Astrobiology

Jeremiah 10:11-16, Hebrews 11:1-3, August 11, 2013

On the 4th of July my sons and I went to watch the fireworks in Waupaca. We sat really close to where they were set off, so close that we had to look almost straight up to see them, so close that debris fell on us during the whole presentation.  I love the fireworks, not just the sights and the sounds, I love seeing families together outside having a good time.  It was a lovely night. It took us about an hour to get home. When I got out of the car it was about 11:30 and I was really, really tired, but I looked up at the stars and was filled with wonder and amazement at how beautiful they are. They were even more impressive to me than the pyrotechnics spectacle we had just seen.  The unmoving stars in the dark sky filled me with a profound feeling that I cannot completely describe. I am not alone in being unable to describe this feeling. 

In his classic book "The Idea of the Holy" Rudolph Otto describes mysterium tremendum this way: "It may become the hushed, trembling and speechless humility of creatures in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures." [p.13]  He goes on to add that the feeling of being in the presence of the mysterium tremendum includes elements of awe and might/power/majesty and fascination.  These are profoundly religious experiences and these experiences are common among believers and practitioners of all faith traditions. This feeling of being in the presence of The Holy is one that we don't control, but it's real even though it is very difficult to describe.

William James described this feeling at about the same time as Rudolph Otto, that is about a century ago, this way, "The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn stillness. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that [God] He was there than I was." [Varieties of Religious Experience]

Once a year I try to convey the feeling of being in God's presence that I experience when I learn about new developments in the field of astronomy. The sense of wonder that I felt as a child when I stood outside on a cold January evening looking for the Comet Kahoutek is just like the feeling I get looking at the night sky today, and as I will be looking for meteors for the next several nights. I know that music and art and other fields and disciplines have this effect on other people, for me astronomy is what sends me to a place where I can feel the sense of God's power and presence more than any other. I hope today to share some of that experience with you and invite you into it.

We have learned a lot about the universe beyond the earth in just a few centuries. Before Galileo in the 16th and 17th centuries, people who gave astronomy any thought believed that the earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around us. One of the reasons Galileo got in trouble with the church was that his research suggested that Jupiter has moons. The authorities of the church said his findings were contrary to scripture. There are a number of passages, especially in the psalms that say things like God "set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved." [Psalm104:5, NIV] part of that verse appears in our Call to Worship this morning. A finding that science contradicted the plain meaning of the Bible in Galileo's time was
heresy. Does this sound familiar?  Galileo was punished for discovering and publicizing what became known as "Helioceontrism," Copernicus reached the same conclusion—the Sun is the center of the universe, not the earth. As we built better tools to look deeper in the sky, we also were able to look farther back in history.

Isaac Newton may have said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."  That's a very humble thing to say, especially by the man who first described gravity scientifically and who created what we know as calculus. Since the time of Galileo scientists have been figuratively standing on the shoulders of taller and taller giants, looking farther, seeing more.

In my lifetime we have discovered things in the universe that have been taking us by surprise, things that we weren't expecting and things that our best minds and our most powerful instruments are working to help us understand. Eden Phillpotts said, "The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." That sentence really describes how I feel about describing, much too briefly, three recent discoveries: dwarf planets, exoplanets and new information about the formation of our solar system.

In 2006 there was a huge, public controversy over whether Pluto should be considered a planet.  There were decent arguments saying Pluto is a planet, for example, it orbits the Sun, but other arguments that suggested that it is not a planet. A new category was created for Pluto. The International Astronomical Union [IAU] declared that Pluto was a dwarf planet.  At first Pluto was the only object in this set. Now, eight years later there are five confirmed dwarf planets and astronomers estimate there may be up to 10,000 additional planets in the Kuiper Belt, which is an area beyond the orbit of Neptune still controlled by the Sun's gravitation. We're standing on the shoulders of taller giants.

When the Hubble Space telescope was launch in 1990 it was able to see more clearly than any earth-bound telescope because it did not have to gather signals through the atmosphere.  It started sending back amazing, stunningly beautiful images of distant stars and galaxies. It also started sending back data about planets around other stars. Until Hubble we could not see as far into space nor could we see with its level of acuity. Astronomers started finding planets around other stars. Until then we guessed that planets had formed around other stars, but there was never any proof. In a little more than 20 years about 900 planets have been discovered around other stars. That is about 900 have been confirmed and there are thousands and thousands of other candidates being studied. We are finding that there are planet systems that are not at all like ours. Our solar system has four fairly small, rocky planets near the Sun and four much larger, less dense planets farther away—and an increasing number of dwarf planets beyond the big four gas giants. Before Hubble we thought that other stars, if they had planets at all, would probably pretty much like the one we know.  Wrong! We're finding that most stars have planets that orbit them and the range of sizes—both of the stars and their planets is enormous. For example, in the Milky Way alone, that's our galaxy, it is estimated that there are about 17 billion earth-sized planets.

