perceive sound or light to be changing as it moves toward us or away from us. For example, when a loud sound is coming toward you, you perceive the sound waves to be closer and therefore higher-pitched. And of course the inverse: moving away, lower frequency.

So scientists use this to gauge whether stars and planets are moving closer to us or farther away. Just like with sound, light waves are either close together or far apart. If a planet is moving toward us, the wave is compressed and we perceive it as more of a blue colour.

If a planet or star is moving away...it will have more of a red-ish colour. And guess what: the light we’re seeing from many forms outside our galaxy is on the red end of the spectrum. Meaning...what again?

So there’s that.

next chapter - formation of solar system >