Rocket Powered Camels

Okay, let’s start with the obvious.  The sun, the moon, planets and stars rise in the east and set in the west.  We all know this; everybody knows this.  Even before Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo (in the 1500s and early 1600s) figured out the motion was due to the rotation of the earth and not of a cosmic celestial bowl turning over a stationary earth, the day and night cycle was something everybody just knew because that’s what everyone observed, day after day.  And aside from the occasional comet or meteor shower, everything in the sky rose in the east and set in the west.  “Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in secula seculorum. Amen.  Alleuluia.

What few astronomical references we have from the Bible, it’s always rise in the east and set in the west.  The passage in Joshua 10:12-15 doesn’t contradict this.  According to the text, Joshua asks the Lord to stop the motion of the sun and the moon “in the middle of the day” (v. 13a), and “[the sun] did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (v. 13b).  Some day, huh.

Neither does the curious passage in Isaiah 38, in which the Lord directs Isaiah to tell the dying Hezekiah that the sign of his healing will be, “‘I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to back ten steps.’  So the sun’s shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down” (Is 38:8).  Isaiah then heals the king’s near-fatal boil by applying to it a “cake of figs” (v 21).  That’s the NASB’s translation.  The NIV says a “poultice of figs,” but to my way of thinking the whole idea of a poultice has a much higher “yuck” factor even if it is more literal.  Of course, why they just didn’t do the whole fig-cake thing to begin with, we’ll never know.  Anyway, modern Astronomy doesn’t have an answer to either of these accounts, but it doesn’t matter.  The Israelites won the battle over the Amorites, and Hezekiah got a 15-year lease on life, so don’t knock it.

All right, where is this going?  I do have a plan.

Fast forward to the Nativity narrative in Matthew, with the Magi.  When Magi AstroConsulting ™ show up at Herod’s court in Jerusalem, they said they had seen this new star in the east, that according to their Cray Supercomputers, er, magination and divinations had determined it signified a new King of the Jews.  Aside from the fact this rather impolitic announcement spread like wildfire in all the local papyrus tabloids and cable TV talking heads, their announcement, was astronomically correct.

These astronomer/astrologers were east-centric.  From our modern perspective, space is a big, big place and the whole notion of the cardinal points of north, south, east and west, are not of much significance in a universe that stretches infinitely away on all vectors from our small blue dot. That’s for us landlubbers, anyway.  Navigation by air or sea requires the correct heading or bad things will happen.

But the guys at Magi AstroConsulting ™ lived in a much cozier universe, and predicting accurately what stuff in the sky came into view, when, and in what order made all the difference (not to mention keeping their heads connected to their necks).  Therefore, prior to the Copernican Revolution, the most important direction was EAST.  Besides with artificial lighting to accompany us at all times, we in modern culture rarely look up anyway.  What’s the point?  I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THE POINT IS…oh, sorry, I don’t want to cry and get my computer keyboard wet.

So the Magi see this star rise in the east and watch its track to where it sets in the west.  Although they couldn’t compute longitude (the vertical grid circling the globe), they could compute latitude (the horizontal lines), and throwing in a little astrology to plot which constellation signifies an auspicious event in the land of the Jews, they packed up their dromedarian SUVs and headed west.  ROAD TRIP!  The Route 66 of the Ancient World!  Destination Jerusalem!  On the way back, they’d hit Caesarea Phillipi, hang out on the beach, catch a few shows.  Some things never change.

The plot thickens, of course, because in present day, every off the shelf astronomy computer software program can calculate the night sky between 10,000 B.C. and A.D. 10,000 (10,000 C.E if you want to archeologically correct), and there were some very interesting things happening in the sky between 6 B.C. and A.D. 6., but we’ll deal with that story nearer Christmas.

And as for the star guiding the Magi caravan to the house in Bethlehem?  Well, there’s west (recall they were going west) and then there’s west.  Remember, the sun sets truly in the west only twice a year: at the Spring and Fall Equinoxes.  As soon as one deviates from true south or north in a westward direction, then one is “going” west.  That’s about a 180-degree variation of “westerly.”  So, despite the fact Bethlehem is slightly southwest of Jerusalem, it’s no big stretch to get everything to line up.  Of course, the Matthew narrative is much more satisfying, so since they found the right place, don’t knock it.

Double fast-forward to modern day.  I’m standing in my driveway looking west for the newest star in the heavens to appear.  Yes, west.  Didn’t seem right, with all I have just written, but west it was.  And it wasn’t really a star.  It was the International Space Station.  The fourth brightest object in the sky, and as well, only the fourth object in the sky to be visible in daylight (not counting the rare supernova or bollide meteorite).  Why west to east?  That’s the direction of the rotation of the earth.  It’s the rotation of the Jet Stream.  Spacecraft generally are launched with the earth’s spin.  Takes less fuel.  Launch to orbit in eight minutes.

So, there I was.  8:23 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.  Out of the glow of the setting sun a golden star, the brightest object in the sky, soars overhead.  Fast!  Very fast!  About two and a half minutes from horizon to horizon.  I was stunned!  About it’s size.  Of it’s brilliance.  And of the implication that every few nights, when the clouds of the great Cascade rain forest part for even a few moments that I will be able to step outside and watch this golden orb slide overhead.

