Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lyra theology: names of the stars

Sheliak, Beta Lyrae
image The Star Trek Museum of Science

The second brightest star in Lyra constellation is called by a proper name, Sheliak. Arab astronomers coined this name الشلياق šiliyāq or Al Shilyāk which they use also as the name of the constellation. Prominent stars on northern and southern sky have been named in this manner with meaningful names in different languages and cultures.

But there are quite many stars also in the small constellation of Lyra and calling them by "personal names" is not practical. When Johann Bayer (1572 – 1625) published the star atlas Uranometria Omnium Asterismorum in 1603 he sorted the stars by their apparent brightness and called them with the constallation name and greek letters, the brightest one being alfa. According to the Bayer designation Sheliak is also known as beta Lyrae (β Lyr, β Lyrae).

The first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed (1646–1719) published a catalog of 3000 stars in 1711. He abandoned the rather cumbersome Greek lettering scheme and used plain numbers instead. By the Flamsteed designation Sheliak is known as 10 Lyrae without indication of its brightness among the stars in Lyra.

The proper names and Bayer and Flamsteed numbers, as well as some other systems, are still widely used and astronomers are very familiar with them. However, with the growth of the power of telescopes these elegant old systems turn out to be impractical Henry Draper (1837-1882) used photographs to catalog that was expanded to include 225,300 stars. They are named simply by a number preceded by HD (or HDE for the extended map). This kind of abstarct naming is, of course, very hard for human brain to remember.

But there is no alternative. The Hubble Space Telescope Guide Star Catalog uses special codes and running numbers to identify uniquely the guiding lights among the billions of stars it can see up there in orbit around Earth.

Theological point

"Psalms scroll" by Pete unseth - Own work.
Licensed under CC0 via Commons

מוֹנֶ֣ה מִ֭סְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִ֑ים לְ֝כֻלָּ֗ם שֵׁמ֥וֹת יִקְרָֽא

He determines the number of the stars
    and calls them each by name. 
Psalm 147:4 NIV

Psalm 147 was written after the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Somewhat surprisingly, it inserts a verse about the greatness of God of Israel who calls each star by name.  We can deduct from this that there is a divine catalog of all stars in the Cosmos whose quantity is decided by God and who has his own nomenclature for each one of them.

More practically, the psalmist who has seen the totally ruined Temple still expresses faith in the might and power of God the Creator and Caretaker, whose house has been shattered to pieces by followers of Marduk and the holy treasures taken to Babylon. 

Nobody could expect it but only a generation or so later the great King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. He gave a degree in 530 BC that exiled Jews are allowed to return home and rebuild their Temple. Faith in God of Israel, who knows every star by a name, was not in vain or empty wishful thinking despite of the horrific tribulations. The Jews would never forget this lesson about their God.

It is likely that this beautiful psalm reflecting the power of God of Israel was written after return from exile in the fifth century BC as it is so full of praise and the horrors of war, destruction and exile seem to be behind. 

Psalm 147:4 makes the entire Cosmos intensively personal.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Lyra theology: everything or nothing

Diagram of a contact binary
Image David Darling, The Internet Encyclopedia of Science
V361 Lyrae consists of two stars that are rotating each other so close that they are actually in contact. There are two cores but a single common envelope giving the visual appearance of a single star. Both components fill their Roche lobes (the volume around a star in a binary system in which, if you were to release a particle, it would fall back onto the surface of that star. D. Darling).

The chronologically latest texts in the collection of sacred books called the New Testament are currently dated to second century AD. The bulk of Old Testament was written during and before the Achaemenid Empire and the most ancient parts reaching the Sumerian culture. Accordingly, the writers of the Bible lived some 2000 to 3000 years ago.

For the Biblical writers skylight was thus the light visible to naked-eye. Babylonian world view was dominant in the Levant until the Greco-Roman period. In Old Testament period the position of stars flying high up on the sky was explained with the help of raqia, usually translated vaguely as firmament. It probably was imagined as a kind of cupola over the flat Earth holding up the Sun, Moon, the five visible planets and those countless little twinkling points of light, the stars in heaven.

