The Apple Of God's Eye

August 1, 2009

The Earth: A Perfect Spot For Viewing The Cosmos

Editors Comment: A beautifully written column on the greatness of the cosmos and our view of it in the perfect spot of our galaxy. The article is originally from the Trumpet.com.

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Some folks saw a black sunrise last Wednesday. The Gulf of Khambhat, just east of India, experienced an unusual total solar eclipse at sunup. (For an idea of what it looked like, click here.) It lasted 6 minutes, 39 seconds, the longest eclipse of the sun projected to occur this century.

It’s extraordinary that our gargantuan sun—864,300 miles in diameter, 332,840 times the Earth’s mass—can be visually obscured by the moon, which is a tiny two tenths of 1 percent of its size. But the relative distances of these two heavenly bodies from Earth, coupled with their unusually exquisite roundness, make the perfect solar eclipse possible.

This has proven quite helpful to scientists who are trying to unriddle the mysteries of the universe. Hundreds of years ago, a perfect eclipse helped observers confirm that stars are composed of gas. More recently, an eclipse helped verify the theory of relativity, showing that light is bent by the sun’s gravity. That we see a perfect eclipse (rather than a super-eclipse, in which our moon would completely obscure the sun) gave us our first glimpses of the sun’s gaseous chromosphere, which has yielded additional insights about stars.

Aren’t we lucky?

No other planet has the perfect configuration of sun and moon sizes and relative distances to view a perfect solar eclipse that enables astronomical observations such as we can make on Earth, this jewel of a planet.

But this is only one of several unique physical conditions that make our study of the heavens possible, and so richly rewarding.

Case in point: We can’t see our air. Imagine how motivated you would be to contemplate the night sky if all you saw was a canopy of impenetrably thick clouds of particles and gasses. Happy for us, Earth’s atmosphere is transparent. Not only is our oxygen-rich air necessary for life, its invisibility also happens to make gazing up at the stars a whole lot more interesting and informative than would be the case on most planets.

Another favorable circumstance: our position within our galaxy. The Milky Way is an incomprehensible 100,000 light years across, and we sit in its slim “galactic habitable zone” (ghz)—just far enough from the center that we’re not killed by radiation, but just close enough that sufficient heavy elements needed for life are present. At the same time, our position is a perfect seat for viewing the rest of the cosmos.

Why? Many reasons. For one, it is so beautifully dark here. Light can be the enemy of astronomical discovery—for basically the same reason that you want the lights off in the theater while watching a movie. Conveniently, our solar system is in the darkest part of the galaxy’s ghz, far from all the Milky Way’s brightest lights. We live almost exactly halfway between two of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, which are crowded with radiant stars and thick dust clouds that would obscure our view. Our vision is also free of any nearby gaseous nebulae. We likewise live thousands of light years away from the galaxy’s many blinding star clusters. In his book Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, Dr. Hugh Ross explains how the same cosmic dust that shields us from the radiation emanating from the galactic core “also blocks out most of the blazingly bright light shining from the thousands of dense star clusters situated in the core that otherwise would ruin astronomers’ efforts to explore the universe.”

Making matters even more favorable, the Milky Way happens to be in the darkest habitable area of its galaxy cluster. While a typical galaxy cluster has over 10,000 tightly packed galaxies, ours has only about 40, all but two of which (one being the Milky Way) are small or dwarf galaxies. On top of that, our galaxy cluster, called the Local Group, is in the darkest habitable part of its supercluster of galaxies, the Virgo supercluster.

Thus, there is virtually nothing in the way of our peering deep into the outer reaches of the cosmos.

Another convenient feature of our cosmic vantage point is how protected we are from potential collision events. The four gas giant planets in our solar system—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—do us a big favor by shielding Earth from dangerous space projectiles like asteroids and comets. Their gravitational pull tends to absorb or deflect the most dangerous of these colliders. Yet they’re not too efficient: The few smaller asteroids that have made it through and hit Earth have actually aided in scientific discovery without wiping humans out. (It’s also worth noting that these huge planets are not so close as to block or wash out our view of space. If gigantic Jupiter resided where Mars currently does, it would be 1,550 times brighter to us than it is now.)

The more scientists learn about the universe, the more of these outstandingly helpful conditions they identify. “For some reason our Earthly location is extraordinarily well suited to allow us to peer into the heavens and discover its secrets,” say the grateful astronomers who authored The Privileged Planet. A host of finely tuned factors “are not only necessary for Earth’s habitability; they also have been surprisingly crucial for scientists to measure and make discoveries about the universe. Mankind is unusually well positioned to decipher the cosmos.”

Scientists have come to refer to Earth as a “Goldilocks planet.” That is, in every conceivable way, conditions aren’t too hot or too cold, too large or too small, too close or too far—too anything. No matter what is measured, it is “just right.” Not only for the existence of life, but also for discovery. And to a mind-boggling level of precision. Even the minutest deviation would make cosmic observation difficult or impossible—or would wipe out the prospect of life.

Maybe it’s not luck after all.

A growing number of astronomers are acknowledging the possibility not only that the precise conditions for life on Earth were specifically, painstakingly established by a creative mind of extraordinary intelligence—but also that this Power ensured we would be able to follow the signs back to their source. The multiplicity and exactitude of these signs “reflects masterful engineering at a level far beyond human capability—and even imagination. It testifies of a supernatural, superintelligent, superpowerful, fully deliberate Creator,” wrote Dr. Ross.

Yes it does. As King David wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:1). He was celebrating the fact that God revealed Himself to us in the universe He created. Perhaps he knew more than today’s astronomers would give him credit for.

God wanted us to make these cosmic discoveries. Romans 1:20 says that “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Revised Standard Version). It is there for everyone to see—and more and more as our technology improves. All we need to do is open our eyes and acknowledge its Author.

“Clearly, Someone wanted human beings to exist and thrive. Just as clearly, Someone wanted us to see all He had done in the universe,” Dr. Ross continued. “His purposes for human existence must be highly valuable.”

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