Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dear Mr. Astronomer: If There Are Black Holes, Why Can’t There Be God?

When I was a kid, I loved astronomy. I remember driving to the planetarium with my mother while she taught me to memorize the planets in threes: Mercury-Venus-Earth / Mars-Jupiter-Saturn / Uranus-Neptune-Pluto. Silly us, we thought Pluto was a planet.

Ma taught me to memorize the presidents the same way: Washington-Adams-Jefferson. Eisenhower was president when I was a kid. Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon / Ford-Carter-Reagan / Bush-Clinton-Bush / Obama-Romney-Clinton had yet to come and go. My active interest in astronomy came and went pretty fast, but I cannot read an article about astrophysics today without that good old shudder of awe. Take a look, for example, at the article “Astronomers Find Biggest Black Holes Yet,” published in this morning’s on-line New York Times.

Wowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.

Which was my first reaction. My second was, if astronomers today have “discovered” “the biggest, baddest black holes yet, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought,” why can’t there be God? I put “discovered” in quotes in that last sentence because, you see, astronomers haven’t actually been there, the way, say, Columbus stood on America. These astrophysical “discoveries” are the result of the Hubbell Space Telescope, math no one could ever explain to you not even in a hundred years, and the best Asian minds now working in northern California.

There’s nothing in that statement about biggest, baddest black holes that can’t be found in Milton’s Paradise Lost. 

“Such  holes, they say, might be the gravitational cornerstones of galaxies and clues to the fates of violent quasars, the almost supernaturally powerful explosions in the hearts of young galaxies that dominated the early years of the  universe.” I love that next sentence—the use of might in the first clause and especially calling powerful explosions almost supernatural. This about a paper that will be published tomorrow in the super-scientific journal Nature.

“One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion Suns . . . ” and so on. Read it yourself and feel your inner jaw drop.

Then ask yourself: Granted that this team of scientists at Berkeley headed by Dr. Chung-Pei Ma is a pretty smart bunch of men and women, will they ever know reeeeeally what is happening inside those sectors of deep space they call black holes?

Where reality is concerned, I think my Ma knew every bit as much: Mercury-Venus-Earth. I mean, compare the certainty of that trinity with statements like these:

“Astronomers also think the supermassive black holes in galaxies could be the missing link between the early universe and today. In the early days of the universe, quasars, thought to be powered by giant black holes in cataclysmic feeding frenzies, were fountaining energy into space.

Where are those quasars now? The new work supports a growing suspicion that those formerly boisterous black holes are among us now, but, having stopped their boisterous growth, are sleeping.”

Sleeping quasars. When we’re faced with a Mystery this deep, only metaphor will do—at least until the Mystery comes to us.

3 comments:

  1. Great post Webster. Where are those quasars now? Getting further and further away from us. ;)

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  3. Thanks, Partner. Hope all's going well for you and "Why I am Catholic" over at Patheos.

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