The Vastness of Space

The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

Image: European Space Agency ESO/M. Kornmesser

This is the transcript of the Revd Prof David Wilkinson’s ‘Thought For the Day’ on BBC Radio 4, 26th February 2024.

Good morning. Space is big, not least in the news recently. Private enterprise’s landing on the moon was a significant but very small step compared to the discovery of J0529-4351, the most luminous object ever observed. This violent quasar is the core of a distant galaxy and is powered by a massive black hole, growing by the equivalent of one Sun per day. It had been mistaken for just a single star in our own galaxy but is now recognised as some 12 billion light years away.

It’s a reminder of the Great Debate of astronomy which was resolved a hundred years ago this week. This debate centred around whether patches of light in the sky called nebulae were close or far away. Harlow Shapley had argued influentially that these objects, including the well-known Andromeda nebula, were part of the Milky Way and that was the extent of the Universe. On the other side, Heber Curtis and a few astronomers suggested nebulae were themselves distant galaxies. The resolution came in a letter to Shapley from Edwin Hubble, who used variable stars in Andromeda to calculate their distance, which showed that Andromeda was a separate galaxy far beyond the Milky Way.

The size of the universe that science discloses can be for some awe inspiring and for some disturbing. Shapley said that this letter ‘destroyed my universe’. Hubble seemed to move away from his Christian faith commenting, ‘The whole thing is so much bigger than I am… I just trust myself to it, and forget about it.’  However, Curtis would say this universe ‘had divinity in it and over it.’ It was his belief in a Creator that meant that observations of the vastness of the Universe engendered a sense of awe and worship.

These new observations and this historical episode would have delighted my friend, fellow Thought for the Day contributor and world leading scientist Professor Tom McLeish, who wrote of science, ‘Its primary creative grammar is the question rather than the answer… the journey of understanding already travelled always appears to be a trivial distance compared with the mountain road ahead.’

Tom died a year ago this week, a life cut short by the awfulness of cancer. In the unanswered questions of his illness, his sense of awe at creation never dimmed, sustained by his hope in the love of God which he encountered in Jesus. For me, his joy in science and in Christian faith encourages me to keep asking questions, even if the answers are provisional and sometimes disturbing.

Article By The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

David is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology.


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