Tag Archive: Astronomy


AMDG

image3_hubble_orbitWe live in an exciting golden-age of science, particularly in astronomy.  With the Hubble Telescope or the Voyager Spacecraft which is leaving our solar system ( the first man made objects to do so)  or even the Kepler Space Observatory spotting extra-solar planets. As we can see further and further our greatest scientists have been asking why does the universe appear to be “fine-tuned” for life?  The fact that we are here, able to observe and ask these questions, learn about laws of the universe, depends on the conditions for life to be present.  At the relatively ‘smaller’ level of our solar system – our planet is in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ – i.e. not too hot or cold  for water and therefore life to exist.  At larger galaxy / universe level, there are supposedly  6 dimensionless constants (i.e.  subatomic forces, how gravity interacts with different forces) that if they were slightly different would not permit life to exist anywhere in the universe.

Einstein’s equivalence principle, which states that the laws of physics are the same everywhere has just been brought into question due to research in Chile.  Analysis of the light from distant quasars in 2011 from data from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile showed that one of the constants of nature appears to be different in different parts of the cosmos, supporting the theory that our solar system is in an area of the Universe that is “just right” for life,.”This finding was a real surprise to everyone,” said John Webb of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “The implications for our current understanding of science are profound. If the laws of physics turn out to be merely “local by-laws”, it might be that whilst our observable part of the Universe favors the existence of life and human beings, other far more distant regions may exist where different laws preclude the formation of life, at least as we know it.

einstein-75dffc8af00c56b1cf93b7058f15af1360ac6bca-s6-c30These exciting discoveries seem can give strength to a recent addition to the classical formulations of the arguments for the existence of God.  The argument from intelligibility is one that Pope Benedict is largely responsible for.  As a young theologian the then Joseph  Ratzinger commences with the observation that finite being, as we experience it, is marked, through and through, by intelligibility, that it is to say, by a formal structure that makes it understandable to an inquiring mind.   In point of fact, all of the sciences – physics, chemistry, psychology, astronomy, biology, and so forth – rest on the assumption that at all levels, microscopic and macroscopic, being can be known.  Ratzinger argues that the only finally satisfying explanation for this universal objective intelligibility is a great Intelligence who has thought the universe into being.  Our language provides an intriguing clue in this regard, for we speak of our acts of knowledge as moments of “recognition,” literally a re-cognition, a thinking again what has already been thought.  Ratzinger cites Einstein in support of this connection: “in the laws of nature, a mind so superior is revealed that in comparison, our minds are as something worthless.”   In this Golden age of Astronomy and discovery of space – could it be  that growing proof of a more finely tuned universe than we originally imagined – gives strength to the argument from intelligibility?

 

 

 

 

 

AMDG

Arisaig – just to make you jealous ….

I am spending an unexpected week up in the West Highlands of Scotland in a beautiful place called Arisaig, helping out with a supply for the parish.  I am relishing the beautiful blue seas,  white / silver beaches and a welcome re-acquaintance with the sun ( I just saw on the news Edinburgh only had 1.6hrs of sun shine the first 10 days of July!).  Another great part of being up in the ‘remote’ highlands is that there is very little light pollution up here – so the nights can be very dark – perfect if you are an enthusiastic stargazer like me. There is nothing like spending an hour – in a comfortable spot, wrapped up warmly to gaze at the immensity of the heavens, counting shooting stars, identifying constellations, working out asterisms within the constellations,  squinting and trying to split binary stars with binoculars.  Planet spotting is great fun too – especially with the new apps on smartphones that effectively give you a portable planetarium.  Of course the planets do not generate light (unlike stars) but reflect the light from our star, the Sun, back to us.  I learnt that the technical term for the amount of light a celestial body reflects is Albedo and it is low for the Earth, as we reflect only about 0.36 percent of the light that comes in. The Moon is a bit better though and this week we can get the chance to see ‘Earth-shine’ reflected on the moons surface.

Earth Shine and the Old Moon in the New Moons arms – coming soon to a sky near you!

