On a clear night in the Outback thousands of stars are visible to the naked eye. An arch of pale wispy light is also seen spanning the heavens – this is known as the Milky Way – our home galaxy in this vast universe that God has created. In Medieval times, the universe was considered to be very limited in extent. The Earth was placed at the centre of the universe around which the sun, moon, stars and five naked-eye planets revolved on crystal spheres. The heavens were thought to be eternal and unchangeable and that all heavenly bodies travelled around the Earth in perfect circles. This view is of course understandable from our vantage point here on the Earth as it does look as if the sun, moon and stars revolve around the Earth. This view of the heavens, as espoused by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, held sway in the European world for about 1400 years until challenged by Copernicus.

During this period no one would disagree with Psalm 19:1–2: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” However, no one in the Medieval world would have dreamed of the sheer scale and complexity of the universe as revealed by modern telescopes.

The multiplicity of stars

God promised Abraham He would give him a seed as numerous as the sand on the sea shore and the stars in the heaven: “… in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore…” (Gen 22:17). When Abraham looked up at the unpolluted skies of Canaan he would not have been able to see more than about 3,000 stars. From time to time, Abraham may have walked along the beach on the shores of the Mediterranean and picked up a handful of sand and looked closely at the individual grains. Maybe Abraham would have wondered at the fact that there were many more grains of sand on the beach than stars in the sky – in fact it is easy to pick up more grains of sand by hand than there are stars visible to the naked eye.

Amazingly, modern telescopes have revealed that there are at least ten times as many stars in the visible universe than grains of sand on every beach and desert on the entire planet! The universe is known to be bigger than the furthest extent that can be seen with the largest telescopes, but just how much bigger is unknown. So, modern telescopes give us a new insight into God’s promises to Abraham that the numbers of grains of sand on the seashore and stars in the sky are comparable. Incredibly, we are told that unimaginably vast though the number of stars is, God has a name for each of them, as we read in Psalm 147:1,3,4: “Praise ye the Lord… he healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds. He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names. Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.”

Some idea of the immense number of stars in the universe can be gauged by looking at a photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) known as Hubble Deep Field North (figure 1). The HST is in orbit around the Earth and so the view of the heavens is untarnished by the atmosphere. There is an interesting story surrounding this photograph. Prior to the taking of this photo, this patch of sky appeared to be completely empty – no ground-based telescope had ever seen any stars in this patch of sky. A team of astronomers decided to point the HST at this apparently empty patch of sky for a total of ten 24-hour days. Apart from the Arctic and Antarctic circles, space is the only place that this can be done as there are no cycles of day and night. The group of people responsible for organising the telescope schedule, known as the Time Allocation Committee (TAC) agonised over whether to allocate time to this particular project. If the photo revealed nothing then they could have been criticised for wasting ten days of extremely valuable telescope time. On the other hand if something was seen this would be extremely interesting. As you can guess, the time was allocated and revealed the picture shown in figure 1.

One of the remarkable aspects of this photo is that only four stars are visible (these stars belong to our galaxy, the Milky Way). The four stars can be identified from the projecting rays. These rays are not real but are artefacts known as diffraction patterns produced by light passing through the entrance of the telescope. Every other point of light you can see, even the smallest smudge of light is a galaxy containing at least 100 billion stars! This photograph was featured in a Sunday Times magazine article (24th March 1996) and at the end of the article, the journalist, Peter Millar, said that the Hubble telescope “… has proved that God still has the best special effects.”

The solar cycle and wheat production

There is evidence that cosmic radiation streaming from the distant galaxies is involved in the formation of clouds on the earth. This connection was first made by two Israeli scientists, who published a paper[1] showing a correlation between the price of wheat in Medieval England and the sunspot cycle. The research showed that the price of wheat was lower during times of high numbers of sun spots and vice versa. The fluctuation in price followed the 22-year solar cycle. Every 22 years, the sun goes through a period called solar maximum in which the number of sunspots seen on the surface of the sun reaches a maximum. The number of sunspots then diminishes over the next eleven years until solar minimum is reached when sunspots virtually disappear from the face of the sun. The number of sunspots builds again until the solar maximum is reached eleven years later, repeating the 22-year cycle.