A team of astronomers from the University of Chicago has been using Hubble to study one planet in particular, a place called GJ 1214b, it's about 47 light years away from earth, or in round figures about 282 trillion miles. By using transmission spectroscopy to analyze the light that comes from the planet they have found that this planet's atmosphere is either made up of hydrogen and helium, or water vapor. This is a huge discovery because it is believed that water is essential for life to be present. Scientists are trying to imagine what life might look like on GJ 1214b because the planet appears to be about three times larger than earth.  [University of Chicago Magazine, February 18, 2013, "Hunt for Distant Planets Intensifies"]  Discoveries like this have given rise to the field that gives this sermon its title "Astrobiology," life around other stars. We can only imagine what form life might take if earth were three times bigger, or if the Sun were hotter or cooler or closer or farther. Astronomers are finding planets beyond what can be counted, surely some of them are in what they call "the Goldilocks Region," not too hot, not too cold. But the range of variables is so vast that we are all left with imagining. But our wits are getting sharper as we discover the wonders of the universe.

Back in 2004, "a NASA spacecraft called Stadust zipped past [a meteor beyond Neptune called] Wild2 and snared thousands of dust specks...Two years later a capsule carrying this delicate cargo parachuted into the Utah Desert." [National Geographic July 2013, p. 46] I need to stop here, did you know about this? We sent a spacecraft out past Neptune, it picked up some dust and returned to earth!  How cool is that? OK, we thought we knew what was beyond Neptune, we thought we knew about our solar system, heavy, dense, metallic stuff is close to the Sun, on Mercury, Venus, earth and Mars. And lighter, more gaseous elements like hydrogen and helium are farther out, right? Nuh-uh.  The dust speck that scientists at the University of Washington analyzed contained tungsten and titanium nitride, strong, dense elements that are formed at very high temperatures. Donald Brownlee, head of the Stardust team, said of this discovery, "It was astounding to find these highest temperature materials in the solar system's coldest bodies. The solar system was literally turning itself inside out." [Ibid., p. 47]

Astronomers are formulating theories that explain how dense elements, formed at very high temperatures are present so far from the Sun, and I expect there will be debates about this for decades. This discovery has the finest astronomers in the world completely puzzled, and I will add, it has filled them with wonder.

There are some believers who cannot accept that the universe is as old as astronomers claim it to be. Just 400 years ago the religious authorities punished people who dared to say, "the Bible isn't literal" and "We are not the center of the universe." Somehow their concept of God was threatened or diminished by such thoughts. Let me say, personally, I completely don't get that! I am most aware of God's presence and power when I am filled with awe and wonder at the world, the universe around me As the author of Hebrews said, "By faith we understood that the worlds were made by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible." I wonder if the authorities who punished Galileo noticed that the author of Hebrews claimed that God had made worlds. And far from making humanity less important, I believe as we discover and express the vastness, variety and complexity of the universe we encounter a larger, more amazing and world-creating God.

Last Sunday Emma Davila and Caitlin Patton talked about their experience of going to Triennium last month in Indiana. I think it was Emma who said that she didn't know there were so many Presbyterians in the world. Emma and Caitlin both used the word "awesome." And they used it accurately and well. That was the word they used to describe worshiping with 5,000 other people.  It is a word that points to things that are powerful, majestic and holy.     Skateboarders use the word to be "good." We know better. Awesome is the experience of looking at the night sky, of spotting meteors that are grains of dust travelling at 160,000 miles per hour that slam into the earth's atmosphere and burn up. Are meteors less amazing, less awesome, because we understand the science behind them?  I don't think so. We can and should marvel at what God has made.

The prophet Jeremiah made the same point in this morning's Old Testament reading. He attacks those who worship idols, calls idol worshipers stupid and their phony gods "delusions." The Lord God of Israel is not like them, the Lord made "all things and the tribe of Israel." I want to leave you with that thought: the Lord made the universe and humanity.

When I stand under the starry sky and see light from stars that is millions of years old, having travelled trillions of miles, it makes me feel tiny, even insignificant. At the same time, this feeling of wonder connects me to our wonderful and wonder-filling creator. Isn't it marvelous to realize that the same God who made distant galaxies and quasars and pulsars and neutron stars and planets and dwarf planets also made each of us? I'd love to take credit for
describing this feeling, but all I can do is say it's very real to me. I am not the first one who felt this sense of power, wonder and awe. A description of
this feeling goes back at least to the psalsms. I will conclude with these verses from Psalm 8 [NRSV]

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet you made them a little lower than God,

and crowned them with glory and honor.