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The Marvels of our Universe

Even though I am no longer a believer, I still sometimes read and think about the book of Psalms in the Old Testament.  Just yesterday I had occasion to quote Psalm 8 to my wife.   In the beautiful and most familiar (though completely non-inclusive!) wording of the King James Version, this is the psalm.

1 O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

OK, I didn’t quote the whole think to her, just verses 1a, 3-4.  (As it turns out, I had meant in this post today to quote the same words, for reasons I’ll explain tomorrow).

The reason I quoted them had nothing to do with much of anything connected with the blog, but with a news story that I read yesterday, at the prompting of a member of the blog who wrote a comment directing me to it.  It has to do with our universe.

For a few years now I’ve been intrigued by astronomy.  I say that as someone who never took an astronomy class in college and who is woefully ignorant about the very basics of astral physics or anything else of much relevance.  But possibly like you, I’m deeply intrigued by lots of things I don’t know about.  (And OK, possibly also like you, I need to get the Great Courses 96-lecture – count them, 96 lectures – on the universe.)  Even without any training, one of the things I’m intrigued by is just how vast the universe is.   Fairly recently, of course, some astronomers have been arguing that ours may simply be one universe out of a vast multiverse.  But even sticking to the universe we are starting to know, there is plenty to boggle the mind.

When I got interested and started watching lectures and shows on the universe, I was most struck by the enormity of it all.  At the time, about five years ago, it was thought that there are about a 100 billion stars in our galaxy (our sun not being one of the big uns).   And that there are about 100 billion galaxies in the universe (and our galaxy not being one of the big uns).   This is almost literally unthinkable.  There is no way to get one’s mind around the enormity of the universe.

And then came a report from astronomers this past October, that these numbers may be a very, very serious underestimation.  You can find the report in various venues, including a nice synopsis in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/10/so-many-galaxies/504185/   The short story: some astronomers are now arguing that in our universe there are not 100 billion galaxies but two trillion galaxies.  That is 2,000,000,000,000 GALAXIES.   Not stars.  Galaxies.   Suppose there are indeed 100 billion stars on average in these galaxies.  Well, do the math and start adding the 0’s.

I was telling my wife about this article, and suddenly Psalm 8 popped in my head.  Again, it says When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;  What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

The Psalmist lived in such a simple world compared to ours.  There was no universe, no galaxy, no solar system.  This earth was all there is.  Above it is the firmament, which – as its name suggests – was a firm buffer between us and the place God lived in heaven.  Right above the firmament was water (that’s why it rained, through the holes in the firmament; it had to be firm to keep the water out), and placed in the firmament (somehow) were the sun, moon, and stars which moved around inside of it.  Below the surface of the earth is more water (which is where rivers, springs, and fountains, etc. come from).

That was it.    It was all the author knew about. And yet, with just this earth beneath his feet and the firmament above, the author gazed in wonder at the enormity of it all, and wondered, how in a world of such mind-boggling size, magnitude, and grandeur, God could care for paltry human beings.  God had so much else to care for, and the Psalmist was amazed that God could take time out to care for humans and even reveal himself to them.  It took his breath away.

What would he think if he knew what we know today?  I suppose he probably would think pretty much the same thing, but more so.   But billions of trillions times more so?  That’s asking a lot!  Is it asking too much?  It is interesting how different people respond.  Believers probably respond with awe and immense gratitude, that despite the incalculable enormity of reality, God has shed his love and attention on them here on little ole earth.  Unbelievers might respond with equal conviction that in a universe of this size (even if it’s not just one of an incalculable number of other universes) the idea that there is a God whose principle concern (or even one very minor concern) is with humans on this paltry planet in this paltry solar system in a paltry galaxy that numbers one of trillions is literally beyond belief.  They simply can’t believe it.

I have one of these responses, and you may have the other.  But whichever response we have, surely at root the response is the same, one of absolute awe at the greatness and magnitude of it all.

 

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    maodell  December 22, 2016

    You need to buy a telescope Bart (if you haven’t already got one). The nearby star clusters and galaxies look amazing.
    As sense of scale (and the vast distances involved) here’s one that always staggers me.
    If we reduce the Sun to the size of an orange – Earth would be a grain of sand about 27 feet away and the nearest star (a red dwarf known as Proxima Centauri) would be about a quarter of the Sun’s size at a distance of approx 1420 miles!

  2. Avatar
    Todd  December 22, 2016

    When I was attending Yale Divinity School, I was a part of an intimate group of students invited to be a part of “uncle ken’s” monthly discussions. Uncle Ken was the professor emeritus of Church History, Kenneth Scott Latourette. He lived with us in our dorm.

