Category: Astronomy


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?







Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory

Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two alumni of Manchester who seem to be high-profile but are now sadly dead are Alan Turing and Bernard Lovell.  Turing. mathematical genius, code-breaker extraordinaire, is widely considered to be the father of computing science and artificial intelligence.  Designing the first model  stored-program computer,  he worked on the innovative Manchester Computers project which lead to the development of the first commercially available general purpose computer the Ferranti Mark One.   It is an incredible legacy as arguably computers have been the most significant technological advance in the modern age.   Bernard Lovell, sadly died a few weeks ago.  A visionary physicist – his top-secret work on magnetrons during the WW2 helped Allied bombers spot submarine periscopes and Hitler blamed a major naval setback on his inventions.  During this work he spotted other strange stuff – emitting radio frequency waves – cosmic rays perhaps? so after the War he set up the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope in Cheshire to find out. The worlds biggest steerable radio telescope, its spiralling costs and need for electromagnetic silence (thus blocking local development) led it to be called ‘Lovell’s folly’ – and he was staring bankruptcy and public hostility in the face. Until the space race started and the launch of the Russian Sputnik sattelites. When it became obvious that the only place in the world that could track them was Jodrell Bank – overnight he became a hero again!

Importantly for our work in the Chaplaincy is also his interest in questions of science and faith.  A committed Christian, and organist in his local parish church, St Peter’s, Swettenham, for 40 years, with the big questions he believed cosmology must give way to metaphysics.  This is important for me as we are developing a Faith and Science group here in Manchester.  It is striking how many of the students who come into the chaplaincy are scientists.  Talking to them it is clear that they find it increasingly difficult to talk about their faith openly with scientific colleagues, or in a science lab. We would like to counteract that by developing a thriving Faith and Science community here – with a specialist library, lectures.  It may be that we will have an annual lecture named after Bernard Lovell.  It is a shame that due to the aggressive and intolerant atheism of people like Dawkins, the wise, gentler voices such as Lovell’s seem to be drowned out.  The Lovell Telescope will now be the nerve centre of what will be the world’s biggest telescope, the multinational Square Kilometre Array. But until his recent death Bernard Lovell remained modest about the limits of its discoveries. In his 90s he said he had never in his life been “faced with so many unanswered questions as now”.  And in his final Reith lecture he sketched out wise and telling parameters for faith and science when he said:

I am no more surprised or distressed at the limitation of science when faced with this great problem of creation than I am at the limitation of the spectroscope in describing the radiance of a sunset or at the theory of counterpoint in describing the beauty of a fugue.


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!

The God Particle?


Seeing the light: this portrait of Peter Higgs by Ken Currie hangs in the Edinburgh University physics department

So we have been told this morning of a historic announcement at CERN in Switzerland that a sub-atomic particle that behaves like the Higgs Boson has been observed with ’5 sigma certainty’. Formally, it’s known as the Higgs Boson, informally its called the ‘God Particle’. The proper name comes from an Edinburgh based physicist, Peter Higgs, who conceived of it while walking in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains in 1964. When I was a theology undergraduate here in Edinburgh 15 years ago, one of my professors, Dr James Mackey, was personal friends with Peter Higgs. He used to go on about it in theology lectures,, none of us had heard of it then, but its certainly become famous since. It became the God particle due to editorial anxiety – originally called the “Goddamn Particle” by Leon Lederman since it was seemingly impossible to isolate. Lederman, a leading researcher in the field, wanted to title his book “The Goddamn Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?” But his editor decided that the title was too controversial and convinced Lederman to change the title to “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?”

Over the last few months there have been numerous articles, programmes anticipating this discovery.  However as much attention has been given to its name, as to what it means in Physics (which is beyond most of us).  Many scientist have expressed irritation that it being called the ‘God Particle’ by a lazy media.  To give you a flavour of this - Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian member of CERN’s team, told Reuters: “I hate that ‘God particle’ term…. The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that.”  James Gillies, spokesman for CERN, said “Of course it has nothing to do with God whatsoever… But I can understand why people go that way because the Higgs is so important to our understanding of nature.” Oliver Buchmueller, another Higgs hunter, said: “Calling it the ‘God particle’ is completely inappropriate… It’s not doing justice to the Higgs and what we think its role in the universe is. It has nothing to do with God.”  Whilst I can understand their frustration about snappy soundbites that are often misleading, I think this also shows a certain shortsightedness.  From a religious perspective  and schooled in a Spiritual Tradition that endeavours to see God in all things, only an atheist can say with any conviction that a building block of the universe has nothing to do with God. Especially when we are told that without (the Higgs Boson), or something like it, particles would just have remained whizzing around the universe at the speed of light… no galaxies or planets would have been formed. When we look at the wonderful things we now know thanks to science, it seems incredible that life has emerged. Some scientists are happy to call it a fluke, but that seems a bit lame to me, when you spend your life trying to understand the universe, making connections, spotting patterns, developing and testing hypotheses, fluke or sheer chance does not seem to be an adequate answer.  The fact that the universe is intelligible would suggest that there is reason behind it.

The concept of a ‘finely tuned universe‘ has been argued most convincingly by English physicist Paul Davies who is chair of the SETI  programme (Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence). The finely tuned thesis points to certain fundamentals of the universe, called fundamental physical constants , which are necessary for the evolution of galaxies and solar systems that can support life.  These constants include the speed of light, gravitational force, even the charge of electrons – and shows that if their values were slightly different the universe could not support life.  Basically the odds on life emerging at all are incredibly thin.  Faced with this, surely the least you expect is that one should keep an open mind about a higher power existing . Unfortunately some popular scientists now talk about all religious belief as stupid, they claim that it can’t be defended rationally. The underlying question is how can we know anything?  The danger is, at least in popular culture,  that we create a binary system where the only two types of knowing are empirical science or fundamentalist religion.  This is not true – there is a middle way where empirical science recognises its limits and that we keep our minds open to the awe and wonder of the universe and the possibility of a way of knowing that is balanced by faith and reason.

Thinking Faith published an interesting article on this last year – click here to read it.


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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