"We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”—Albert Einstein
deeper appreciation of God’s heavenly handiwork has closely been tied to the advancement of flight in modern times. When we look back over the past centuries of human history, we find a relatively slow progression of knowledge concerning the heavens. But the wonders of the universe have become more fully realized as the quest for astronomical discovery has combined with progress in flight technology late in the twentieth century. See Related Story.
Babylon’s astronomer-scribes recorded detailed descriptions of the locations of the moon and the visible planets as early as 650 B.C.
The Greeks were avid astronomers. The physicist Democritus (460-370 B.C.) believed that the light of many distant stars formed our galaxy. Recognized as the greatest ancient astronomical observer, the mathematician Hipparchus (190-120 B.C.) used a trigonometric table to predict solar eclipses, and he included 850 stars in his astronomical map.
In the tenth century A.D. the Persian astronomer Al-Sufi documented the existence of the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest galactic neighbor.
The Earth was thought to be at the center of the solar system until Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) formulated his heliocentric theory. His claim that the sun was at the center of the solar system is regarded as the defining discovery that began the scientific revolution.
Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), a Danish nobleman, built large astronomical instruments and made very accurate planetary observations. He built the world’s first observatory and catalogued more than 1,000 stars. Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), used what he learned from his master to develop his own theories and went on to establish the laws of planetary motion.
Bringing Things Closer
Hans Lippershey was a seventeenth-century Dutch lensmaker. Astronomy took a giant leap forward when an apprentice was toying with some lenses one day and happened upon a combination that made objects appear closer. Lippershey seized upon the discovery and enclosed the lenses at the opposite ends of a tube, forming the first telescope in 1608.
News of Lippershey’s invention soon reached the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, and in 1609 he ground the lenses for a telescope of his own. Galileo, the first person to see the craters on the moon, went on to discover sunspots, the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn.
In 1669 Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) installed mirrors instead of glass lenses in his telescope. The mirrors reflected light back to a point of focus, a method superior to the refraction of light with glass lenses. The use of larger mirrors in the reflector telescope that Newton designed eventually made it possible to magnify objects millions of times.
One of the most electrifying discoveries in all of science took place in 1924. At the Mount Wilson Observatory in the mountains above Los Angeles, astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) began to photograph some tiny specks of light in the night sky using the most powerful telescope of his time. The prevailing wisdom held that our Milky Way galaxy marked the edge of the universe, and astronomers believed that nothing existed in the distant, empty vacuum beyond.
The photographs proved, however, that the pinpoints of light were actually galaxies.
In 1990 a telescope named after Edwin Hubble was launched from the space shuttle Discovery. The huge, primary mirror in the Hubble Telescope
is eight feet in diameter and weighs nearly a ton. It operates nearly 350
miles above the haze and distortion of Earth’s atmosphere, and it has allowed astronomers to look deeper into the universe than ever before. During its years of service it has orbited the earth more than 100,000 times, and it has sent back more than 560,000 detailed images of celestial objects.1 Among them are views of many galaxies, the smallest containing hundreds of thousands of stars, while the largest are composed of thousands of millions of stars.2
The Hubble has transmitted numerous images of the Milky Way, and astronomers claim that it would take 200 million years for the myriad of stars it contains to revolve around the center of the galaxy. It has confirmed that quasars, extremely powerful sources of electromagnetic energy, reside at the center of galaxies, and it has uncovered some extremely bright galaxies at the limits of the known universe that radiate more energy every second than our sun can generate in 10 million years.3 While searching the constellation Draco, the Hubble revealed a galactic cluster 12 trillion light years away. Known as “Abell 2218,” it was the most distant object ever observed up to that time. While searching a tiny patch of sky near the handle of the Big Dipper, it revealed 1,500 galaxies within a minuscule point of light about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.4
Astronomers say that a penny held at arm’s length while viewing any area in the night sky will obscure 1,000 galaxies, and the number of stars is said to exceed the number of all the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world.5
One can only wonder what miracles of God’s universe will be discovered with the giant Magellan Telescope, slated for construction on a mountaintop in northern Chile. It will incorporate interconnected mirrors that will gather 75 times more light than the Hubble Telescope.6
Surveying the Sky
By the year 2010, scientists hope to finalize the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. This ambitious, multimillion-dollar project utilizes an eight-foot telescope located at 9,147 feet (2,788 m) at the Apache Point Observatory in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. The atmosphere there contains little water vapor and few pollutants to degrade the images. The telescope employs a 120-megapixel camera, one of the most complex ever assembled. It can image an area about eight times the size of a full moon, and a custom-designed set of software conduits sends an enormous flow of data from the camera to be recorded, processed, and eventually added to the database.7
Upon completion, the project will have cataloged more than 1 million galaxies and more than 100 million stars and other celestial objects. The survey will record images from about 25 percent of the sky, an area estimated to be only one millionth of the universe. Since the universe is thought to hold more than 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, 10 thousand billion billion stars will remain unrecorded.8
What a God!
All of this gets even more mind-boggling when you add David’s statements about the Creator in Psalm 147:4, 5: “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty
in power; his understanding has no limit.”
Like the endless, uncharted universe, God’s knowledge and creative power are nothing less than incredible.
I am awestruck when I realize that the limitless God who placed the stars and maintains the universe is the same God who cares about me! He shares all of my joys and my sorrows. He helps me when I’m in trouble. I can talk to Him anytime. And He’s paid a high price to reserve a place for me in heaven.
Can there ever be anything more incredible, more incomprehensible, more unimaginable?
2hubblesite.org, and hubble.nasa.gov.
5“Journey to the Edge of Creation,” DVD produced by Moody Publishers, Chicago, Ill.
8“The Wonders of the Whole,” Answers magazine, July-Sept. 2008, p. 24 (published by Answers in Genesis, Hebron, Ky.).
Deryl R. Corbit writes from Paradise, California.