A naked eye object.  A real spaceship. A human presence in space.  Not science fiction.  Real.  Just step out of your home every few nights and look up.  You can check the schedule for your Zip Code by going to and clicking on the “Satellite Flybys.”

And I imagined what the Magi might have thought if such a thing, this golden star had soared over their heads, west to east.  Going the wrong direction.  To follow that star, they’d need rocket-powered camels!

ISS Glides Over Butser, England.  3 Mar 09.  Credit: Martin Saban-Smith,

ISS Glides Over Butser, England. 3 Mar 09. Credit: Martin Saban-Smith,

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

This week I inaugurated a new blog called “DÎSCÎ,” which is the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry. (It is pronounced “dye-sigh”). The address is:  DÎSCÎ’s homebase is on The Intersection, which is a companion site for members and friends of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sponsored by DisciplesWorld, an independently published print and online magazine for the Disciples.

I have, for some time, wanted to create a forum, an online institute in which people of faith could discuss the many issues regarding religion and science.  But my idea was to move beyond the creation-evolution debate and start a conversation of what it means to be a person of faith, particularly from the Judeo-Christian perspective in a universe that is very large, very old, and to give genuine credit to the advances in science over the past nearly 500 years.

I am grateful for the assistance of Rebecca Woods, who created The Intersection and serves on the DisciplesWorld staff, for her interest and encouragement in launching DÎSCÎ.  Here, then is the Inaugural Post of the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry.

DĪSCĪ Space Theme

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

Day and night. The most important cycle that governs our lives. Our bodies are finely attuned to the light of day and the dark of night.  It is as natural as breathing.  We think of that 24 hour cycle as very simple.  The earth spins on its axis; part of its surface is always in light and part is always in dark.  It has been this way since the creation of the world.  Both of the creation stories in the Bible, in Genesis 1 and 2 use the word “day” to describe God’s creative activity.

There is, however, nothing simple about it at all.  The complex set of forces that keep us safely spinning around the life-giving warmth of the Sun are only now beginning to be understood.

Yet, because of its constancy, we take it for granted.

Let me ask you a question.  When was the last time, when you left your home after dark, that you actually looked up at the sky?  Not just a glance, but looked up with intention to see what, well, what you could see?

I’ll venture a guess: Probably only rarely.  If you live in an urban setting, the combination of light pollution and air pollution might make it nearly impossible to see much of anything.  If your home is in a rural part of the country, you may very well be able to see the starry arc of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.  And if you are fortunate enough to live or visit well away from a population center, the night sky can be so bright you hardly need a flashlight to move around safely.

Whatever you can see, though, when you look up into the sky is not the present but the past.  The photons hitting the retina in your eyes are all different ages even though every one of those photons is traveling at exactly the same speed–the famous speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 km per second.  Astronomers call this “look back time.”

The light reflected from the moon takes just a tick over one second to reach Earth.  The Sun, some 93 million miles away, takes around 8 minutes. The farther the object is from me, the older the light is when it reaches my eyes.  When Earth passes by Mars (which is the fourth rock from the sun), the light takes anywhere between three and about six minutes to reach us, because both orbits of Earth and Mars are elliptical, just slightly egg-shaped.

If I point my telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy (also called M31), which even in my suburban backyard I can easily see, I am looking at light that is over 2.5 million years old!  And Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way.  In fact, Andromeda and the Milky Way are moving toward each other and some billions of years into the future, they will collide and merge.  Astronomers call it, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Milkomeda.”

Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images
Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images.  Our Solar System lives in the Orion Arm.

You get the idea.  The farther away the object is, the older the light is when it reaches Earth.

The other key concept is that everything in the universe is moving, and not just moving haphazardly, but expanding away from each other (the trajectories of some galaxies, like the Milky Way and Andromeda, will cause them to collide).  That’s what Edwin Hubble proved in 1925, using the Hooker 100 inch Telescope on Mt Wilson just up the hill from Pasadena, California, that was threatened by the huge “Station Fire” just last week.  This discovery led to the realization that the universe was expanding from a beginning point in space and time, which we now call the Big Bang.  And just a few years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe is not just expanding, it is accelerating.

What we’re interested in, though, is the Beginning, not the End.  Astrophysicists have wound the cosmic clock backward and come up with an age that the Universe is about 13.7 billion years old.  That’s old. Really old.  Can we see anything that old in the sky?  No, we can’t.  But modern telescopes have gotten so powerful that we can see a long way away and therefore back in time.  On September 2, 2009,  Prof. Tomatsugu Goto of the University of Hawaii released this photo of the most distant galaxy with a central black hole, and therefore oldest object ever observed.  It is 12.8  billion light years from us and the mass of the black hole is estimated to be  a billion times that of our sun.

QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged
QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged. 12.8 Bn LY Distant.  Photo: T. Goto, University of Hawaii.

