Thy Power Throughout the Universe Displayed
by Pamela L. Gay
Being a total science nerd and a Christian is something I’ve come to realize isn’t exactly common. I wish I knew how to change that. I see in history and in our modern society all the things that got us to this weird social reality. I understand this reality, but I absolutely hate it. I just want to say to everyone I meet, “The Andromeda galaxy is the only object not in our galaxy that you can see with your unaided eye, and this will only become more true over time because while the universe is expanding most things away from us, the Andromeda and the Milky Way are gravitationally pulling together, and in several billion years, we’re going to merge into one galaxy and then there will be no objects outside our galaxy we can see… but there will also be no more Earth at that point for unrelated reasons, so there will be other things to worry about…” Basically, I just want to share my scientific excitement with people in run on sentences, and have them be excited back. (Are you excited? Do you have questions? I love to answer science questions!)
One of the most amazing truths we take for granted is that science allows us to understand our world and the universe beyond. If our God is visible in all creation, shouldn’t we take joy in science?
In 1993, I was given the opportunity to attend the Urbana missions conference. One moment still stands out in my memory for accidentally articulating how a Christian faith can naturally co-exist with a scientific curiosity. At the podium was Neil Anderson, a missionary from the Wycliffe Bible Translators. He was describing an encounter with a young man in Papua New Guinea who was brought to God by a traveling pastor. The pastor had preached on a passage from Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world the invisible attributes of God’s eternal power and divine nature have been clearly understood and perceived through the things he has made,” (Romans 1:20). Our God is the God that has made everything including our hands. On hearing this, the young man looked at his hand, and he knew, in that moment, he wanted to know the God behind such an awesome creation. I, who grew up knowing God, had a different reaction: I wanted to learn to know his creation.
To be clear, doing science isn’t how I worship, but it is worship for some. I don’t find a meditative peace in doing advanced maths, but others do. We each walk our own path. For me, the study of astronomy is a mix of “Oh, wow - how does that happen?” with a side of “Wait, I have to do what [math/experiment/observation] now?” and a dessert of “Well, look at that new thing we discovered.” For me, science is a struggle that can sometimes lead to new knowledge, to new questions, and to a strengthened desire to keep struggling forward to learn more.
I have often been asked, “But how can you reconcile the story of creation with the Big Bang?” The easy way out would be to say “It’s just an allegory or parable.” But that is an incomplete answer. Jesus showed in his teachings the power of using parables to convey ideas people otherwise aren’t prepared to hear. This idea is developed throughout the epistles, where Peter and Paul both refer to how (in the context of spiritual development) we each must start by drinking milk before we are ready to be fed meat (1 Corinthians 3:2,1 Peter 2:2, Hebrews 5:12-13). When I look at my cosmology book, which dwarfs my Bible in the bookcase, I see a book that is aged-steak — it has taken humans thousands of years to reach the point where we can digest it. The story of our creation — a story in which God separates the light from the darkness — is a concise analogy for explaining a universe that requires quantum mechanics to a society that didn’t yet have the concept of zero.
From today’s science, I know that in the beginning, our Universe sprang forth from a single point, and all that was and all that ever will be came into being. Science can’t tell us what was before, or what is beyond this universe; those are questions that go beyond scientific inquiry. Science can only tell us what happened next: that the single point expanded, and for nearly 400,000 years, everything in the universe was a growing mixture of light and particles. And as it expanded, the universe cooled until one day it became cool enough that the light separated from the matter. Thus ended the primordial era.
As the universe continued to expand, for some millions of years it was nothing but gasses. This was the dark age of our universe.
We don’t know when the first star began to light our universe, but we do know that within a few 100 million years after the Big Bang, our universe transformed from an almost smooth distribution of gas into something full of stars and galaxies, separated by voids of nothingness. By 600 million years (maybe earlier), the dark ages were over and the age of stars had begun.
It would take several generations of stars to transform the hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang into the diversity of atoms needed to build planets and moons. The new space telescope JWST is going to help us understand just how long this took and will tell us when the universe became chemically complex enough to form solar systems like ours.
Our own solar system formed about 5.5 billion years ago, and life got started around a billion years after that. The story of life is the story for others to tell and is also vast in its complexity and in its potential for wonder and surprise. Did you know, for example, birds are just dinosaurs? When you look a shoebill in the eye and feel a sense of danger, know it is justified; you’re looking at a relative of the T. Rex.
A just and loving God would not have told his children the same story of creation that I see in my cosmology books. He would tell them the story of Genesis and remind them that he is self-evident in all creation as a way to encourage them to look, to learn, and to discover him.
Stuart Hine’s adaption of Carl Boberg’s hymn compels us to ask, “How great Thou art?” With modern telescopes, I can look through more than 13 billion years of space and see “Thy power throughout the universe displayed.” And what I see is still limited; there is so much more that we don’t know, that we can’t see, and that we have yet to learn. The fullness of our universe is beyond our ability to comprehend. “Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, … How great Thou art!”
I am a science nerd and I am a Christian. There are no conflicts here except those created by imperfect humans. Please, set any anti-science social influence aside and look at what is out there waiting to be understood.
I want to tell you so many things. Did you know the day is getting a bit longer every year, so someday we really will have more hours in the day? Or that Earth may be the only world with humans, but there are robots (some dead) on the Moon, Mars, Venus, and Titan? Or that if the typical human was spaghettified by a blackhole, the 1 atom-wide spiral string of former human would stretch for more than 70 light years? And that while no humans have actually been spaghettified, there is a gas cloud near the black hole in the center of the Milky Way that is totally getting stretched out as it nears the black hole? And that…? There is so much I want to share. And I know all these things because we have the capacity to understand our universe and see the glory in all creation.
How great is the power throughout the universe displayed.
Pamela L. Gay
As an astronomer, technologist, and creative focused on using new media to engage people in learning and doing science, Pamela Gay splits her time between communicating science and developing technology to advance science. Join her as we map our Solar System in unprecedented detail through citizen science projects at CosmoQuest.org, and learn astronomy through media productions like Astronomy Cast. Gay was inducted into the podcasting Hall of Fame in 2018 and the received the American Humanist Association's Asimov Science Award in 2019.