I love Summer. Not only is it the best time for taking walks and early morning bike rides, but it’s also my favorite time for gazing at the sky–something I’ve been doing more lately. Not only are the skies clearer, but the Summer triangle (and the pointer stars in the Big Dipper) make it easy to pinpoint a variety of stars. And, well, I know the night sky in the Summer the best: Leo, Delphinius, Sagittarius, Corona Borealis, Hercules, Cepheus, Cygnus–these are just a few of my friends. Plus, this year Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and and Venus (along with the moon) have all been bright and visible in the sky, tracing the plane of the ecliptic. And on the darker nights, when the moon is hiding and its light is gone, the ecliptic can be seen adjacent to the plane of the Milky Way, the path of billions of galactic stars.
What’s spectacular–obvious, yes, but to me, spectacular–is that these same stars, and these same planets, have been inspiring people for generations. They guided Magellan and Columbus on their navigations across the globe, in search of Asia and the other sides of the world. They guided, too, the Vikings, the Chinese, the Phonecians, the Pacific-Islanders, and countless other generations. The shapes and figures were, in part, codified by Ptolemy, and before him, probably the Babylonians and Sumerians. The individual names of stars often bear Arabic names, a nod to the significant contribution of Islamic and Arab astronomers. Somewhere in this deep past, Father Abraham, too, knew the names of the stars, exchanging knowledge with the Egyptians. And these same stars were seen by our earlier ancestors as they traveled across the earth, probably from Africa, into new worlds and new niches.
For mankind, the stars remain constant. Due to precession, there are slight movements–but for the most part, the patterns have stayed the same. But the sky looked different 50,000 years, and even more different as you travel farther back in time. Since a galactic year is 250 million years, travel back 62 million years ago–just a few million years after the KT asteroid impact the finished off the non-avian dinosaurs–and the sun will have moved a quarter-turn back around the galaxy, as will have other stars, and the sky will look entirely new. Vastly new constellations would be needed to identify stars in this alien sky.
And of course, travel back 4.603 billion years ago, and what would you find? A massive movement in a massive gas cloud, as gravity pulls light gases together until enough pressure builds to cause nuclear fusion. That fusion would light the star Sol, known to us as the sun, and inaugurate the solar system. Elements and gases would begin accreting on a disk-like plane, spinning and forming new planets, all around this new star. The star’s energy and solar winds would contribute to pushing lighter elements out toward the farther reaches of the solar system, a fact that explains the presence of solid planets closer to the sun, and the lighter, more easily “blown away” gases being sent farther out, forming the gas giants.
And travel back farther still, and you would begin to see fewer and fewer stars. You would witness the birth of Deneb, Altair, Betelgeuse, Vega, Sirius, and other stars–popping into the night sky in positions far removed from where they are today. They would look brighter or dimmer, depending on the nature of the star. All of them had beginnings. You would also see stars, long gone today, dying–and before that, living long and nuclear lives, having formed from still older stars. And as you travel back, you would see fewer and fewer elements, until eventually–before the first generation of stars begin to explode in radiant light–the only element present were hydrogen and helium, and before even those first stars, just darkness and simplicity in a universe ripe with potential.
There is more to the story, including the movement of galaxies along gravitational paths that make up the largest structures in the universe. But for the most part, it is the stars that draw my fascination, though galaxies are where most stars are born. The stars, appointed by God “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (Genesis 1:14).
And it is this that leads me to wonder still. Did God ordain the precise locations of the stars? Do they inherently have meaning, imbued by an all-wise Creator? Or do we give them meaning by naming and tracing lines in the sky? Or is the answer in the fact that God gave us imagination, and in that sense, he gave them meaning through us?
And did God ordain the precise the precise location of these stars, given for times and seasons? Or did he set the initial conditions, and let things play out–and in that sense, was he surprised? Did he intervene in the movement of matter and gas across time and space, to make a particular pattern? Or did he set the match and light the fuse that sent all of time and space into the world? Science explains the natural laws by which all things move, but it is as much an article of faith to say that a God never intervened in the processes of galactic, biological, and tectonic movement as it is to say that He did. To those who believe, “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:43.) To understand the natural laws, even of evolution and inheritance and mutation and natural selection, does not necessarily preclude the fact that these things, also, can testify of the wisdom of a Creator.
And if he did intervene, how? Does God reach through the quanta, the fabric of the universe? Is he a hidden order found in chaos? Does he reach through some brane, some interdimensional bulk, that some physicists theorize might be out there? Or is it through some process we still can’t begin to comprehend? Do we even have the right questions to begin to understand how God pierces the immanent with the transcendant?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I cherish the questions themselves. And I cherish the night sky, which grants me curiosity–a hint at the nature of reality all around me, a hint that, for me at least, begs interrogation. I’m reminded of the Emerson quote:
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”