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New discoveries in Astronomy

Recent Discoveries in Astronomy, Part 1A passenger settles in beside me on the airplane. We chat a bit about our destinations, and then comes the inevitable question: “So, what do you do for a living?” I pause a moment before answering. If I answer “astronomy, ” I know my fellow passenger will perk up, comment that he has always loved stars, and ask a question about a comet or planet that’s been in the news. If I answer “physics, ” he will shrink back, comment that he didn’t do well in physics in high school, and the conversation will quickly come to an end. My professional colleagues have noticed the same thing. We joke that if you want to sleep on the plane, just answer, “Physics!”

It’s true that physics sounds scary to many people, and it can indeed be a difficult topic to learn. Yet I’ve always loved physics (my degrees are in physics rather than astronomy), because of the way that mathematical equations can describe and predict so much of what we see in the world around us. One reason I got into astrophysics is because the universe contains so many bizarre situations that we can’t reproduce on earth, like ultracold, or extremely high density, or extremely high magnetic fields. It’s a fun challenge to figure out which physical process will be the most important when the situation is so dissimilar to everyday experience. But if the word “physics” makes you shrink in distaste or fear, don’t worry. For the rest of this article, we’ll focus on a more friendly topic: astronomy.

In the last decade or two, our knowledge of the universe has grown dramatically as many new telescopes and spacecraft have come online. In this essay, I’ve selected some of my favorite recent astronomy photographs to share with you. As a professional astronomer and a Christian, I feel God has called me to share these wonders with the Church. Many times, these new discoveries are presented without any mention of God, and sometimes in a context of overt atheism. I want to share these things with you in a Christian context, with God as their creator.

The Milky Way

Have you ever seen the Milky Way? If you live in a rural area, you may have seen it many times. If not, it may have been a dramatic surprise when you first saw it while camping or traveling. On a clear night out in the country, the sky is strewn with brilliant stars—many more stars than you can see under city lights.The faintest stars form a creamy, smoky band from horizon to horizon. Our galaxy contains billions of stars, and thousands of those stars are visible to the naked eye. The stars appear in a band across the sky because we are viewing our galaxy edge-on, like looking at the edge of a dinner plate.

When David looked up at the night sky over Israel thousands of years ago, he may have seen the Milky Way, or a comet, or simply the brilliance of the full moon. Whatever the sky looked like that night, it inspired him to sing:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4a)

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