Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Heavens Declare

One of our goals for this summer is to visit some of the interesting sites around southern Arizona before we leave for another term working overseas. Last week we made our first excursion, visiting the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Kitt Peak is located about 60 miles southwest of Tucson, so it's an easy day trip. Our kids were a bit skeptical about how interesting it would be, but I think we all came away impressed.

Kitt Peak is one of the premier sites for astronomy in the world. On this single small mountain there are 24 telescopes, a solar observatory and 2 radio telescopes. There is also a small visitor's center where you can learn about the observatories and astronomy. The day we visited the skies were a bit overcast and it was very windy so there were few visitors. In fact, we were able to get an almost personal tour of one of the telescopes. (We were accompanied by two German astronomists who work with the solar telescope.) The 4m Mayall telescope was the second largest in the world when it was completed in 1970. Now, because of advances in astronomy and the art of casting telescopic mirrors, it is only a mid-sized but is still actively used. Nonetheless, it was a pretty amazing piece of engineering.

The magnitude of the telescopes themselves was quite fascinating to me. But even more stimulating was the information about the universe presented in the visitor center. I have not studied astronomy much (I think the only time I really studied it at all was in 9th grade!), so while I am in general familiar with general information about the universe, I hadn't really reflected on it. Perhaps you were already aware that the Milky Way galaxy alone is 100,000 light years across, a light year measuring approximately 5,878,630,000,000 miles. The numbers boggle the mind! But the Milky Way is only one of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The nearest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is located 1.29 parsecs away, a parsec equalling approximately 3.262 light years. The distances are incredible.

As I tried to grasp in some limited way these vast numbers and distances, the improbability of life arising by chance on some small planet such as ours stood out to me. The conditions for life to occur are so specific. If our sun were a bit smaller and hotter, or larger, or closer or more distant, then life would not be sustainable. Yet here we are. One can attribute this to random natural selection, or one can admit that such specific detail points to an intelligent creator. If I were an astronomer, I think I would be overwhelmed by the display of God's hand in the universe. This is precisely what the Psalmist stated when he wrote:

The heavens declare the glory of God the skies proclaim the work of his hand

Similarly Isaiah proclaimed:

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength not one of them is missing.

Imagine that: human astronomers have only begun to study the stars in the sky. Most stars are given a simply letter and number designation, although some have fuller names. But God knows the name of every star in the universe already! Next time you look up at the night sky, reflect on this and remember the awesome and incredible Creator who shaped this universe and holds it together.

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