Lessons Learned From the Universe
“I don’t pretend to understand the Universe—it’s a great deal bigger than I am.”—Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881.
A HUNDRED years later, we have a better idea of how much bigger than we are the universe really is. Although scientists understand a lot more than they did, their situation is still, as one astronomer described it, like that of “the 18th-century botanists in the jungle finding all those new flowers.”
Despite our limited knowledge, certain conclusions can be drawn. And these conclusions have to do with the most important questions of all—how the universe works, and how it got here in the first place.
Order Rather Than Chaos
The study of the nature of the universe is called cosmology. That term is derived from two Greek words, kosmos and logos, indicating ‘the study of order or harmony.’ This is an apt name because order is precisely what astronomers encounter, whether they investigate the motion of celestial bodies or the matter of which the cosmos is composed.
Everything in our universe is in motion, and the movement is neither erratic nor unpredictable. Planets, stars, and galaxies move through space according to precise physical laws, laws that enable scientists to predict certain cosmic phenomena with unerring accuracy. And incredibly, the four fundamental forces that control the tiniest atom also govern the mightiest galaxies.
Order is also manifest in the very stuff of which the universe is built. “Matter is . . . organised on all scales from very small to very large,” explains The Cambridge Atlas of Astronomy. Far from being randomly distributed, matter is structured in an orderly way, whether it is the way electrons are linked to the protons and neutrons of the atomic nucleus or it is the mutual attraction that binds together an enormous cluster of galaxies.
Why does the universe reveal such order and harmony? Why are there transcendent laws ruling it? Since these laws must have existed before the origin of the universe—otherwise they could not control it—the logical question is: Where did they come from?
Famous scientist Isaac Newton concluded: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”
Physicist Fred Hoyle said: “The origin of the Universe, like the solution of the Rubik cube, requires an intelligence.” The conclusion that there must be a supernatural Lawgiver is confirmed by our understanding of the origin of the universe.
The Ultimate Question: How Did the Universe Get Here?
Theoretical physicist Hawking explains: “The early universe holds the answer to the ultimate question about the origin of everything we see today, including life.” What exactly is the present scientific view of the early universe?
In the 1960’s, scientists detected faint background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This radiation was said to be a reverberation coming from the primeval explosion that astronomers have christened the big bang. So enormous was the explosion, they say, that its echo could still be detected billions of years later.a
But if the universe suddenly exploded into existence between 15 billion and 20 billion years ago, as most physicists now believe (though that is hotly contested by others), a crucial question arises. Where did the original energy come from? In other words, what came before the big bang?
This is a question that many astronomers prefer to dodge. One of them confessed: “Science has proved that the world came into being as a result of forces that seem forever beyond the power of scientific description. This bothers science because it clashes with scientific religion—the religion of cause and effect, the belief that every effect has a cause. Now we find that the biggest effect of all, the birth of the universe, violates this article of faith.”
An Oxford University professor wrote more pointedly: “The first cause of the universe is left for the reader to insert. But our picture is incomplete without him.” The Bible, however, sets matters straight, identifying “the first cause” by saying: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”—Genesis 1:1.
The simplest lesson the universe teaches us is the most obvious one, one that proud medieval man strove to ignore but one that Biblical poets humbly acknowledged millenniums ago—that of man’s insignificance.
Recent discoveries reinforce King David’s realistic appraisal: “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?”—Psalm 8:3, 4.
Astronomy has unveiled the immensity and the majesty of the cosmos—the stars of Gargantuan proportions, the distances beyond imagination, the aeons of time that defy comprehension, the cosmic furnaces that generate temperatures of millions of degrees, the eruptions of energy that dwarf a billion nuclear bombs. Yet, all of this is well described in the book of Job: “Look! These are the fringes of his ways, and what a whisper of a matter has been heard of him! But of his mighty thunder who can show an understanding?” (Job 26:14) The more we learn about the universe, the scantier our knowledge appears, and the smaller our own place in it becomes. For the objective observer, it is a sobering lesson.
Isaac Newton admitted: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
The humility that such comprehension should stir in us will help us to acknowledge that there is One who created the universe, One who established the laws that govern it, One who is far greater and wiser than we are. As the book of Job reminds us: “With him there are wisdom and mightiness; he has counsel and understanding.” (Job 12:13) And that is the most important lesson of all.
As more secrets of the universe are unlocked, even greater mysteries are uncovered. A future article will discuss some of the latest discoveries that are now puzzling astronomers and raising new questions that are fueling debates among cosmologists.
a Just as a stone thrown into a pond forms ripples on the water, so this theoretical first explosion formed “ripples” of microwave radiation, which is what scientists believe they are picking up with their sensitive radio antennae, ripples described by one writer as “the hissing echoes of creation.”
[Picture on page 10]
Apparatus for detecting background radiation from the theoretical big bang
Courtesy of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics