Lost in space?

  • Written by Kevin Birnbaum
  • Published in NW Stories
Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock

Does the size of the universe mean we don’t matter?

The night sky, in its vastness and beauty, has always had a way of getting to people — filling us with awe, making us feel small, and prompting us to question our place in the universe. Such reactions are evident in the Book of Psalms, where the psalmist says to God: “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place — What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4-5)

The discoveries of modern astronomy seem to heighten the sense of disorientation, revealing a cosmos much older and larger than our minds can fathom. As far as scientists can tell, the universe is 13.8 billion years old and contains something like 100 billion galaxies and perhaps a septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars.

So what are we supposed to do with this information? Most people seem to intuit that the mindboggling magnitude of the cosmos must mean something — but what?

Some see the immensity of the universe, and Earth’s relative tininess, and conclude that we are utterly insignificant and that there is almost certainly no God. As Stephen Hawking has been quoted as saying: “We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburbs of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us or even notice our existence.” Rather, everything boils down to the laws of physics, we are the products of mere chance, and both the universe and human existence ultimately have no meaning.

The English writer G.K. Chesterton amusingly derided “this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man” in his 1908 book Orthodoxy. “Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale?” he wrote. “It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.”

On the other hand, a Christian may look at the universe and see a reflection of God’s infinity and creativity. This is the approach of the psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” (Psalm 19:2) It is also the approach of Chris Suberlak, a Ph.D. student in astronomy at the University of Washington — but it wasn’t always.

‘Science wouldn’t make sense without God’

Suberlak has loved science since childhood, when his father would bring home astronomy books and show him the stars through binoculars. “I’ve always seemed to be a scientist,” he said. “I always was inspired by looking at the night sky.”

He was not, however, always a believer. The Catholicism of his native Poland struck him as hollow, and although he received the sacraments, by high school he considered himself an atheist.

In 2008, he moved to Great Britain to study physics at Oxford University. To practice his English, he visited a Christian café, where he ended up engaged in debates about faith. He argued with everything the Christians said, but eventually some of their arguments started to make sense.

“I ended up being asked this question: Do you consider a universe which has matter and is ruled by natural laws a better explanation to your life than a universe that is filled with matter and natural laws and also a spiritual component?”

The question got to the heart of Suberlak’s “existential crisis” over the apparent pointlessness of life in a Godless universe, and he realized that an atheistic, materialistic worldview couldn’t answer life’s inescapable questions: “Why should you love? What does it mean to love? What does it mean to exist?”

As Suberlak continued to debate and study, he came to believe that some of the foundational assumptions of science — that the universe is consistent and intelligible — actually imply the existence of God.

“Science wouldn’t make any sense without God,” he said. “It wouldn’t, very simply, because God made the universe out of love. If he made it out of love, therefore he made it ordered. … This order brings certainty that if I am looking for some intrinsic laws of the universe, they should exist. That’s a huge axiom that people assume, but if there is no God, why should they assume that? The universe doesn’t have to be ordered at all. It could be that in one part of the universe the laws are completely different than elsewhere.

“So the homogeneity of the natural laws of physics is a huge assumption,” he said, “and for me, only with God it makes sense to assume that they are everywhere the same.”

Chris SuberlakChris Suberlak studies light that was emitted before the Earth formed. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Praising God by studying creation

Suberlak began attending an evangelical church, and throughout his studies at Oxford he also poured himself into studying the Christian faith. After graduating with his master’s degree in 2012, he started a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences at Oxford, but he was dissatisfied because he wasn’t doing what he loved.

“I felt that the vocation that [God] called me to is astronomy — to praise him by studying the beauty of his creation,” he said. He dropped out of Oxford in December, moved back to Poland and started applying to Ph.D. programs in astronomy.

While working in Warsaw in early 2013, he also felt the pull back to the Catholic Church, drawn in part by the church’s openness to science. After sorting out his evangelical objections to Catholic doctrine, he went to a Dominican parish during Holy Week and made his first confession since before high school. Receiving absolution for his sins “was very powerful,” he said, and he started going to Mass every day.

That September, Suberlak came to Seattle to study astronomy at the University of Washington. He was welcomed by the Dominican priests on campus, who invited him to stay at the Newman Center and the priory at Blessed Sacrament Church while he looked for housing.

Suberlak’s research at UW focuses on quasars, members of a class of objects called “active galactic nuclei” that produce jets of highly energetic particles bright enough to be detected across the universe.

The quasars he studies are so distant that their light has taken up to 5 billion years to reach us, he said, “which means it was emitted before Earth formed.”

‘The more you know, the more beautiful it is’

Such massive spans of time and space drive home the fact that humans “are even tinier than we thought we were,” Suberlak said — but that doesn’t mean we don’t matter.

“I know there are people who would claim that the fact that we are so tiny … means that we are insignificant, but you can look at it from another perspective and think: We have what we need, and God made the universe for us to have what we need. Isn’t that great?”

He added: “My point of view is that the vastness of the universe points to the greatness of God, and it just makes God more and more and more, myself less and less and less, and it makes me more and more grateful for the fact that God chose us to save us — he sent his only Son to die for us. So the bigger the universe is, the bigger our gratefulness.”