During periods of high sunspot activity the surface of the sun is stormier and so a stream of charged particles (electrons and protons) known as the solar wind is greater than at times when there are fewer sunspots. The solar wind is ‘caught’ by the Earth’s magnetic field. Some of the particles are channelled around the Earth and some down onto the Polar Regions creating the northern and southern lights. When Earth’s magnetic field is ‘clogged’ up by the solar wind a barrier is created which reduces the number of cosmic rays penetrating down into the atmosphere. A cosmic ray streaming through the atmosphere creates a trail of electrified air known as an ionisation track, which enables water vapour to condense into clouds. When fewer cosmic rays get through, there are fewer ionisation tracks and hence fewer clouds, which results in sunnier and drier conditions – good for growing wheat. The increased supply of wheat decreases the price.

Conversely, when there are fewer sunspots, more cosmic rays are able to get down into the atmosphere producing cloudier and wetter conditions reducing the supply of wheat and hence raising the price. Further research is being conducted to investigate this apparent ‘balancing act’ between the solar wind and cosmic rays. This is remarkable corroboration of Job – “Dost thou know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him which is perfect in knowledge?” (Job 37:16).

He hath stretched out the heavens

When the light from distant galaxies is analysed using large telescopes the light appears to have been stretched, a phenomenon known as ‘red shifting’. ‘Red shifting’ occurs with sound as well as light and we often come across this when a fire engine or anything else with a siren passes by – the pitch of the siren goes from high to low as the fire engine passes. This occurs because as the fire engine moves away the sound coming from the siren is stretched and we perceive the sound as being lower in pitch. The sound is not actually lower in pitch; the effect is entirely due to the relative motion of the fire engine and us. If we were in a car, following the fire engine at a constant speed, there would be no change in pitch. The change in the pitch of sound or frequency of light is known as the Doppler effect. The police use the Doppler effect to detect speeding cars using either microwaves or laser beams.

The stretching out of the light from distant galaxies indicates that the space between the galaxies has been stretched. One way of thinking about this is to imagine a lump of dough containing raisins in a bread maker. As the dough expands due to the action of the yeast, the raisins gradually separate – in fact every raisin moves away from every other raisin. The raisins are like the galaxies and the dough the space between galaxies.

Remarkably, the stretching of the heavens is referred to in Scripture: “He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heaven by his understanding” (Jer 51:15). Elsewhere, the heavens are described as being like a tent – “[God] stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in” (Isa 40:22). A tent starts out on the ground flat and as the poles are raised a space appears quite different from the outside – we step inside a tent and we’re in a different world with its own space. I personally find it amazing that we have verses in Scripture that accurately describe what is revealed by modern telescopes.

The sun – just right for life

When we look up at the sky on a clear night we notice that stars vary in apparent size and brightness. When we look carefully we notice that stars differ in colour – there are red stars such as Betelgeuse in Orion, white stars such as Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) and blue stars such as Spica. The colour of a star indicates the surface temperature. The surface of a red giant star such as Betelgeuse is at about 2,400 K[2], Sirius is 10,000 K and Spica 22,000 K. As the surface temperature increases, the colour changes from red to orange to yellow to blue. (There is no green due to the way our eyes are constructed). The Sun is a yellow star with a surface temperature of 5,800 K.

We might think that any star would do for the Earth to orbit, but this is not so. The Sun is just right for life. A red star would radiate too much infrared or heat radiation and the Earth would become too hot. A star hotter than our Sun would radiate too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation that would be very damaging to animals, plants and us. The relatively small increase in the amount of UV getting down to the ground due to the degradation of the ozone layer is already causing problems with an increase in the rate of skin cancer in Australia and is affecting some forms of aquatic life.