The ancient Near Eastern and classical period understandings of the relationship between Earth and the stars above is of only historical importance to students of modern Astronomy and Cosmology. it can be studied and compared to other models known, for example, from Indian peninsula, Far East and pre-Columbian Americas (Cultural Astronomy).

Scientific information about the contact binary V361 Lyrae would be totally out of the reach of the writers of the Bible. It is quite recent knowledge about Nature that also the most educated academic minds of the 19th and much of the 20th century had no idea about.

Theological note

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth
Genesis 1:1

The first verse of the Bible is all-inclusive.  

Despite of the fact that the writers of the Bible had a very limited geocentric world view, we believe that the Scriptures are inspired by the God of Israel who has created V361 Lyrae. 

The opening verse challenges us: either He has created absolutely everything there is, including you and me and is the only true God there is. Or we may conclude that God of Israel has created nothing and is therefore not a true God but a creature of brilliant human minds.

It does not matter how deep we get into the physical characteristics of the contact binary V361 Lyrae, we will not find God there. Modifying the words in St. Augustine's Confessions, also this amazing pair of stars joins all Creature and tells us "He is not here but He has made us."

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Lyra theology:Singularity and the One

Within the boundaries of the constellation Lyra is a multitude of heavenly objects. They look and behave very differently from each other floating among cosmic clouds of dust and being pierced by cosmic radiation.

Scientific research has shown that simple light spots, stars seen there by naked eye like Vega, Sheliak, Sulafat or R Lyr, actually represent many different stellar classes and types. In addition to stars, the fiery ring of Messier 57 is a planetary nebula made of the the remains of an exploded star. The colliding galaxies NGC 6745 do not even resemble familiar spiral galaxies. This astronomic crash site has many newborn stars shining as a blue ribbon.

Highly sensitive instruments measuring visible and invisible electromagnetic wavelengths have demonstrated that star light is far from constant but varies in subtle ways. The changes provide astronomers significant information about the shining stars and their companions. 19 Lyr is an Alpha2 Canum Venaticorum variable while V473 Lyrae is a Classical Cepheid variable. Even more sensitive instruments provided data suggesting that Gliese 758 has planet(s).

The sky in the direction of Lyra is full of variation, multitude of different classes and types of objects and physical and chemical processes. Many of these objects are gigantic and much larger then Sun. It is therefore rather surprising, that 20th century science took most significant steps in explaining these phenomena by studying the smallest things known to man, atoms and their sub-particles.

Nuclear physics and particle physics are today an essential part of Astrophysics and careful observation, sophisticated mathematical modeling and also experiments in particle accelerators and other instruments provide the data and theoretical foundation for explaining the multitude of objects and their behavior in space.

Accordingly, Cosmology represents a very tightly bound singularity where explanations are reduced to a few fundamental principles such as gravity. Theoretical Physics is actively looking for the Theory of Everything, "a hypothetical single, all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe.".  (Wikipedia)

The scientist who is able to unite the basic Laws of Nature into a single theory will surely be a Nobel price candidate.

Singularity in Cosmos is also apparent from another point of view. With the help of Cepheid variables Edwin Hubble gained understanding of distances not only to stars but to those enigmatic nebulae that were generally considered nothing but dust clouds in the only galaxy, Milky Way. He not only realized that these nebulae were islands of billions of stars, other galaxies in deep space but also noticed that the distance is reflected in the star light showing Red Shift.

As the expansion of the Universe became established a very natural idea rose to the mind of brilliant scholars such as Albert Einstein and his friend Georges Lemaître: since Universe is expanding what happens if we reverse the process? Following this thought Lemaître suggested that in the beginning everything was in a single dot, the Cosmic Egg.  British astronomer Fred Hoyle mocked the idea - the believed that Universe is eternal with no beginning or end - and coined in a BBC program the catchy name Big Bang. It is now embedded to most languages as the terminus technicus.

Everything explained by a single theory of Physics, everything having its origins in a single point existing before time.

