Something New Under the Sun?

June 24, 2012, Psalm 19:1-6, Ecclesiastes 1:1-10

Every summer I try to preach about some of the discoveries being made in astronomy.  I first heard about a preacher doing this years ago.  The story goes that the
associate pastor asked the pastor who preached annually on astronomy what use such a sermon could be.  And the senior pastor answered, “My dear boy, it is of no use at all, but it greatly expands my concept of God.”  Anything that expands our concept of God is a good thing, in my opinion.  It is so easy to overlook the beauty of
nature and the wonders of creation that I personally need at times to slow down, to look, to listen, to observe. Tuesday I went to Target and spotted a bird I did not recognize in the parking lot.  I watched it hop around a little, made a few notes about its plumage and then got out of my car and went into the store.  Hours later I found the notes I had made—having completely forgotten about the bird.  I got out the birdbook and found that I had seen an eastern kingbird.  It is not a species
with strikingly beautiful colors, but it possesses a sort of simple elegance in black and white.  I was thankful that this bird had crossed my path on a busy day.  It reminded me of “the world out there” which is often crowded out by all the tasks I have on my “to-do” list.

I love looking at the stars and always have.  It amazes me that people have been looking at the same stars, moon and planets for thousands of years.  And I expect all people have felt the same kind of wonder and awe that I feel when I look at these tiny dots of light in the sky.  Now we know that light from the stars comes from trillions of miles away and because it takes a long time to travel that far, star light literally comes from the past.   And when we look up at the stars in the sky there is nothing between us and the stars—except the atmosphere and trillions of miles of space.  Did you ever think about that?  You are looking directly at something that is trillions of miles away and thousands of years old.  Looking at the stars gives me a feeling that is hard to describe.  On the one hand I feel that I am tiny and I certainly am compared to the stars in the universe, but at the same time I feel a sense of importance, because I am part of this vast creation.  Not a big part, but part all the same.

Our first lesson this morning says “the heavens are telling the glory of God.”  You want to know that God is glorious?  Look up.  I need to add that it is not only the night sky that is glorious, but the day time sky is also.  There are so many different kinds of clouds, shapes of clouds and colors in the sky, especially at sunrise and sunset.  Looking at the sky at any hour makes us aware of beauty and order and God’s glory. 

I love to contrast the words from Psalm 19 words filled with wonder at creation, words of praise to our creator with the words of the one who taught King David, from our second lesson this morning.  To me, this guy sounds like he’s having about his 80th bad day in a row.  There is nothing new, or interesting or exciting in this man’s life.  He just complains about the immutability and meaninglessness of everything.  I love the phrase, “all streams run to the sea, but the sea is never full.”  It’s as
though the writer sees nothing at all that brings meaning or interest or excitement.  Everything that is has happened before.  The writer sees no potential for change or growth or even engagement with the world around him.  Nothing is new.  I have had days like this.  I know how it feels to find fault with every.  Little.  Thing. 
Been there.  Done that. 

And yet, at one level, I have to agree with the author of Ecclesiastes. There really is nothing new, even in astronomy.  The things our scientists are discovering are
things that have existed for billions of years. They are the absolute opposite of “something new.”  Just look at the word “discover” it literally means “reveal by taking off the cover.”  The thing that is discovered has always been there, the ‘discovery” is that it can be seen now.  [That’s how a discovery is different from an invention.] 

The literalist in me also likes to point out that the things that astronomers are discovering are not “under the Sun,” they are far out in space.  And they are able to dis-cover them because of new inventions in scientific instruments.  Invention and discovery go together, though they are different. 

Engineers are building increasingly powerful machines that can look deeper and deeper into space with greater and greater precision.  These machines collect data about light and radiation being emitted from stars and then astronomers analyze that data to figure out things like, what stars are made of, how they age and die, how galaxies form, and perhaps the most interesting question of all, whether there is life in other places in the universe. 

Right now, as of June 24, 2012 scientists have not found life anywhere else but earth.  But it appears increasingly likely that there are planets that can sustain life elsewhere. And here’s what I find surprising—there are two completely different scenarios that astronomers have posited for how life can be sustained on other
planets.