The range of light wavelengths radiating from our sun is in the middle of what is known as the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, that is, all the colours of the rainbow. This is particularly interesting as the visible spectrum is right next to the UV part of the spectrum in terms of wavelength. All wavelengths of light shorter than blue are harmful to life and are known as ionising radiation. Ionising radiation causes damage to tissues – as we are all very well aware if we stay out in the sun too long. The eye is designed to use the wavelength of light that produces the sharpest images without being harmful to tissue.

Our Sun is unusual in other ways – the brightness of the Sun is extremely constant not varying by more than 0.1 % – no star has yet been found as constant as our Sun[3]. If the brightness of the Sun were to fluctuate as much as some of the other stars in the sky there would be dire consequences for the life on Earth.

The Earth is just the right distance from the Sun in what astronomers call a ‘goldilocks’[4] orbit – not too hot and not too cold, but just right. Various teams of astronomers around the world are searching for planets around distant stars. A planet orbiting a star causes the star to wobble slightly and this wobble can be detected using the Doppler effect even though the planet is completely invisible in a telescope. In some cases a planet may pass in front of the parent star causing the light from the star to dim slightly.

The critical role of Jupiter

Over 270 so-called exosolar planets have been discovered so far. However, a surprising result is that not a single solar system similar to our own has been discovered. Although it is not yet possible to detect planets as small as our Earth it is possible to detect planets the size of Jupiter and Saturn. In our solar system, the planet Jupiter plays a vital role in protecting the Earth from being hit by comets coming in from deep space.

Jupiter is by far the most massive planet in the solar system and so a comet on an orbit likely to collide with the Earth is deflected away or is drawn into the planet, as was the case for comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) that slammed into Jupiter in July 1994. Comet SL9 was actually in orbit around Jupiter rather than the Sun and so must have been captured by Jupiter at some point in the past, possibly in the 1970s. When SL9 was discovered it had already broken into a number of pieces. The comet most probably fragmented by tidal forces as it passed close to Jupiter on the 7th July 1992.

Two years later, the orbit of SL9 brought it on a collision course with Jupiter (figure 2a). Between 16th and 22nd July 1994, 21 fragments slammed into Jupiter producing enormous explosions which pock marked the surface (figure 2b). The largest fragment produced a blotch 12,000 km across (equal to the diameter of the Earth) and the energy of this explosion was estimated at being equivalent to six million megatons of TNT; in other words about 750 times more powerful than the entire stockpile of nuclear weapons on the Earth! It is easy to see how the impact of a comet similar to SL9 could wipe out most forms of life on the Earth. Thankfully we have Jupiter standing guard. Accident or design?

A solar system similar to our Earth would need a Jupiter-like planet in a similar orbit to protect the inner solar system where there might be a planet capable of harbouring life. Exosolar systems have been discovered with Jupiter-like planets; however these are in orbits very different from Jupiter. For example, one of these planets is so close to its parent star that it orbits once every four days. Many of the planets have highly elliptical or egg-shaped orbits. These planets would be totally unsuitable for life, as they would experience extremes of temperature – alternating between fire and ice.

At the very least, these discoveries indicate that our solar system is special, which can be taken as further evidence of design, in accordance with: “For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord and there is none else” (Isa 45:18).

References

[1] Pustilnik, L.A., Yom Din, G. Influence of solar activity on state of wheat market in medieval England. Solar Physics, 223:335–356 (2004). This article can be downloaded for free from the NASA Astrophysical Database –in Google type in ‘NASA ADS’ and then the title of the article given above, click on ‘2004SoPh..223..335P’ followed by ‘arXiv e-print’ to download the file in PDF format.

[2] In science, the standard unit of temperature is degrees Kelvin given the symbol ‘K’. 0 K is  bsolute zero corresponding to -273 °C. So to convert from K to C, subtract 273.

[3] Radick, R.R., Lockwood, G.W., Skiff, B.A., Baliunas, S.L. Patterns of variation among sun-like stars. The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, 118:239È258, (1998)

[4] Yes, as in The Three Bears