Suberlak’s study thus strengthens his faith, and his faith also makes him a better scientist, helping him to grow in the patience necessary for his work. Unraveling the mysteries of the universe is rarely as glamorous as it sounds. His research consists largely of sitting in front of a computer, reading scientific papers, writing computer programs and analyzing data.

“Perhaps it’s going to involve days of trying to focus on just one tiny bit of information, and God gives me grace to go for it,” he said. “At the moment I’m trying to understand the variability of quasars, the variability of these jets that are pointed toward us. The intensity fluctuates, and we don’t really know why.”

The work may be tedious, but every new scientific discovery “makes our perception of the world richer, and therefore it makes us appreciate the beauty of creation in a deeper sense,” Suberlak said.

“The more you know, the more beautiful it is.”

Just how big is the universe?

solar system
Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists say the universe may contain a septillion (that’s a 1 followed by 24 zeros) stars — more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth. And those stars are really, really far apart.

At Lake Sacajawea Park in Longview, there’s a model of our solar system — the sun and the planets that orbit it — that shrinks everything down to about 1-to-2.3 billion scale, so that the sun is 2 feet in diameter and the Earth is less than a quarter of an inch wide — about the same size as in the illustration at right. But in the scale model, that tiny Earth is more than 200 feet from the sun, and you have to walk more than 1.6 miles to get from the sun to Pluto (which in 2006 was “demoted” to dwarf planet status).

But that’s nothing: The next nearest star would be 11,000 miles away — in India. And even on such a miniature scale, traveling from one end of our Milky Way galaxy to the other would require the equivalent of more than 10,000 trips around the world.

And don’t forget, the Milky Way is just one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe.

Is the Church anti-science?

Far from it. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church extols the value of scientific research:

“Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man’s dominion over creation. Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all. By themselves however they cannot disclose the meaning of existence and of human progress. Science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits.” (CCC 2293) 

The Church and astronomy — beyond the ‘Galileo affair’

Ask most people about the Catholic Church’s history with astronomy, or science more broadly, and one name is sure to pop up: Galileo. In 1633, the astronomer was found guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy” by the Roman Inquisition for arguing that the Earth moves around the sun — not the proudest moment in the history of church-science relations.

But, as Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory (yes, there is such a thing), has written, “the painful, and well-acknowledged, mistake that the Church made in trying to silence Galileo is all the more stark when contrasted with the many more numerous times and places where Church-supported astronomers did get it right.” He highlights a few of the Catholic Church’s contributions to astronomy:

“Pope Gregory XII used astronomy to reform the calendar in 1582. Seventeenth-century Jesuits invented the reflecting telescope and the wave theory of light. In the 18th century they ran a quarter of all the astronomical observatories in Europe, and their missionaries ran most of the observatories outside Europe: their measurements helped determine the size of the solar system. In the 19th century, the Jesuit priest Angelo Secchi was the first to classify stars and planets by their color spectra, turning ‘astronomy’ into ‘astrophysics.’ And it was the 20th-century priest (though not a Jesuit, he was quick to point out!) Georges Lemaître who suggested that the universe began in a kind of cosmic explosion that came to be called the ‘Big Bang’ theory. Modern astronomy is fundamentally based on Church-supported astronomy.”

Source: Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic belief and the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, available at www.vofoundation.org/books-and-media.

What about extraterrestrials?

Are we alone in the universe? Or could there be other intelligent life out there, dwelling on planets orbiting any of the countless stars in our galaxy or beyond? It’s an irresistible question.

In May, Pope Francis speculated about what would happen if an expedition of Martians — “green, with long noses and big ears, just like children draw them” — came to Earth and asked to be baptized.

While scientists have found no signs of intelligent life on Mars (or anywhere else, for that matter), Vatican astronomer Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno has written about his “hunch” that there are other intelligent creatures somewhere out there: “I am not the first astronomer, nor the first religious believer, to see the amazing panoply of the stars in the sky at night and intuit that God’s fecund creativity couldn’t possibly just stop with us.”

Just contemplating the possibility of extraterrestrials can enrich our understanding of our relationship with God, he said: “Appreciating God as the Creator of a universe big enough to contain those billions and billions of galaxies and stars makes us realize just how immense God’s infinity must be. Asking what it would take for an ‘alien’ to have something like a ‘soul’ forces us to confront just what we mean when we use that word. Speculating on how Christ’s salvation could apply to other beings is a wonderful way to appreciate anew what that salvation means to us humans.”

So, are there extraterrestrials out there? And if so, what would that mean for Christian understandings of original sin, the Incarnation and Christ’s redemptive act? At this point, we just don’t know — the questions remain open to speculation.

But, said Brother Consolmagno, our speculation must be bounded by two facts: “First, whatever is out there, it is the creation of a loving God. And second, regardless of what God may or may not do with the rest of creation, nothing out there can contradict what we know He has done here for us.”

Source: Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic belief and the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, available at www.vofoundation.org/books-and-media

 Northwest Catholic - Nov. 2014