This week, everywhere, a new Moon is rising giving us a chance to bathe in this Earthshine, the light from the Earth that illuminates the Moon.  Right now is the perfect time to look for this enchanting phenomenon.  So if you look at the photo to the left – you will see a  new moon with about 10%  positioned so the sunlight hits it and bounces down to Earth (the bright bit).The rest of  the Moon, however, is positioned just right for the light from the sun to hit the Earth, bounce to the Moon, and come back down to the Earth again (the greyer 90%). That’s why we see, “The Old Moon in the New Moon’s arms.”  The best time to see it is just around sunset  when the reflected Earthshine is brightest.

Happy moon spotting!

AMDG

What is Brian Cox going to say about this wonder?

Today is the Epiphany –  the climax of Christmas Celebrations for many Christians.  In Spain today is the day for present giving – the Reyes Magos – remembering the gift of the Wise Men.  Children throng the streets as the wise men throw sweets to them from their motorised floats (having done away with camels).   But the story of the star – in fact much of the infancy narratives – these are just childs stories – not really historical – right?   Think again – there is surprising evidence that might stop you from going down the demythologisation‘ route too quickly.  Astronomy – and its close cousin Astrology – one of the oldest forms of ‘science’ – has a remarkable set of records, of positions of the stars, conjuctions with the wandering planets. So we can delve into history and see what was recorded in the heavens.  It is a spectacular conjunction of planets and stars of this type that some have argued gave rise to the star of Bethlehem. Others point towards a supernova.  If you are interested, two Jesuits working at the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno and Fr Chris Corbally have written fascinating articles about the historicity of the Star.

Why is the Epiphany so important for Christians? it underlies the cosmic significance of the God who crated the universe becoming man, it also shows the universal relevance of the incarnation – Jesus is for all – the Magi, the Wise Men from the East probably came from Iraq. And as the Pope beautifully said, ‘The wise men followed the star. Through the language of creation, they discovered the God of history.’  It is worth also mentioning that after the two volume ‘Jesus of Nazareth’,  Benedict has said he is considering publishing a monograph on the infancy narratives.

Something I discovered a couple of years ago was Arthur C. Clarke’s short story ‘‘The Star’’.  It is a fascinating twist on the Star of Bethlehem story – not very edifying I am afraid – but interesting and thought provoking. Reprinted in a collection of Clarke’s short stories in 1958. In his introduction to this collection, Clarke noted that he wrote the story for a contest in the London Observer on the subject ‘‘2500 AD.’’  The narrative is the interior monologue of the central character, a Jesuit astrophysicist. He is aboard a starship on a mission to investigate the causes of a supernova in a distant galaxy. He and the rest of the crew discover the artifacts of a highly developed civilization, carefully preserved on the only planet that remains in orbit around the supernova. Knowing that all life would be wiped out when their sun flared into a supernova, this advanced race of sentient beings left a record of who they were and what they accomplished. The pictures, sculptures, music, and other relics of a very human-like race doomed to destruction depress the crew and investigating scientists, who are far from their own homes and lonely. What the narrator has learned but not yet communicated to the others is that the supernova that destroyed this civilization was the Star of Bethlehem, which burned brightly in the sky to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. His discovery has caused him to reexamine and to question his own faith.

So I will leave the last words to the Pope – ‘ The great star, the true supernova that leads us on, is Christ himself. He is as it were the explosion of God’s love, which causes the great white light of his heart to shine upon the world. ‘

The Equinox in Manila

Manila is 14degrees North of Equator

So today is the Equinox – the sun directly over the Equator – equal hours of light and dark all over the planet.  Autumnal equinox if you are in the North and Spring if you are in the South.  Doesn’t affect us that much in Manila – being in the Tropics we have minimal seasonal variation.  It seems to get dark here -very quickly at around 5pm every night.  So it was amusing reading in one of the papers today that they declared this is the start of winter in Manila – today is a hot sweaty humid 33C with accuweather telling me it has a real feel of 40C.

So for those not quite at GCSE Geography stage, remember seasons occur because the Earth spins on an axis that leans about 23 degrees off plumb during its orbit around the Sun.  That tilt is exaggerated the further north or south you are and when  tilts away from the sun = winter starting now for the Northern Hemispher) and summer arrives when it tilts back. Twice each year Earth swings into a position where the tilt goes broadside to the glare, and the the sun experiences a moment of planetary grace where it slips directly overhead at the equator. That moment is the equinox.  If you are far North – i.e. Alaska before the weekend ends, night will trump day and travelling even a few miles farther north means that it grows darker rather than lighter. And that will hold sway until the balance reverses in March.

 

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