Lost in the vastness of space

Posted By Pamela on Mar 10, 2010 | 67 comments

Tonight I co-gave the opening address at the Templeton Foundation supported Q3 conference on Cosmology and Theology. It was perhaps the most nerve wracking talk I’ve ever given. While I am a Christian, I must admit to being terrified of conservative Christians. I’ve just realized I can’t count the number of churches who have made me feel rejected because I spend my days studying our universe. At the same time, I’ve lost count of the number of scientists and skeptics who’ve claimed I can’t possibly be a real scientist or a real skeptic if I believe in God. Over the years, I’ve learned how to speak safely around scientists, and I’ve learned when to speak unsafely, but the Christians – they’ve continued leave me feeling safer listening to sermons on the radio.

But tonight I gave a talk that began with the reading of Bible verses I selected, read from the pulpit in Asbury Seminaries Chapel. My brief talk was meant to contextualize our place as humans in the cosmos. Aiming for just 15 minutes, it is quite short, after after receiving a few requests via twitter, I’m going to post it here.

Please, please, don’t flame. Please.

Introductory Scriptural Readings

”]Hubble Ultra Deep Field [credit: NASA / STScI]

Genesis 1:1-5
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

John 1:1-5
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood[a] it.

Colossians 1: 16-17
16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Romans 1:20
20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Main Talk

Good Evening. I have to admit this was perhaps the hardest 1500 words or so I have ever prepared. I am a Christian, and I am a scientist, and most days I find myself dancing a careful dance where I try to avoid verbal bullets from atheist scientists and Christian young earthers. I have learned how to speak safely and when to speak unsafely to scientists, but this is my first time speaking before Theologians. I don’t know how far out of your comfort zone astronomy may take some of you. No matter what ideas you come to this conference with, I’d ask you to open your mind to learn new ideas, and in the breadth and magnificence of this universe which cosmology allows us to understand, find God in what is clearly seen.

Here on the surface of the Earth it is easy to see our universe as small and understood. Each year the seasons tick past in explainable ways, and 400 years after Kepler, the motion of the planets is just something we take for granted. Solar eclipses no longer make people tremble as the Asseryians trembled before the 763BC eclipse of Amos 8:9. Instead eclipses are just a roughly twice a year things that thousands of people turn into vacations.

From the surface of the Earth, it is easy to feel safe, and in control because we have the knowledge to understand the universe.

We have science to explain the supernovae, the comets, the ever twinkle and gleam in the sky.

But we are small, and life is fragile in this vast universe, and there are more things in heaven and earth waiting to be discovered than are dreamt of in our sciences.

Our human minds struggles to grasp at the scale of our universe. Any number over a million is simply large, and in discussing the cosmos, we discuss the billions and billions of galaxies, the billions and billions of stars, and distances so vaste that light has not yet had time to travel from most distant galaxies we see in the north to the most distant galaxies we see in our Southern skies.

”]Saturn with Earth tucked in the Rings (left side, small blue dot) [credit: NASA / Cassini]

Carl Sagan referred to the earth as Pale Blue Dot and in this image taken by the Cassini space probe, we can see the distant Earth in its smallness. Sagan wrote of our world, “Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, … every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Not only do we struggle to grasp at our smallness, but we also struggle to understand our place in time.

Our planet is a transitory thing. Formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago, it will be able to support life for only another 50 million years before the Sun’s slow increase in temperature makes life intolerable on Earth. In roughly 5 billion years our Earth will be destroyed entirely as our Sun bloats into a red giant and either consumes the planet or simply broils it with intense solar winds. We live in the twilight years of our world, and time is ticking.

But our planet is just part of a cycle.

We live on a rocky world orbiting a star that is rich in heavy elements. If you shine sunlight through the most amazing of prisms to make a rainbow, you will be able to single out dark stripes mixed in the light, many of which arise from Iron, Titanium, and other metallic atoms in the sun’s atmosphere.

To get at this richness of atomic diversity, our universe had to be created, and generations of stars had to live and die, all before our own Sun could be born.

When our universe formed, 13.7 billion years ago, it was pure energy – pure light. Within the first fractions of a second, that energy began to solidify into particles. Mass and Energy are just two faces of the same thing, and as the universe cooled, the mass divided from the light. At first there was matter and anti-matter, but through the miracle of asymmetry, for every 1 billion anti-matter particles there was a billion and 1 matter particles. The particles collided – they destroyed one another, and they left behind matter. And that matter, at that moment, and for almost the next 3 minutes, was as hot and as dense as the center of a star and nuclear fusion was able to take place. Protons combined. Neutrons were created. Hydrogen nuclei grew into deuterium, which in turn fused to helium and trace amounts of lithium and beryllium. Our theories tell us the ratios of these reactions, and when we look out at the oldest stars, we find the correct fractions fossilized in the elemental abundances of these ancient stars’ light. This is just one of many lines of evidence proving the big bang.

