Building on the past in Science

This year we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a seminal turning point in our church history. Our commemoration leads us to reflect on where we are today with respect to the issues that were central to the Reformers. In science we too look back, as our current discoveries build on previous work.

Isaac Newton was born 375 years ago on Christmas Day and, among many other accomplishments, shaped the framework of physics and astronomy with his description of classical mechanics and the universal laws of gravity. His work provided the framework for the modern understanding of the physical universe, until the edges of his theories started to crumble with the discovery of new information, particularly around electromagnetism. The facts that did not fit into classical mechanics demonstrated that Newton’s framework had limits.

Albert Einstein, born 237 years after Newton, demonstrated with his theory of relativity that Newton’s model of classical physics was a special case of a much more dynamic view of the world. In relativity, events and what one observed were dependent on where one stood and how fast objects were moving relative to each other. In 1916 Einstein predicted, based on the theory of relativity, the gravitational waves that are evident in this revised space-time world.

Stars colliding
This year three scientists received the Nobel Prize in physics for the development of a functioning gravitational wave detector. I discussed their Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in my March 2016 column, particularly how it had detected the gravitational waves coming from two black holes spiraling into one larger black hole – evidence confirming many of Einstein’s predictions.

Now scientists have observed a second major event using the LIGO and Virgo, another detector in Italy: two neutron stars collapsing into each other. The gravitational waves from this collapse lasted for 100 seconds and were noted at the two LIGO sites and at Virgo, permitting astronomers to determine where in the sky to look for the origin of the waves. They found the event and saw the light shift from bright blue to dim red over days, followed later by x-rays and radio waves – all the consequences of these two dense stars colliding. These findings were consistent with what theories had predicted would be visible as these stars merged: a light source that would briefly shine 1,000 times brighter than an ordinary nova, now called a kilonova. This spectacular confirmation of theoretical predictions is what makes scientists really excited, because it reveals that we have a better understanding of some aspect of God’s handiwork.

In this case, the gravitational and visible waves together lead to solving a number of problems in astronomy and physics. First, it provides evidence for why there are heavy elements in the universe. More “normal” nuclear processes only explain the generation of elements up to iron. The kilonova provides a mechanism to generate heavier elements like silver, gold and platinum. Second, it provides an engine that can generate the very powerful, short gamma ray bursts that are too strong to be generated by normal stars. Finally, the light signature of the kilonova over time parallels the predictions of what would happen when two neuron stars rip into each other.

This experimental confirmation of gravitational and astronomical theory by an event 130 million lightyears away is an amazing accomplishment that reflects how far astronomy has come since Galileo, 450 years ago, first looked at the sky with a telescope and suggested that the earth was not the centre of the cosmos.

The Reformation reshaped our way of reading of God’s special revelation, the Bible, giving it primacy of place as a way to understand God’s relationship with us. In the intervening 500 years, science has enriched our understanding of God’s general revelation, his world. We see an amazing cosmos that stretches our imagination and demonstrates the grandeur of our Lord.  

Rudy Eikelboom (ac.ulw@mooblekier), who is overawed by seeing the Milky Way at night, is a member of Waterloo CRC and chair of the Psychology Department at Wilfrid Laurier University.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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