    At one of the meetings he shared how he came to believe. He said that one night he looked at the sky and asked if there was any one in this vast universe who could love him. From that simple question came a lifetime quest to understand and a career that put him in touch with thousands of young minds seeking a similar understanding.

    When he told his story tears filled his eyes as he relived his experience. None of us, as limited humans, can fully understand the mystery of it all but it can lead us to have faith, hope and belief…”Now we see through a dark glass , but then we will see clearly.” I will always remember that evening with Uncle Ken.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2016

      Kenneth Scott Latourette was a very learned and justly well known scholar. Lucky you!

    • Avatar
      mjkhan  December 23, 2016

      Todd,
      Think about two things.One is “If there was no God,the world could never have come so far”because human being would have killed each other and this planet would have winds howling through its tall trees.
      Second:If there was no accountability in the mind of the creator the man wouldn’t have to be created.This accountability and its awareness keeps man in self control,self restraint and accomodative of others.sadly though it is still present in eastern religions,it has vanished in the west under the cover of concepts of chosen people and forgiven people.

      • Avatar
        clairemcdougall  December 28, 2016

        Even though I rejected the Judeo-Christian framework many moons ago, I still think that there is still a good Argument from Design for a higher but incorporated intelligence. One example of this is our innate sense of wonder, which is what gripped the psalmist, and presumably Dr. Ehrman, too.
        But your two points are examples of circular argument, which is something else.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  December 22, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, have you watched this?
    https://youtu.be/9D05ej8u-gU

  4. Avatar
    godspell  December 22, 2016

    My own feeling is that we still don’t know if there is complex life on other planets. We may never know. It may be there are many inhabited worlds, or it may be this is it. I lean towards believing there must be life elsewhere, but that it may be very rare, and much of it may be very simple in nature. There may be nothing else like our earth anywhere, even if life exists on other worlds.

    No question at all, there are untold expanses of dead empty space and insensible cosmic debris for every inhabited world–just a infinitesimal part of this universe is alive, the equivalent of one grain of sand on an endless beach. And if God is anything at all, God is Life. So yes, if we posit a God, it makes perfect sense God would be mindful of us–and of all living things. The lilies of the field, and the birds of the air. It never made sense to me why he would care more for humans than animal or even plant life. In the Book of Jonah, God said he would spare Ninevah merely for the sake of the animals who lived in it. That was, to all accounts, a story Jesus loved.

    If we have any purpose at all, it must be to care for this tiny reservoir of biological complexity. And how are we doing with that? Not well at all, and we’re getting worse in some ways.. But there’s still time to change our ways. If we refuse, perhaps God/Nature will have to take steps to deal with our destructive habits. There are stories in more than one religion saying this has happened before.

    What is man? Not much. But we could be more. If we tried. A few of us have proven that already. Jesus was just one. There could be more.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SO85Wv_0c5M

  5. Avatar
    Jimmy  December 22, 2016

    I am amazed on the vastness of the universe/universes. I can see why believers in God find the vastness of the universe comforting. If God spoke it into existence he must be infinitely powerful. I on the other hand look at it like this. Most/All of the universe that we know about is very inhospitable to human life. Even in our own solar system there are dangers to human wellbeing. The sun has a estimated 4 billion years left until it engulfs the earth. There are asteroids , comets and other space junk that that pose some threat to us. Even on earth we have earthquakes , volcanos , hurricanes , tornados and other assorted threats. This is one of the reasons I think that it is more probable that a god does not exist.

    I have a question that always puzzled me and I have never had a satisfactory answer to. How would beings ( if they exist ) in other solar systems and galaxies fit into the Christian fundamentalist world view ? Does Adams sin affect them ? Is Jesus the savior of them also ?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2016

      Different conservative Christians would answer the question differently. Some would say life on this planet is all there is. Others would say that God deals with life on all the planets differently depending on local conditions. You should read C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet; Perelanda; That Hideous Strength)

    • Avatar
      Robby  December 24, 2016

      The groups I’m familiar with point to Romans 8:22 and believe that when all creation fell, including any ET life forms, they fell as well. Did Jesus die for them? Are they aware of the fall? It gets sticky theologically very quickly.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  February 14, 2017

      “Even in our own solar system there are dangers to human wellbeing. The sun has a estimated 4 billion years left until it engulfs the earth.”

      I’m re-viewing this thread because someone posted a reply to a comment of mine…

      Just wanted to point out that with the Sun’s growing ever hotter, Earth is only expected to be *habitable* for about *one* billion more years. And it may not be possible to predict what will happen to any star for more than two billion years, because that’s when our galaxy and Andromeda will begin to collide and merge.