Theological point

Jewish confession of faith is from Deuteronomy 6:4. It is very simple and extremely deep:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד 
Sh'ma Yisra'el Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad
Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Lyra theology: Perspective

Summer triangle Vega, Deneb, Altair
by Jim Thomas. Licensed under GPL via Commons

Even our quick study of some notable objects in the swathe of sky bounded by the borders of the constellation Lyra demonstrates the exponential growth of knowledge about the space achieved by humans. This daily growing information and understanding do pose significant challenges to those adhering to the Judaeo-Christian heritage based upon the Bible.

The impact on faith in the God of Israel is, however, deep and very closely tied to individual believer's familiarity with modern Cosmology and Astronomy. As years go by the scientific information will penetrate deeper to the public consciousness and the questions start to rise. It is safe to assume that currently those twinkling stars and beautiful pictures of galaxies are for great part of humanity rather distant from the general worldview, impractical and curiosity rather then fundamental building blocks of personal world view.  There are more pressing things to consider and the science/religion discussions that create excitement among many Christians focus on life sciences, especially evolutionary biology.

Cosmology and Astronomy have deeper impact on Theology than life sciences and can be compared to the rumblings of a massive earthquake under the Church. The following points of Astrotheology are written knowingly as theses without references to other theologians' writings. This independent approach is an invitation to critical discussion and reflection and I plan to introduce at a later point various theological views, particularly from the Roman Catholic church which for centuries has dealt with the issues and has an observatory in Vatican.

The astronomical details mentioned in these theological theses focus on the constellation of Lyra and are discussed previously in this blog under the title Lyra studies written in October-November 2015.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thesis I: Perspective

The challenge
The fifth brightest stars in the night sky is the beautiful Vega in the constellation of Lyra. It is a bluish white main sequence star with spectral class A0V. It is fusing hydrogen to helium like Sun. As it is three times larger than Sun the nuclear reaction happens quickly. The expected life-time is one billion years while astronomers estimate that Sun will shine some 10 billion years. At the age of 455 million years Vega has reached half of its life as an active star. 

The visible brightness of Vega is explained by the fact that according to current measurements it is only 25 light years from the Sun. The closest star to us, Alpha Centauri, is at 4.37 light years distance which expressed in another astronomic scale is 1.7 parsecs.

All these measurements of time and distance are mind-boggling. In the beginning of the 20the century humanity did not know about the true scale of the Universe. Improved observation instruments and careful study of star light, discovery of Cepheid variables and the realization that there are other galaxies beyond Milky Way began to reveal the truth.

With the ability to estimate the age and distance of Vega, among other stars, has profoundly changed our view of the world and the place of planet Earth in it.

Theological points

- The 6000 years fallacy
Many Christians who do know something about the advances of Astronomy fail to integrate this knowledge with their faith. A tested and widespread solution is just to ignore the facts and to adhere to the Biblical chronology based on ancient Jewish genealogies. Jews, Christians and Muslims have traditionally held to the creation of Adam about 6000 years ago, so this is when God made everything.

Believing that Vega was made 455 million years ago is blasphemy for these believers. They believe that giving up 6000 years chronology threatens the very foundations of true faith. This approach ties very closely numbers and a specific world view with religious beliefs into a single package and causes, unfortunately, mockery to the name of the God most high.
I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
Jesus in Gospel of John 3:12
-Scope of the Bible reduced from Universal to Global
Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition the growth of knowledge and the following enormous widening of universal dimensions is felt particularly poignantly in the traditional 3-tier world view of Earth here, Heaven above and Hell below as well as in the Eschatological views about the end of the world.

The new perspectives opened to humanity by 20th century scientific research of God's creation force us to delimit the scope of the Bible from Universal to Global. What requires this reassessment is nothing but Truth about Nature as we know it today.  

The Bible is geocentric, anthropocentric and christocentric 

The humiliation of proud humanity by modern Cosmology is profound - the world created by God is in its glory neither geocentric nor anthropocentric. Evolving Astronomy has shown that Sun is just one middle sized star - actually a dwarf - in one of the billions of galaxies out there with no particular prominence. Tellus is hardly visible even from the nearby Saturn.

If this reduction of the scope of the Bible were the whole story those who abandon the Scriptures while pondering the deepest and most fundamental questions about Universe would be right in doing so. Case closed. But this is not the case. The Scriptures contain more about God, about Christ and about humanity than just an outdated physical model of the Cosmos.