Galactic Wonders

by Daniel Ray

 
M31 (Andromeda Galaxy)  Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

M31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 1596, just a handful of years before Johannes Kepler published his three laws of planetary motion, English poet Sir John Davies wrote Orchestra, or A Poem of Dancing. Malcom Guite explains that the poem “tells the story of how Antinous, one of the suitors of Penelope in Ulysses’ absence, woos her and asks her to dance. When she refuses he launches into a great paean [PEA en] in praise of dancing that forms the main body of the poem.”[1] Several verses offer a beautifully poetic vision of the creation of the universe, arranged as a kind of dance, through the agency of divine love. Davies writes

“…By his through-piercing and digesting power

The turning vault of heaven formed was,

Whose starry wheels he hath so made to pass

As that their movings do a music frame

And they themselves still dance unto the same.

…Or if this all round about we see,

As idle Morpheus some sick brains have taught,

Of undivided motes compact be,

How was this goodly architecture wrought?

Or by what means were they together brought?

They err that say they did concur by chance;

Love made them meet in a well-ordered dance.”[2] [end quote]

And there is likely nothing more wondrous than the “well-ordered dance” of galaxies! What is a galaxy, though? What are they? The 18th-centurye French comet hunter Charles Messier is credited with being the first to discover them, though at the time he had no idea what they were. In his hunt for comets he encountered about 100 or so “clouds” that through his small telescope at first looked like comets, but did not move. These fuzzy, cloudy objects found their way onto his list of things for the avid comet hunter to avoid. What they have since turned out to be is nothing short of remarkable – dazzling star clusters, incredible nebulae, supernovae remnants, and galaxies.

The term “galaxy” comes from the Greek word for “milk”, thus, why our own galaxy is called the Milky Way. What we see in our night sky (if you’re under a dark sky, away from city lights), is but just one of several “arms” of gas, dust and billions of stars. Many galaxies have several “arms” arranged in a spiral-like shape. In the early part of the 20th century there was a great debate as to whether or not these spiral-shaped clouds (nebulae) were just clouds in our own galaxy or galaxies in their own right. Jay M. Pasachoff and Alex Filippenko note that:

The distance and nature of the spiral nebulae was the subject of the well-publicized “Shapely-Curtis debate,” held in 1920 between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Herber Curtis. Shapley argued that the Milky Way Galaxy is larger than had been thought, and could contain such spiral-shaped clouds of gas. Curtis, in contrast, believed that they are separate entities, far beyond the outskirts of our Galaxy. This famous debate is an interesting example of the scientific process at work.[3]

In 1923 the debate was settled. Edwin Hubble discovered our nearest galactic neighbor Andromeda to be more than just a cloud in our galaxy. It was a galaxy by itself, some 110,000 light years across. And over the next two years afterward, Hubble came up with a classification system of galaxies, gathered from his observations at Mt. Wilson. He created five basic categories, each of them having relative variations within them; elliptical, lenticular, spirals, barred spirals and irregulars. Ellipticals are essentially an elliptically shaped ball of stars, with little defining gas dust. Lenticular galaxies feature some characteristic of spiral and elliptical galaxies while spiral galaxies have several distinct “arms” that sweep outward from a luminous center. Barred spirals retain the sweeping arms of regular spirals, but instead of the arms emanating from a dense core center, they flow outward by a bar traversing the center, the name “barred”. And then there are the irregulars which are an oddly glorious assortment of all kinds of shapes and sizes, including interactions with other neighboring galaxies.

It is truly a marvel of our time that for most of our human existence in the cosmos, we have been completely ignorant of these glorious swirling diadems of wonder and awe. It has only been in the last hundred years that we’ve known of their immensity and distance from us. Our understanding of their wondrously enigmatic nature is still in its infancy.

A Forbes article from August of 2019 for example, illustrates this rather clearly. The article reports that there are presently only 19 known galaxies astronomers use for statistical analysis in relation to measuring distances throughout the universe. No one knows with any certainty how many galaxies there are in the universe, but estimates range into the hundreds of billions. Are 19 galaxies out of hundreds of billions an accurate population sample? As the article states in a caption underneath a photo montage of the 19 galaxies, “That's a very small number, statistically, to draw conclusions about the entire Universe.”[4]

It's not clear who first “discovered” Andromeda, as it is visible as a bright smudge to the naked eye under dark skies. The first recorded report of it comes from the 10th-century Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi in his work the “Book of Fixed Stars”. Charles Messier catalogued Andromeda as M31 in 1764. The first photographs of Andromeda appeared in 1887, taken by Isaac Roberts[5]. It wasn’t until Hubble’s discovery in October of 1923 that we knew Andromeda to be a galaxy and that the universe was filled with a countless multitude of them.

Light is the lifeblood of astronomy.

But what is the purpose in studying galaxies, or the cosmos itself? Why do we want to know more about it? What is it saying to us? What draws our money, time and attention skyward so regularly? What is it that is really going on above us?

Modern secular sciences offer answers about meaning and about self-discovery, but end up usually describing it all in purely naturalistic terms – a variegated array of gas and dust, matter and energy and nothing more.

Is that all there is in the contemporary quest to know the universe?

Seventeenth century English poet George Herbert begins his poem “Vanity” by describing the adroit observational acuity of the astronomer. For context, “Vanity” appears in a volume of his work published in 1633, just a few decades after Kepler published his three laws of planetary motion and Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons.

The fleet astronomer can bore

And thread the spheres with his quick-piercing mind;

He views their stations, walks from door to door,

      Surveys as if he had designed

To make a purchase there; he sees their dances

      And knowest long before

Both their full-ey’d aspects and secret glances.[6]

As Herbert poetically asks in the last stanza, for what exactly is the astronomer looking? What is the point of searching among the stars? Does the astronomer desire to “make a purchase”? He “sees their dances” and knows their “secret glances” but what is the chief end of all of his searching? Herbert asks:

What hath man sought out and not found,

But his dear God? Who yet his glorious law

Embosomes in us, mellowing the ground

With showers and frosts, with love and awe,

So that we need not say, Where’s this command?

Poor man, thou searchest round

To find out death, but missest life at hand![7] 

 

The Scriptures point us to the life at hand, as the Psalmist proclaims,

“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!” (Psalm 148:1-3) “And they who dwell in the ends of the earth stand in awe of Thy signs; Thou dost make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy.” God commands the “stars” to praise Him, and they do, in galaxies and clusters upon clusters of galaxies! The pure milk of His word enables us to understand the ways in which we trod. We know by faith that the universe was created by the word of God. And who is this Jesus, that even the stars in the heavens obey Him? (Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25) And who are we that God is mindful of us? When we consider the heavens, that question is ever-present in our minds.

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

[1] Malcom Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012), 78.

[2]  Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, Theology and the Poetic Imagination, 79.

[3] Jay M. Pasachoff and Alex Filippenko, The Cosmos, Astronomy in the New Millennium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 414..

[4] “If Cosmology Is In Crisis, Then These Are The 19 Most Important Galaxies In The Universe”, accessed August 17, 2019 “https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/08/05/if-cosmology-is-in-crisis-then-these-are-the-19-most-important-galaxies-in-the-universe/#c3b74212fd59”.

[5] “Andromeda Galaxy M31”, accessed August 17, 2019, “https://www.space.com/15590-andromeda-galaxy-m31.html”.

[6] Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, 120.

[7] Ibid.

 
Daniel Ray