      I’m a non-theist, but I’m also an optimist, and I think our descendants – and future incarnations! – will succeed in reaching and terraforming planets in other solar systems. Beyond that, I think we’ll eventually incarnate in other intelligent species. And we may be destined, at some future stage in our evolution, to remember the most important details of all our incarnations.

  6. Avatar
    Jana  December 22, 2016

    Dear Dr. Ehrman, I live among perhaps the greatest ancient astronomers in human history, the Maya. How they understood the complex planetary movements without the aid of technology still baffles archeologists. Whole cities including Uxmal near where I live were dedicated to the planetary cycles. (Uxmal Venus). Could I recommend author and renown astrophysicist/Maya anthropologist Dr. Arthur F. Aveni “Skywatchers” “Planets in Maya Literature” etc. (ancient Maya astrology is my hobby). Some Maya families and shamans retain their celestial ceremonies. Yes as I now can observe nightly the movement of Venus in ratio to the Moon with Mars in the distance and sometimes the Milky Way, I share in our awe and wonder. From Dzogchen Buddhist perspective, it is written that Dzogchen is taught in 13 planetary systems. How is this so? Personally, I think it arrogant that people think humans are alone amid a myriad of galaxies, superior and also in command.

  7. Avatar
    drussell60  December 22, 2016

    I can totally relate to the following quote:

    “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

    ― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

  8. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  December 22, 2016

    Happy Holidays Bart ! I hope your holidays are happy and joyful! I hope things are going well in your life… And with your first sentence of this posting. ” Even though I am no longer a Believer ” i Say that often, but not long after .. God sits naturally in my mind… Again, I don’t go around preaching good news.. But it does sit naturally in my mind and heart.. God is real… and my mind and heart belongs to God.

    And.. keep going back to what your wrote me.. I do have a lot to offer this world.. and so do you !

  9. Avatar
    Tony  December 22, 2016

    I remain astounded at the tenacity of religious beliefs. The incredible inefficiency of a creator who needed vast amounts of time, space and matter, to strictly and only create an insignificant, self absorbed species who must praise Him from a small planet in one solar system out of billions, in one galaxy out of 2 trillion!

    • Avatar
      mjkhan  December 23, 2016

      Tony.
      You sound like atheist.But think about one fact,even today as we talk there are not all the birds on this planet,nor all the fish,nor all the kind of snakes that science has gotten a database of.This is how much our knowledge is self limited.And there are facts about science written in Quran 1400 years ago which are coming true today.Think but be impartial.You can google a book”Brief illustrated guide to understanding Islam” and see first chapter on”The scientific miracles in holy Quran”Knowledge never hurts and one should be always open to it.This is the demand of education.

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 24, 2016

        Yes, I am an Atheist. You are right, science does not know everything. But I like to think that we know a lot more then 1400 years ago!

        • Avatar
          mjkhan  December 26, 2016

          Yes we know a lot more than what we knew 1400 years ago.But the fact is that today knowledge is for gain of wealth and power.,to control other humans and Islam/Quran taught that knowledge is for the benefit of human beings,enviornment,animal and veg kingdom.Science is study of principals on which nature functions and Islam said Human being is the best(highest) creation of God not the improvement of any monkey or gorilla.We see it,no other creation of God wears clothes,nor cooks food and nor makes its houses comfortable.Todays knowledge in the form of increasing technology will eventually make man into a human electronic robot who will eventually die of depression,lonesomeness suicide or killing others if not by cancer due to it.Today’s knowledge has removed family links,social interactions with others while Islam in its time of growth in knowledge and even today developed family,the value of links of its members,etc,right for human to himself ,of family members and thus inculcated peace in the society.You don’t see this today.In Quran Allah says have mercy on others and I will have mercy on you.I hope we can make this knowledge(Science) into a service to mankind.

          • Avatar
            sashko123  January 8, 2017

            True. Homo sapiens are not an improvement of any monkey or gorilla. Instead, all primates, including us, come from a common ancestor, and we are not “improvements.” Every species is adapted to its environment through a wide variety of mechanisms, including natural selection. A monkey’s tail is better suited for arboreal living than our upright posture and lack of tail, and our upright posture is better suited to grassland environments. Homo sapiens is probably directly an “improvement” of Homo erectus and earlier of a species similar to Australopithecus afarensis. It’s true not because anybody said it is true, but because the evidence for it is massive.

