Stars, Quarks, and the Christian Universe

By Reverend Frank R. Haig, S.J. Professor Emeritus of Physics
Reverend Frank R. Haig, S.J.

We love to look at the night sky. We love to study the stars in their many colors and brilliances. As Saint Paul proclaims in the old translation: “One star differeth from another star in glory.” We love to follow the planets and even the sun and the moon in their wanderings against the background of the bowl of the heavens.

For the ancients it was a tidy world, well compacted about the central Earth with the heavens only a seeming arm’s length away.

The human family held a special position, both in the sense of geometry and in the sense of dignity. The universe revolved around us and we were the beings of greatest eminence in that world.

In 1543, the Polish Catholic priest Nicholas Copernicus shattered that encompassing celestial sphere. His work led to the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century that started with Galileo, ran through Descartes, and ended with Isaac Newton. Just as importantly, these developments brought about the Industrial Revolution as the steam engine achieved usable efficiency after 1800. At the same time there came the magnificent discoveries in medicine. In the year 1800 something like one-third of all children in England under the age of three died of smallpox. Earlier, the three children astronomer Johannes Kepler had with his first wife all died of smallpox. After Dr. Edward Jenner’s work with vaccination, the disease has effectively vanished from the developed world.

The explosive increase of invention brought about a strange change. In ancient times, the Golden Age was always in the past. Think of paradise and the Garden of Eden. History has been going downhill since that great start.

Now the new notion of progress comes in and the Golden Age is in the future. Wars, atomic bombs, and biological weapons may introduce a note of fear, but the future promises to always be better.

It also promises to be larger. The American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, in the 1920s freed us from even the broad confines of the Milky Way. The telescope that bears his name has further stretched our universe into galaxies and clusters of galaxies and superclusters of galaxies.

We are no longer the center of geometry and we cannot even be sure whether we are the center of dignity. We may share that role with intelligent creatures elsewhere out there, although their existence still eludes us.

Physicists have gone in the other direction. If the world is large, it is also small. Now there are molecules and atoms and electrons and protons and quarks and objects we think are there but cannot yet detect.

At the moment the world is larger and smaller and more puzzling than it has ever been in the past. We think there is dark matter and dark energy hiding under our eyes but still escaping our vision. We don’t even know if there is one universe or a swarm of universes, a veritable multiverse.

Science at the moment faces a world bursting with mystery and a labyrinth of questions. All this before we even touch upon the splendors of life itself and its many forms that may not be limited to our magnificent Earth.

What a time to be studying science! What a resplendent world into which God has called us! What a wealth of surprises we have already seen and expect still to uncover! It is a fine time to expand our investigations, as the present enrichment of our facilities here at Loyola will allow. We will use them well to the joy of our benefactors.

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