Our Mysterious Universe
A FEW years ago, astronomers thought they understood the heavens quite thoroughly. Earth’s physical laws seemed adequate to explain distant phenomena. But today they are not so confident. There is more and more talk about ‘new laws of physics.’ Why?
Baffling new mysteries have presented themselves. The problem of solving these is not entirely due to lack of information. Actually, voluminous amounts of astronomical facts have been accumulated. There is uncertainty, however, as to their meaning. Yet, this should not be too surprising when one considers the enormous size of the universe.
The sun, central part of our solar system, is over ninety million miles from the earth. But this solar system is itself only a tiny fraction of the Milky Way Galaxy, which measures some 100,000 light-years across. (A light-year is almost six trillion miles!) This entire galaxy might contain another 100 billion suns. And yet the whole universe may have that many galaxies. Yes, the “edge” of the universe is possibly a staggering twelve billion light-years away!
Astronomers are finding that the whole universe is laced with dilemmas for them. Consider, for instance, our own small corner of this universe, our solar system.
Mysteries in Our Solar System
The solar system of which our earth is a part has always presented mysteries. Though the ancients had some knowledge of the motions of the heavenly bodies, many theories have changed. Ptolemy, about 150 years after Jesus’ birth, taught that the motionless earth was the center of the universe. His error stayed largely unquestioned until the time of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). The sun, he argued, not the earth, is the center of the solar system.
But there was more to be learned. Not until 1781, with the discovery of Uranus, was it known that there are more than six planets in our own solar system. Neptune was not found until 1846. And Pluto was first actually sighted down in fairly recent times, in 1930. But today, do men really understand our solar system? Is it now free from mystery?
Some authorities assert that there may be another, a tenth planet in our solar system. One astronomer predicts its existence on the basis of Halley’s Comet. He believes that an unknown planet exerts pull on the comet, causing it to have an ever-widening orbit around the sun and accounting for a “delay” of a few days in its appearance every seventy-six years.
Then there are asteroids. These are hundreds of small bodies, minor planets that float between Mars and Jupiter. From where did they come? No one knows for sure. Current theory says that they are the material for a planet that never formed. Asteroids are called one more “mystery of the skies.”
So, even now, knowledge of our own solar system remains unsure. Understandably, Zdenek Kopal in The Solar System (1973) admits: “Most of our knowledge of the solar system has been acquired so recently that a book on this subject written only ten years ago would read like Latin or Greek in comparison.”
But there are even larger mysteries shaking some long-cherished theories.
Quasars, Pulsars and “Black Holes”
Says Worlds Beyond Ours: “Of all objects in the sky none have proven so perplexing and troublesome as the mysterious sources of energy known as quasars.” What are quasars?
“Quasar” is a shortened name for quasi-stellar radio sources. (Quasi-stellar, derived from Latin, means ‘as if a star.’) When first observed in 1960, quasars were dubbed with this name because it was thought that they were distant stars. Soon, however, it was evident that they were something else. Now they are often considered small galaxies. Many books just call them “objects.” But what makes them outstanding?
The tremendous amount of energy that quasars produce for their relatively small size. Some radiate about 100,000 billion times as much light and energy as our own sun. This would be like a flashlight that shines as brightly as a large metropolitan city!
Then, too, there is quasar speed. All galaxies are believed to be rushing away from one another at fantastic speeds. But some quasars are thought to be moving away at even greater speeds. They are usually considered to be the farthest material thing from the earth, maybe even twelve billion light-years away. How are such estimates made?
On the basis of what is called “red shift.” Light appears to travel in a wave-like pattern. As it passes through a prism, longer waves produce a deep-red color; the shorter ones are bluish. The process of “red shift” maybe illustrated with a train whistle. As a train approaches you (causing the sound waves to shorten), the whistle’s pitch seems to rise. However, after passing (and as the sound waves lengthen), the pitch drops. Light waves behave in a similar way. According to the “red shift” rule, objects leaving the earth have a longer wave length and so produce an increased amount of red shift. On this basis, quasars are thought to be the most distant objects in the universe. But there is still more to the quasar mystery.
To some experts, they imply contradictions to Einstein’s theory, on which most views of the universe are based. His theory says that nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light. Yet some scientists claim to have found that parts of one quasar are traveling away from each other at ten times the speed of light!
Rather than say that Einstein is wrong, many now argue that it is the red-shift rule that is in error. One argument says that quasars are really closer than they appear and that their red shift results from ‘spectral tricks.’ Another claims that the weight of quasar material has changed through millions of years, giving a misleading red-shift impression. Nevertheless, a few astronomers are willing to accept the possibility that Einstein’s theory, if not wrong, is incomplete.