  10. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  December 22, 2016

    Your Mobile Users Picture… I asked who that was.. You said You and Sarah! LOL still laugh about that … now that was Funny Mr! I know you like have a good drink and listen to good music… well listen to some good music and have a drink.. and think of the school of Athens.. the Fresco painting by Raphael 1509- 1511.. You should be in that painting Bart. Drink and listen to music that put back in time… back in the times of Plato.. You have that God given right! Go back in time with your mind.. And to those on the blog that read post .. Free your mind.. Back to olden days! The days with no distraction from technology ! Strip your self from the world.. Be the definition of everything will be ok no matter what is going on.. You wear the armor of God Bart and don’t even know it… You are a light house in the darkness…

  11. TWood
    TWood  December 22, 2016

    Yes, it’s so insane… if you haven’t already read it… I recommend reading Victor Stenger’s last book before he died called “God and the Multiverse”… he’s an atheist like you… but it’s replete with evidence (and his atheistic biases… which is fine)… Another mind blowing thought is that the Standard Model of particles only makes up less than 5% of our observable universe! Over 95% of it is “dark” (meaning we have no idea what it’s made of)… crazy… esp Dark Energy… what the hell is that? Red shifting galaxies… galaxies that are expanding away from each other faster than the speed of light… so that in the distant future there will be nothing but black nothingness… all the galaxies will have moved too far away from us to see ever again… except for Andromeda… which will merge with our Milky Way due to gravity… The psalmist had no idea how crazy the heavens were.. also check out Edward Witten if you really want your mind blown… if you haven’t already… he believes string theory necessitates eleven dimensions… ten spatial plus time… and will somehow explain why quantum mechanics doesn’t fit with general relativity (where quantum entanglement also seems to defy the speed of light in a “non local” sense)… when I look at all of this… I can’t lie… it makes me more of a theist than ever… it’s strange how different people interpret the same evidence… I guess that’s the bias we all carry with us whether we like it or not… but it is crazy how our observable universe just started expanding out of nowhere for no reason 13.8 billion years ago… and then produced human consciousness… I see life as a seed that grows toward its creator just as plants grow toward the sun… from the simple cell 3.5 billion years ago to we homo sapien sapiens just 200,00 years ago… IDK… I can’t see how human intelligence arose from random quantum fluctuations before spacetime and matter existed… but maybe… IDK for sure… but the evidence seems to suggest a mastermind to me.. That on its own doesn’t mean he’s a good mastermind.. maybe he’s evil… but it seems someone very smart and powerful is behind all of this I can’t help but think (where did the initial infinite energy that creates matter come from?).. sorry for the rant… but you touched on one of my favorite subjects… check out Stenger’s book if you haven’t…

    https://www.amazon.com/God-Multiverse-Humanitys-Expanding-Cosmos/dp/1616149701

  12. Avatar
    Tony  December 22, 2016

    On the other hand, the origins of Christianity, rather than the origins of our universe, maybe easier to comprehend.

    On that point I noticed the quoted psalm say “heavens” and not heaven. Our friend Paul believed in multiple heavens – maybe three. A common belief with both Pagans and Jews in Paul’s time were multi layered heavens much like copies of the earth, usually seven, above the firmament. Even today we have the expression “I’m in seventh heaven” to indicate ultimate bliss. The 7th heaven was the fully spiritual home of the gods. The lower heavens got gradually less spiritual and more “of the flesh”.

    Paul believed that the firmament was home to Satan and his Demons. They were the cause of our misery on earth. Paul beliefs were likely similar as those described in “The Ascension of Isaiah”. Here God the Father sends his son ‘Christ” down through the heavens on a mission. As the son descends he gradually acquires human form and, in the firmament, is mistakenly killed by the Satan and his demons, (the rulers of this age), and hung from a tree (crucified). The Father resurrects his son three days later, but the sacrificial process spells the end of Satan and his ilk. They are doomed to perish. Christ the Son will ascend back to the seventh heaven taking many of righteous resurrected souls with him.

  13. Avatar
    dankoh  December 22, 2016

    Somewhere between one and two trillion galaxies that we know of, yes. (Is that American trillion or British trillion? And does it really matter at this point?) I recall that in a perfectly dark sky with no ambient light and no moon, there are something like 5,000 object visible to the naked eye (includes planets and what we now are nebulae and galaxies). Made it a lot easier for the ancients to visualize a creator and a purpose.

    And it also makes it ludicrous to believe in one now, to my way of thinking. Or that we are the only intelligence (if we are intelligent, something I often wonder about) in that vast universe. Assume 10(12) galaxies, each with 10(11) stars, that’s 10(23) stars. If 1,000th of 1% have planets, that’s 10(18) planets. If same percentage are in the (for us) habitable) zone, that’s 10(13) planets., And if just 1 millionth of them have intelligent life, that’s 10(7), or 10 million intelligent species in the universe. Actually, 20 million, if you figure 2 trillion galaxies. (That’s the math.)