After the first 3 minutes, nuclear reactions shut off, but the universe was still too hot for neutral atoms to form. Everything was an opaque mash of nuclei and electrons and light, colliding. It stayed too hot, and it stayed opaque for nearly 300,000 years, but then one day it cooled enough that the electrons could bond with the atomic nuclei, and when that happened the light was released. Today we see this escaping light as the cosmic microwave background.

The cosmic microwave background demarks the point beyond which we can never observe. It is like the barrier beyond which your headlamp just can’t reach when scuba diving, or that place in the fog your candle cannot illuminate because it’s just to far away. Our universe, within this shell, is 93 billion light years across, but what we can see is likely no more than a few percent of the whole. But it is all the universe we will ever know.

And after the light separated from the atoms, our universe slowly cooled and expanded some more, but now structures began to form. It was only about 30 million years after the big bang that we believe the first stars lit up the then dark universe. The first stars lit up, the largest of them living and dying in the briefed million or so years. When these first stars died, they rained heavy elements on the gas and dust that was preparing to form future generations.

That stars could form is another miracle of our universe. There is no reason we can identify that the density had to be just right for stars. It could have been denser – and everything could have collapsed straight into black holes. It could have been less dense, and no stars would ever have formed. But it was neither of these things. The universe was just right to support stars, and those stars embedded in the darkness are what allowed life here to exist today.

We live on just one small pale blue dot orbiting a metal rich star. We exist because matter and anti matter were formed in unequal parts. We exist because the universe’s density was just right. We exist, because other stars formed, created heavy elements, and died, distributing the elements back into space to form our world and others.

And most amazingly of all, we live in a universe that is at once something we can learn to understand and something that is beyond our imagining.

Every day we are finding new things that defy our theories and force us to expand our ideas – We now know 26% of the universe is made of dark matter – a material like nothing experienced here on earth – and 70% of the universe is contained in dark energy – something we know so little about all we can really do is say we have a name for this rather large blank are in our scientific understanding. And every day we discover new planets in places we never imaged. New galaxies. New types of objects – all things we would have never imagined in our wildest science fiction.

We have been placed in a wonderful universe that is like a palace we have been allowed to explore. The rooms are many, and we can each find our own corner to ask our own questions concerning this creation.

But living in a universe with an amazing underlying physics that guides its evolution, does not preclude free will, or the occasional needed intervention. While A may lead to B it does necassarily dictate 200 years from now we will have D, E, and F occur. We live in a universe not dictated my certain outcomes, but rather one guided by probabilities, and in each possibility there is a chance for the future to be changed, either through the batting of a butterflys wing, through our own decisions, or through the intervention of a greater power – Our God – even if it is just a small voice in the dark reminding us that even in science we should have faith and believe while we look up and explore this amazing universe we live within.

Please don’t flame. Posting this was hard, but it was something people asked to read.


  1. It makes me so sad that you feel uncomfortable around some skeptics and scientists because of your religious beliefs. We need your voice in science AND skeptical outreach! Personally, I care more about explaining the methods and wonders of science to as many people as possible.

    I don’t see you looking down on atheists, and that respect should certainly go both ways. And this was a really beautiful talk, by the way!

  2. I read and enjoyed your talk very much and I believe in God too. Of course I immediately launched Excel to see just how far 93 billion light years is.:) Also, you might like to know, you and Fraser have made the treadmill something to look forward to.

  3. Dear Pamela

    As an atheist, I cannot say I share your beliefs or world view, but so what! Many atheists, including myself, were religious at one point and decided to find a different path to our grasp of the ultimate source of meaning in the Universe – you are religious, but not offensively so.

    I think the concern of atheists is if your Christian beliefs were to be entangled in the science and Astronomy. I listen to AstronomyCast every week in the car between clients – I love your voice and your talent to communicate Astronomy and science is clearly evident. I really appreciate your greatly informative and entertaining presentation of our shared love, Astronomy.

    I have not heard you mention your beliefs in the podcasts content (not that it would be a huge deal if you did, but it seems like an Astronomy podcast, not a mouthpiece for religion) so it really does not bother me, and I for one, will continue to enjoy the podcast and all your Astronomical work.

    I perceive you as a respectful, scientific person who loves Astronomy and science. Being arrogant about whether you are “right” or “wrong” for holding Christian beliefs may make for interesting arguments, but when those arguments push people aside, and diminish respect for their humanity and development, then we all lose. Pay no attention to flames / criticism, you know what is right for yourself, and you certainly don’t need me, or anyone else to affirm your world view – you know what your work and beliefs mean to you – as long as you have found a happy co-existence and it works for you, then all arguments become secondary to your level of meaning and personal comfort. I recommend to all people that they constantly question their beliefs, and I follow this piece of advice for myself, but hey as long as you are putting out quality AstronomyCasts (as you have and continue to do) then I am sure we can all live with some differences.

    You will get no flames from me, and I think that you should be embraced by all thinking and feeling people as a great communicator, a friend of science (as opposed to literal Creationists) and a person just like every one of us who looks up at the wonders of the sparkling night sky and marvels at the beauty and grandeur of this wonderful Universe.

    No flames, much love

  4. Pamela …

    Thank you for this amazing blog post! You captured the magnificence of God’s creation in scientific terms, and reconciled them very well.