The debate goes on. What are the mysterious quasars? No sound answers have come forth. The mystery only intensifies. But other heavenly phenomena also baffle scientific brains.
There are pulsars, for instance. These are generally thought to be neutron stars that emit periodic bursts of radio “noise.” So unexpected was their discovery back in 1968 that even experienced, well-educated astronomers at first speculated that the signals pulsars put out might be from men living in another world trying to contact ours.
Then, too, there are questions about mysterious X-ray sources and so-called “missing matter” in space. Perhaps, goes current speculation, clouds of matter in space are absorbed by “black holes.” What does this mean?
It is believed—and remember that this is largely speculation—that when a very large star “burns out,” its inner atoms collapse under tremendous weight, resulting in a dense object. Yet, so the theory goes, it retains a strong gravitational field; no light can escape. It is theorized that matter from companion stars is absorbed into this “black hole.” Does this matter then go ‘someplace else,’ into a system of antimatter, scientists ask? Even the question seems mysterious. And men have no answer.
Are “new laws of physics” really needed to answer the questions raised in the last few years? Some say so. But D. W. Sciama of Oxford says that a new discovery usually does not call for a “new law” but “usually shows that we have failed to work out some of the consequences of the laws already known. The unexpected discovery of radio galaxies, and of the quasi-stellar objects . . . are probably examples of such failures. As such they are dramatic reminders of the enormous gaps in our understanding of the behaviour of matter in bulk [such as stars, galaxies, and similar heavenly matter].”—Modern Cosmology, 1971.
The Bible and Astronomy
Since there are “enormous gaps in our understanding of the behaviour of matter in bulk,” why should men question what the Bible says about certain astronomical events? Yet many do. Some persons will challenge what the Bible says, for instance, about the sun and moon being motionless in the days of Joshua. Do you recall that event? The Bible account reads:
“Joshua proceeded to speak to Jehovah on the day of Jehovah’s abandoning the Amorites to the sons of Israel, and he went on to say before the eyes of Israel: ‘Sun, be motionless over Gibeon, and, moon, over the low plain of Aijalon.’ Accordingly the sun kept motionless, and the moon did stand still, until the nation could take vengeance on its enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun kept standing still in the middle of the heavens and did not hasten to set for about a whole day. And no day has proved to be like that one, either before it or after it, in that Jehovah listened to the voice of a man, for Jehovah himself was fighting for Israel.”—Josh. 10:12-14.
Even some religious persons have questioned this account. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “In terms of modern science and modern theology it is just as impossible for God to obey man as it is for the sun to stand still.” (1967; Volume XIII, page 795) But on what basis can solar behavior be called “impossible”? No human, of course, not even one who believes the Bible, can definitely explain how the sun stood still. But should that shake one’s faith in the Bible? No. As we have seen, men today do not understand the mysterious astronomical events taking place right now. But who can deny that they do take place? No one.
God could, as Creator, if he wished, stop the motions of the whole solar system. Or, he could stop the motion of only the earth so that sun and moon appeared to remain in the same position as viewed from the earth. On the other hand, it is possible that the sun, moon and earth all continued on in their regular movements, but that the light from sun and moon ceaselessly shone by some form of refraction that we do not now understand. In any event, this was a truly unique event, for the Bible says that “no day has proved to be like that one, either before it or after it, in that Jehovah listened to the voice of a man.”
The simple reasoning of Henry Cooke in the last century is still valid regarding this Biblical event:
“Were even philosophers better acquainted with the causes of the annual and diurnal [daily] movements of the heavenly bodies, they would be better able to judge of this miracle. Though all miracles are alike easy to Omnipotence, it may still be fact, that some order of exceeding simplicity effected what appears so stupendous to our eyes. Something perhaps more simple than the stopping of the pulsation of the heart, . . . Had syncope, or fainting, never been witnessed but once some thousands of years ago, it would appear as incredible to modern physiologists as the standing still of the sun to infidel philosophers.”
The humble person knows that the question that Jehovah God asked Job is still proper: “Have you come to know the statutes of the heavens?” The answer is still, No! (Job 38:33) Such a person is overwhelmed at the thought that the Maker of the vast heavens even condescends to deal with men. Said the Bible writer David: “When I see your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have prepared, what is mortal man that you keep him in mind, and the son of earthling man that you take care of him?”—Ps. 8:3, 4.
Such humble persons will take time to learn about this marvelous God. And, rather than challenge Him or His Word, such one will seek to harmonize his own life with God’s changeless standards.
[Picture on page 13]
Astronomers say there are nine planets in our solar system. Is there also a tenth one?
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There may be 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Do laws of earth’s physics apply the same way in all these galaxies?