Ponder this image for a few moments, as pixelated as it is.  This is the image of a real galaxy with a real black hole at its center (just like our galaxy has, by the way) that existed  billion years ago.

Here on Earth, which by comparison is only 4.5 billion years old, we humans–in particular we humans of the Judeo-Christian heritage–have viewed our universe as being, well, kind of cozy.  As the old saying goes, “God’s in his (sic) heaven and all’s right with the world.”  And although about 500 years ago that coziness began to be challenged and started unraveling when Copernicus published his “On the Revolutions” in 1543, we have been mostly content to think and talk about God in the way we always have.

Enter the dawn of the 21st Century. We are struck by the enormity of what  astrophysics has revealed to us; new discoveries make the news every week.  The universe is not cozy.  It is huge, old, complex, colder than we can imagine and hotter than we can imagine.  The very molecules that make up our bodies were born out of forces we can barely describe when stars blew themselves apart.

How do we talk about God in this kind of reality?  And life? Life on one planet in a universe that stretches 46.5 billion lights years in every direction?  How do you talk about God in this reality?

This is where we will start.  The Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry is officially open for discussion.

Before you answer, if you can, go outside and look up into the sky for a while, and ponder what is out there, as ancient photons hit your retina, and your brain translates them into the points of light we call stars.

How the Texas Long Horns and the TCU Horned Frogs Saved Health Care Reform

I just finished watching clips from NBC’s Meet the Press, which featured Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) discussing the status of the “public option” in the health care reform debate. It wasn’t much of a debate, despite host David Gregory’s best effort to provoke something other than party-line blather from either senator.  He wasn’t having much success.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Sen. Schumer made a comment that snapped my attention to full alert. He compared the public plan competing against private health insurers with public and private colleges and universities.  (If you watch the clip, it comes right at 2:00 minutes.)  I had to back it up and watch it again to confirm I actually had heard him correctly.  Gregory didn’t catch it, which he should have; Sen. Hatch, if he caught the comment, either had no response, or was so close to dozing off, he just kept mumbling the same old script.  I couldn’t really tell.

Schumer’s statement was a new characterization; I hadn’t heard it before. I’m not sure he even recognized the significance of it.  But it is an intriguing way to look at the public option. And since my PhD is in Higher Education, this is something I actually know something about.

Every state in the country has private and public universities.  Take Texas, for example, where the idea of the public option is more anathema than the Long Horns losing to Oklahoma.  The University of Texas in Austin is a public university.  Texas Christian University (TCU) in Ft Worth, where I earned my Master of Divinity degree, is a private university.

Hook 'em Horns.  University of Texas Football

Hook 'em Horns. University of Texas Football

According to the prevailing dogma of Republican and Free Market devotees, the government should never be allowed to compete against free enterprise and the private market, because the government will always do it worse, waste vast amounts of money in the process and destroy competition, thereby threatening the American Way of Life.

Does the public university “system” in the country drive out the private schools by being too competitive for them to survive? They could in theory, because student tuition in the state schools is subsidized by taxpayer dollars (although that has been shrinking dramatically over the past twenty years–the states all too often are short on cash), attracting more students than the private schools. For example, UT is a lot bigger than TCU (50,000 vs 9,000!). But private colleges, which were the original American academic institutions (Harvard was founded in 1636), continue to compete and flourish, despite the apparent advantage the public schools have. The typical model for what we think of as a state college or university did not come into being until after 1862 with the passage of The Morrill Act.

TCU Frog Fountain and Campus

TCU Frog Fountain and Campus

There are a lot of reasons, but the one relevant to our discussion about health care is that federal financial aid creates portability and allows students to choose (in concept) to attend any school in the country. I have two degrees from private schools and two degrees from a public school. Why did I choose those schools? Because in each instance it offered the academic program I wanted to pursue. Federally funded financial aid guaranteed that I had a choice. That is higher education’s equivalent of a “public option.” (now this isn’t the place to argue about the issues in financial aid such as student loan debt, etc–it is beside the point for this discussion).

We come up with this formula, thanks to Sen. Schumer’s insight:

Federal F/A= Choice + Access + Desired University (public or private) + Academic Degree

So when we look at America’s higher education system, a combination of private and public institutions that arguably is the best in the world (granting it has its own imperfections and needs for reforms), which allow the schools to provide their services in a competitive but mutually beneficial market, and provides students (as consumers) a huge amount of choice, both in program and in cost, it is just plain wrong to say that “government” can’t do anything right and to assume that a public option would destroy competition in the health care market.  The success of higher education contradicts the assumption and renders it null.

We Horned Frogs are justifiably proud of our private Texas Christian University. But if I was a bettin’ man, I wouldn’t place a red-cent on a wager that a University of Texas grad, dead-set against the public plan in health care, would admit that his/her “government education” was inferior in any way, shape or form!

Therefore, applied to the Public Option, the formula becomes:

Federal Public Option= Choice + Access + Desired Coverage (public or private) + Appropriate Medical Care

Responses anyone?

TCU Horned Frog Mascot

TCU Horned Frog Mascot

Go Frogs!