    I am a relatively new Christian, and I have had a lifelong interest in all things astronomy. Those two life elements can have difficulty coexisting, especially given their associated social circles (as you state). The Astronomy Cast episode 45, “The Important Numbers in the Universe”, and now this blog entry have helped me (and others) so much to see how Christianity and astronomy actually reinforce each other. How could something as awesome as the night sky, seen from a dark site, be accidental?

    I have sent a link to this blog post to a number of Christian friends. Their feedback was very positive.

    Thank you for your Christian faith and your science!!

  5. Applause and thanks to you for this talk, Pamela. It was wonderfully said. My degree is in anthropology and I work in a high-tech medical business. I’m a long-time astronomy enthusiast and have been a Christian (conservative, in fact!) for over thirty years. I’ve never had any trouble reconciling my beliefs with my education. Your faith is a precious gift. Nourish it and be thankful for it and know that many people love you and pray for you. Remember that by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.

  6. Pam, usually I try to be articular, thoughtful, and all too often circuitous. Let me be direct. I understand your feelings of being in a crossfire, between Christian and scientist, but please do not lose focus; eyes on the prize and all that. It is fully impossible to make everyone who is not you happy. It is hard at times to make anyone else happy. While a responsible adult tries to add to the joy of this world, tries to aid others, but pleasing them is altogether a different and dubious goal. Remember, from the early Christians and the lions, to the teenage girl Dylan Klebold shot point blank while reading her bible, Rachel Scott, persicution is inevitable, and is not your fault. You are the one who must be pleased with yourself. Here, by the way, is a get out of jail free card with creationists: World created in seven days, true, but done at relativistic speed, so it appears to us to take millions of years. See, science and fundamentalism, together again for the first time……….craig

  7. You are truely an amazing person.

  8. Pamela,

    Thank you for this message…this is why I have been “drawn” to AstronomyCast.


  9. Thank you, Pamela, for being so open and honest with your beliefs. I know it’s not easy to be so public about something that’s so intensely private and I truly admire you for your courage and your faith. Thank you.


  10. Give science another 100 years and it ll merge with spirituality, I see no contradictions.I love science and have spiritual beliefs.
    Thanks for all your work, Frazer too, I never miss an episode of astronomy cast.

  11. Thank you so much for posting it, even though it was hard.
    I just discovered your blog today, and I am an instant fan.

  12. Pamela,
    Great message, i have similar experience being a christian and a minister’s son as well. As a lover of science, God and humanity, i am saddened by the suffering, that you and others go through in this way.
    It has alway seemed a contradiction to me that skeptics are never skeptical about their own attachment to dogma. And that fundies only insist on literal translation to specific passages.
    You are an awesome person, thanks and , I love your podcast.
    yours in Christian love and support,

  13. Well, I believe there are much more deists among scientists than christians.

    After all, I think that every religious scientist who keeps doing good science (not pseudo-science) eventually either stops being religious or turns into deist (like Einstein, for example).

  14. I hope that reading this will help at least one person think twice before saying something insensitive – from either direction. Only by being open and honest can you help change people’s minds and hearts. I think this post is a good one for that.

  15. I believe in Christian behaviour, which I boil down to the classic “do unto others” rule. I am undecided on the existence of God although the older I get the more convinced there is somebody up there with a sense of humor. Pamela, the people who mistreat you because of your “day job” are the people that scare me. Intolerance is the worlds deadliest attitude and it seems to be over represented in some religions. I’m sorry they don’t seem to think that you can use your heart and mind without it being a sin.

  16. As a physics and astronomy teacher who is also both an avid Astronomy Cast listener and a moderately conservative Christian (in past eras, there was no contradiction in “moderately conservative”), I appreciate your talk. I only miss the quote from the beginning of Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God…”

  17. I too am a bit “terrified” by the conservative christian and hold out hope that the voices expressed by you and others round-out the unified messages we (collectively) transmit across the airwaves. I struggle with the notion that we as humans cannot accept the multitudes of gifts that science brings to the proverbial table. To me, life it’s a veritable smorgasbord of delights (both discovered and undiscovered) from which to fill our plates, a banquet where no one entree is left out. Each portion has its place at the table to be nibbled or feasted upon, depending upon ones own choosing. For each new scientific discovery brings yet another platter to consume and delight in, another scrumptious delicacy God has cooked-up on the cosmic food network. (Pardon my excessive use of food metaphors. I really did not plan it this way…”Me thinks I’m hungry”). But truly, if only for a minute, if we, as a people, could embrace the simple idea that science and spirituality can co-exist – one need not displace the other – then, perhaps, perhaps, we might find ourselves on a friendlier planet. At the risk of exceeding the tensile strength of my metaphorical argument, I conclude by saying that there is room on your plate for both brussel sprouts and lobster. You may not like the former, in fact you may detest it. But for the sake of not offending the Host who has graciously invited us to the table, it’s not like a tall glass of beer can’t wash down that offensive vegetable with a few big gulps. With any luck, after doing that a few times, the taste just might grow on you. 😉

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