Quasars, Pulsars, Black Holes, and God
My name is Isaac, which means “he laughs” in Hebrew. It is the name God commanded our favorite patriarch, Abraham, to give to his son after his wife Sarah laughed at the thought that they could have a baby at their extreme old age. Despite the tradition of parents naming their children after biblical giants, this is not what my parents had in mind when they named me. I was named after a different kind of giant—Isaac Newton.
I suppose my name is fitting, since not only do I like to laugh, but I also study astrophysics. I have wanted to become an astrophysicist since I was eight years old. At the time, I did not know the proper name of the field, but I knew in my heart that I wanted to study the stars.
I was first exposed to stellar phenomena when, during a library visit in elementary school, I stumbled upon a children’s book with a peculiar name: “Quasars, pulsars, and black holes” by Isaac Asimov. I took it home and it blew my mind—I had no idea about all the crazy things that occur during a star’s life cycle, such as how some of them die through incredibly powerful explosions called supernovae. I was so shocked and fascinated by the things I discovered that I ended up reading the rest of the physics and astronomy section at my school’s library. I learned about stars, galaxies, and planets. I was in love.
My fascination with physics and mathematics only grew over the years and continues to surprise me to this day. Just recently, I had a realization about special relativity that drastically changed the way I think about the universe. I had never thought about time dilation and length contraction being intimately related, but once I did, I realized that it is possible to travel across any two points in space in an arbitrarily small amount of time. Who could have thought that you can get from here to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun at about four light-years away, in a second, or even less than that? Intuitively, it does not make any sense at all, but special relativity calls us to ignore intuition and trust the laws of physics. Studying astrophysics has led me to amazing revelations of this kind, but among all the conclusions my field has helped me reach, there is one I consider more important than any other—there is a God.
Science and reason led me into faith. I was raised in a nominally Christian home until middle school, when my family started going to church regularly. The thought of God was always present as I was growing up, but I never took it very seriously. It was not until I was old enough to think about the philosophical implications of physics that I realized how, in spite of the amazing degree to which we can describe the universe with mathematics, there are questions for which we do not have answers—and probably never will. Even the best physicists can only shrug their shoulders when asked where the universe came from or why it came to be.
The inability of physics to shed light on these doubts led me to seek answers elsewhere and come to believe in the idea of a Creator through rational means. Christian apologist and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig formulates the argument of causality, known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, in the following way: everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore, the universe has a cause. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused Creator independent of the universe exists, one that need not be limited by time, space, or the laws of physics.
In addition to the idea of causality, the seemingly inexplicable order and structure of the universe puzzled me. The universe is perfectly fine-tuned in a way that allows for the existence of life, as well as for the formation of stars and planets. In his book Just Six Numbers, astrophysicist Martin Rees discusses six physical constants that define the universe as we know it. One of the numbers Rees writes about is D, which has a value of 3, representing the number of macroscopic physical dimensions.2 D could have been any number, but were it anything else, this universe would have been entirely different—perhaps a universe without depth, where everything is flat, or one with an extra dimension, full of strange objects like tesseracts. Seeing the remarkable way in which D and the other constants shape the universe, I refused to believe that the fine-tuning of the universe is a coincidence. Because of this, I grew to believe that the laws of physics, like the universe itself, had also been put in place by something that is beyond them.
My intellectual journey can be described by a quote from Robert Jastrow, a Columbia professor and NASA astrophysicist: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” According to Jastrow, the scientist can aspire to acquire true knowledge through reason and logic, but he will inevitably discover that it cannot be attained while ignoring the supernatural. Like the scientist, I, too, unexpectedly discovered theology at the summit of scientific questions. By seeing that God is the source of all creation—including physics—I realized the existence of God.
After this revelation, I began to see God in everything around me. The heavens reveal the glory of God and the expanse of the universe is a picture of the size of the God that we worship.
This is the way I see my field of study—as a reminder of God’s incredible power. Everything that we know of, from the orbits of electrons to the orbits of the planets, was created by Him.
Take a look at the world that surrounds us. In the hidden quantum world, there are forces holding everything together. The carbon atoms in our bodies have properties that make all sorts of things possible, including organic life as we know it. The electrons that orbit atomic nuclei exert electrical forces that determine the way in which we interact with the matter around us. Although atoms are mostly empty space, these repelling electrical forces keep you from falling right through your chair while you study in Butler Library.
Speaking of Butler—after a long night there, look up into the sky as you walk home. Despite the light pollution from the city, you will hopefully manage to see some stars. The stars you see are billions of years old and millions of light years away. These scales of time and distance are beyond anything you can imagine. During the winter, look for the constellation Orion. In the top left corner of the constellation, there lies a red giant called Betelgeuse. It is about 650 million light years away and 1000 times bigger than the Sun. Not only is it enormous in size (even then, we know of stars that dwarf Betelgeuse), but it is also near the end of its life. At any moment within the next million years or so, Betelgeuse will die a violent death in a spectacular supernova. The star will explode, releasing its rich guts across the universe and creating a burst of energy so powerful that it will blow away anything in proximity to it. It will even be visible from Earth during the day.
These are the kinds of things that remind me of God’s power. He is enormous, bigger than anything we can dream of. All things were created through God, for God, and by God. Everything created by God is good, and all creation deserves our praise. We should take joy in the opening lines of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Think about this line long and hard. God is our Creator—He spoke the world into being and everything belongs to Him. Let us delight in the world around us because it is beautiful and amazing, and it is a display of God’s eternal might. God’s power and glory is embedded in the very fabric of spacetime. Open your eyes—His majesty surrounds you.
1 William Lane Craig, “Transcript: The Kalam Cosmological Argument,” Reasonable Faith, 8 Nov. 2015, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/transcript-kalam-cosmological-argument.
2 Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), 3.
3 Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York, NY: Norton, 1978).
4 Colossians 2:3 (ESV).
5 Colossians 1:16.
6 Genesis 1:1.
Isaac Bautista (CC’18) was born and raised in the great state of Texas. He is an Astrophysics major, a Packers fan, and a Mexican food snob. You will often find him walking home from the library at 3:00 a.m., staring at the night sky, and admiring the stars.
Image detail by Siqi Cao – The Columbia Crown & Cross, Spring 2014.Tags: astrophysics, Columbia University, Isaac Asimov, Isaac Newton, Martin Rees, reason, Robert Jastrow, science, space, theology, William Lane Craig