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franciscan - September 2004

The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Galaxies, Goldilocks and Little Green Men

by Desmond Alban SSF

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparell'd in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.


William Wordsworth's poetry expresses how a vital sense of wonder, pregnant with 'Intimations of Immortality', is often keenly experienced by the young.  I felt it when walking the family dog through the field footpath near the monastery in my home town, as well as in family prayers led by my father.  But I knew it too whilst peering down my grandfather's microscope as he shared his love of pond-life.  My own delight in creeping things was indulged even as far as allowing me to keep a fully functioning ant colony on the top of the fridge (with suitable precautions!), and an invertebrate 'zoo' in the garden.  Meanwhile, I began to learn the names of the constellations from my mother whilst walking home from choir practice on wintry Friday nights and she and I still compare notes on our star-gazing.  Mundane daily life sometimes causes a 'forgetting' of which Wordsworth also speaks but my later scientific study of the stars would trigger a reawakening of that wonder, for 'The one who made the Pleiades and Orion . . . the LORD is his name.' (Amos 5.8) 

It was in Junior School science lessons that I first recall glimpsing another dimension of this wonder: the practical advantages of levers don't fascinate everybody(!), but it was there that I first began to understand the miracle that the universe obeys laws which can be expressed using mathematics, an apparently purely human language that somehow works to describe the way the world is.  Later, as a teacher myself, I would seek to share that enthusiasm with my pupils:  I still think it's wonderful that with the aid of a couple of very simple equations you can mark some coordinates on a blackboard, join them up, and then throw the piece of chalk you've just used and watch it trace its way through space, untouched, along that precisely predicted parabola.  The astronomer Johannes Kepler who first described the laws of planetary motion knew where that order came from when he remarked in awe, 'My God, I am thinking your thoughts after you!' The author of the book of Wisdom acknowledges that Divine inspiration in Chemistry, Zoology, Botany, Medicine, Astronomy, Psychology . . . (Wisdom 7.16-21).  With him, I love the rhythms of 'the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons', and I equipped my school laboratory with an old clock adjusted to run on 'star time' (sidereal time).  Conversely though, in modern physics the clock-like predictability imagined by Kepler and Newton is shattered:  the A-level student's mind is challenged by ideas like Chaos Theory,  time dilation, and sub-atomic 'events' that happen quite randomly with no apparent cause at all.  The clock-maker deist God of Newton is gone, but what emerges is a playful 'Lord of the Dance' who created a universe with the freedom to express itself in utterly unpredictable and yet purposeful ways. 

Outside my laboratory door, a small metal plaque depicted the sun scaled down to the size of a 10p piece, with the Earth as a dot a few paces down the corridor.  This scale model continued with the other planets around the walls of the Surrey comprehensive with a final plaque near the school gate; 'A plaque on this scale for Proxima Centauri, our next-nearest star, would have to be placed in Aberdeen.'  Our Milky Way galaxy contains a hundred thousand million such stars, and is only one of a thousand million galaxies in the observable universe!  The immensities of time are similarly difficult to grasp; but if we imagine the history of the universe from the Big Bang until now as a calendar year, the few thousand years of human history - since the building of the pyramids say - occupy about ten seconds on New Year's Eve!  In a letter (quoted by Mark Pryce in his book, Literary Companion for Festivals), the poet Edith Sitwell  describes meeting Edwin Hubble, the astronomer largely responsible for this modern view of the cosmos, and being shown signs of these immensities.  'How terrifying!' she remarked.  'Only when you are not used to them,' he replied.  'When you are used to them they are comforting.  For then you know there is nothing to worry about - nothing at all!'  She goes on to say that Hubble died just a few months later, 'And I suppose now that he knows how truly he spoke.'

Sometimes the stories told by science have a stark beauty we would never otherwise have imagined.  Consider a wedding ring:  we now know that the gold from which it is made is formed only in supernova explosions, brief and rare events of unimaginable power.  These happen at the deaths of certain stars which, after billions of years of life, blow themselves apart, one such star briefly shining brighter than a typical galaxy.  Not only gold though, but the atoms in our bodies themselves were formed in ancient stars, as John Polkinghorne explains in his article - and that brings me to Goldilocks!  She, you will recall, was eventually able to find in the house of the three bears, a chair, a bed and a bowl of porridge that were just right for her use, and the 'Goldilocks effect' is a nick-name for the remarkable 'just right-ness' of our universe for life.

So are there other intelligences beyond our experience, 'Little Green Men' in the stars, or are we alone in this vast, life-nurturing, universe?  Either alternative seems quite incredible!  My own reading of the scientific thinking is that the sheer size of the universe makes intelligent life somewhere else probable, but the vast distances involved make it unlikely that we shall ever contact each other: if anyone in our neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy responds to one of our radio signals, the reply will take four million years to reach us!

All this raises questions about the centrality of the earth and its human occupants, and this broadening of outlook then has implications for me in our dealings with those who live in 'other worlds' even here on our own planet; it challenges my thinking on inter-faith dialogue.  But nothing at present known to us in the cosmos compares with the beauty and wonder of life on earth and especially human life.  In us, the ashes of dead stars have evolved into a form capable of love and creativity and of wonder at the miracle of our own existence - a form of existence assumed by the creator himself in Jesus.  F.C. Happold reflects on this beautifully in his book Prayer and Meditation.  He acknowledges the rest of the  cosmos' inevitable ignorance of God's dealings 'with this ambiguous earth' and of Christ's 'earth-visiting feet'.  But he also imagines a dialogue in eternity when

 . . . we shall compare together, hear

A million alien Gospels, in what guise

He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear. 


O, be prepared my soul!

To read the inconceivable, to scan

The million forms of God those stars unroll

When, in our turn, we show to them a Man. f

Desmond Alban taught Physics to A-level and Astronomy to GCSE prior to joining SSF in 1993.

Erratum:  After this article was published, it was brought to our attention that Happold is not in fact the author of the poem, but in his book reproduces the poem 'Christ in the Universe' by Alice Meynell (1847-1925).



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