First, astronomers are finding “exoplanets” that is planets like ours that orbit stars like our Sun.  It was not until 1998 that exoplanets’ existence was verified in a published scientific journal.  Not even 15 years ago was it proven that there are planets around other stars. Since then, scientists have theorized that about 50% of Sun-like stars have at least one planet orbiting them. So there are roughly 1.6 billion planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way galaxy.  It’s really, really hard to find
planets orbiting distant stars.  Imagine looking into a car’s headlight on a dark night, trying to see whether there’s something between you and the headlight that is the size of a bb.  It’s very, very hard to see something that small and dark in the face of such a bright light.  But we’re getting better at building machines to detect those bbs.  Astronomers use three technics to indicate the presence of planets around stars.

First, many stars pulsate.  That is the emit radiation and light in regular bursts.  By training a radio telescope on a star and watching for tiny variations in the pulsating
radiation, the presence of a planet between the star and the observer can be proven. 

Another way astronomers can detect planets is when they see the star wobble a little because it has been influenced by the gravity of a nearby planet. The weight of the planet makes the star move very slightly and by measuring the frequency and size of the wobbles they can gauge the size and density of the orbiting planet.  They can also get an idea about how large the orbiting planet is.

A third way is for astronomers to detect small changes in the star’s brightness. Remember on June 5 when Mercury transited across the Sun’s surface.  Did you see pictures of that?  I hope you didn’t look directly at the Sun!  When a planet passes between earth and a star, it blocks some of the star’s light, and astronomers can measure the decrease in the star’s luminosity and measure how large the planet is that has come between us and the star. 

There are other methods that astronomers use to find planets around other stars; these are the three that I understand well enough to explain to you! We have made great progress in less than a generation in finding planets orbiting stars besides the Sun.  At this point astronomers are finding large planets, planets like Jupiter and Saturn in our solar system.  Planets that are most likely gas giants and not likely candidates to support life as we know it on earth.  The fact is that it’s easier to
detect large exoplanets because…wait for it…they are larger.

As of June 11 of this year 779 exoplanets have been identified.  What really gets astronomers, and people like me excited is the possibility of planets orbiting in what is called “The Goldilocks Zone,” that is not too hot—that is close to the star, and not too cold—too far from the star.  As of last week, astronomers have agreed that
four such exoplanets have been discovered. It may be decades or centuries until humanity builds machines powerful enough to detect life on these planets, and it is certain that by then other such planets will have been discovered.

The other scenario for planets capable of supporting life is from a completely different set of circumstances.  There are planets that are not bound to any star.  They have been called “free-floating planets,” but I prefer to call them “rogue planets.”  Rogue planets may be the most numerous kind of body in the universe.  Last year in my astronomy sermon I mentioned a class of stars called L Dwarves that may be the most common body in the universe.  Astronomers are just starting to find them because they are small and do not radiate much energy, so they appear dark.  It is possible, however, that rogue planets are more numerous than L Dwarf stars. Some astronomers estimate that there are 100,000 rogue planets for every star like the Sun.  The problem with rogue planets is they do not have an external source of energy, as planets that orbit stars do.  Energy is essential for life.  But here’s a surprise. A scientist at the University of Chicago [Dorain Abbot] was asked a question several years ago that led him to an amazing discovery.  The question was whether earth’s temperature would drop to absolute zero is the Sun went out.  He found that it would not, that
because of heat radiating from the earth’s core, a sunless earth would still have some energy that could support life.  He did a little more research and found that if a planet were to have an insulating blanket of ice between 10 and 15 kilometers thick, the planet would be warm enough for water to form beneath the ice sheets.  That’s a lot of ice, but not so much that life would be impossible on rogue planets. In Antarctica, Lake Vostok lies beneath about four kilometers of ice.

OK, I know it’s hard to imagine a time when we would ever be able to contact life on a rogue planet that lives in water beneath 15 kilometers of ice.  And what would creatures living in such conditions look like, and would they be at all interested in our planet?  I’m thinking they’d have their own worries. 

But doesn’t thinking about the possibility of life on a rogue planet greatly enlarge your concept of God?  If God could make the earth and life, the sky and trees and rain, who can say that God couldn’t also make a different kind of life that exists in conditions completely different from what we can know. We can only imagine what that would look like.

Oh, and we can imagine this possibility because God gave us minds that are curious, restless even, to understand the world, the universe around us. Maybe this isn’t “new” and it certainly isn’t “under the Sun,” but it reminds us of the greatness and glory of our sovereign, creating God.