    On top of which, we’re not seeing any of this tin present time, but millions and even billions of years ago. But my head is already spinning.

    Would we recognize other intelligent life? I’m not so sure; we’re having trouble recognizing elephants and dolphins and maybe even cats as intelligent.

    Tangential thought: God promised Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. I think we’ve got a bit of a space issue here.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  December 22, 2016

    Bart Ehrman’s Position:
    https://youtu.be/toctheu5qPo

    Steefen,
    Author of the Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy, Second Edition
    YouTube Video Producer, WBFbySteefen :

    Sure, we can conceive of God clanging two universes together to create a big bang or a big bang from a singularity; but, That Creator is not the “God” for humans. That’s the God of the theatrical set or that is the God for the theater for physical existence, not the God of the actors in physical existence.

    That is not a God with personhood who would write The Koran or inspire the Hebrew Bible or have is Son crucified by Romans who 40 years later destroy His Temple.

    The “God” who created our own Star-Sun has dissipated. Our Star-Sun as stars of its kind were birth in a nursery of a nebula.

    There is a fallacy or a leap of faith from personhood to inanimate creation phenomenon. There is personification of creation phenomenon fallaciously regarded as theological fact.

    Even on the micro level (relative to the universe), the Grand Canyon was not created for man to sing how great personified phenomenon is.

    = = =
    Bart, sincerely wishing you a Merry Christmas (a time to celebrate the birth of a personification of Salvation)

  15. Avatar
    Hume  December 22, 2016

    Good post! I feel the same.

    Some awe inspiring things that are related!

    The live stream of the ISS. I am awe struck everytime I think how big, important, and unimportant our planet is.
    1. https://youtu.be/SF7FUU7CThs

    Hitch puts a fine point on the different sides you illuminate at the end of your article! Someone tell me why genetics tells us we were down to 2000 – 30000 people, yet Genesis tells me there was only two to begin with!
    2. https://youtu.be/KBrUanbO2tA

  16. Avatar
    Steve  December 22, 2016

    And in the midst of your ever expansive universe, you choose to spend a moment sharing your knowledge, read and answer our questions, and invite us to join you in a search for truth. Thank you for allowing us to roam about in your universe and the best to you in the New Year!

  17. tompicard
    tompicard  December 22, 2016

    yes the marvels of the great universe are immense, but even more than the design of stars galaxies, etc, is that God designed a planet which could support 8 billion of His children, with energy, food and enumerable benefits and pleasures.

    Even though this world as designed by God can support double the population that we have now, many people are contemptuous of God and complain “why are/were there genocides?”, “why are there people starving in different parts of the world?” or “why are there disease?” “why are do people die in earthquakes?”
    These people think God didn’t design this world right.

    They think, I guess, God should have opened up the earth and swallowed the Fuhrer, as He did with Korah, Dathan and Abiram.

    They think irregardless of incompetent tyrants in North Korea, selfish individuals in developed countries, God should (I suppose) drop loaves of manna to those in countries where people are starving.They don’t realize people, through their own initiative can eliminate starvation, if they choose to.

    They don’t realize people, God’s children, can eliminate 99% (maybe 100%) of earthquake casualties, if they decide to.

    They don’t realize people, God’s children, find cures for all of the diseases facing humans by the end of the century, see Chan Zuckerberg Science initiative.

    Yeah, God did a good job designing the cosmos but a lousy job designing this planet. He, God, should miraculously solve all these above problems, even if these problems are the direct results of His sons’ and daughters’ complete lack of responsibility.

  18. Avatar
    Eric  December 22, 2016

    I didn’t know where you were going with this (vv3-4 it turns out). As I was reading the psalm above, it evoked this from Hamlet:

    What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

    I believe Hamlet was being sarcastic (ironic?) at the time, unlike the Psalmist.

  19. Avatar
    Vatikan  December 22, 2016

    PBS’s Space Time channel is one of my favorites to learn about astronomy and big topics in astrophysics. If you’re interested, I pasted the link below.

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7_gcs09iThXybpVgjHZ_7g

  20. Avatar
    Jason  December 22, 2016

    I don’t think there’s a sense of scale to being overwhelmed. Once something is too big to imagine then 2, 10, or 1000 to the 1000th power times greater is all the same. Which may explain why some people choose to believe that the earth is flat and it revolves around them.

    Can’t go wrong with either of the Tyson “Great Courses.” They’re as good as yours, but with lots more CGI.

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