Cosmic Ray Source Found

Advances made in science often have theological implications

Over 50 years ago I entered a project in the Montreal Science Fair in the Chateau on top of Mount Royal. It was a project on Cosmic Rays, which are protons and charged energy particles from space that bombard our world, at energy levels one million times stronger than we can produce in our biggest particle accelerators. The project was more like an encyclopedia article, not a particularly good science fair entry. I remember ending with a statement that the source of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays was unknown. No one could explain where they came from.

At the South Pole there is a lab that detects the sub-atomic particles called neutrinos in a cubic kilometre of ice called the IceCube. Built over seven years, from 2004 to 2010, the detector measures light in 5,160 light detectors positioned on 86 cables buried 1.5 to 2.5 kilometres deep in the pure Antarctic ice. When neutrinos pass through the ice, they sometimes hit an atomic nucleus, resulting in an emission of light that the IceCube’s sensors can detect. Because neutrinos do not have an electrical charge, they are not affected by magnetic fields from stars or the background radiation in space from the big bang, which bends the direction of charged particles. Neutrinos travel in a straight line from their source. Thus, using the emission of light in the IceCube, scientists can determine where the neutrinos originate.

Powerful partnership
On September 22, 2017, the IceCube detected an ultra-high energy neutrino moving at almost the speed of light. Computers were able to calculate the path of the neutrino and its direction. The information was immediately circulated to the astronomic community, and the X-ray observatory Swift rapidly found an object named TXS 0506+056 in the source direction of the neutrino. In the next few days the gamma ray telescope Fermi-LAT found that this object was a galaxy with a super massive black hole at its centre called a blazer. Blazers are very hot and shoot out two jets of ultra-high energy particles from their poles. This blazer’s pole appears to be pointing at our solar system and thus is most likely responsible for the neutrino that was detected by the IceCube. Other optical telescopes put this blazer at about 3.75 billion light years away. 

Theoretical models suggest that in blazers, high-energy neutrinos are formed in partnership with charged high-energy cosmic rays. Now this combination of four major astronomical devices has linked this blazer, TXS 0506+056, with the ultra-high energy neutrinos and consequently provided a source for cosmic rays. While it is over 50 years since I did my science fair project, and this discovery required multiple telescopes that then did not exist, it feels good to know that the puzzle I explored in high school now has a solution. 

Tiny specks 
One thing this story highlights is that science does not stand still. Our understanding of God’s very complex universe is increasing incrementally but significantly over time. The advances made in science often have theological implications we need to consider as we become more aware of the world God has given us to live in. The light and other radiation from TXS 0506+056 left the blazer about 3.75 billion years ago and is only now reaching our world. The birth, life, death and resurrection of the Son of God in our world thus need to be understood in the context of a creation that is very old and very large, and in which our world is only a minor speck. What this means theologically is not clear to me, but I am thankful that our Creator entered his creation upon our tiny planet Earth only two thousand years ago.

  • 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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