Sunday, October 16, 2011

Celestial Wonders

One day last week I rose very early and journeyed up my driveway for the morning newspaper in early morning pitch darkness. My body was “suffering” from jet lag, seven hours ahead of the clocks in northern Illinois. When I saw the constellation Orion blinking brightly in the southwest, I was reminded of one of the astronomy labs I had offered my young astronomy scholars for many years.

Mid-October evenings were often cool and clear. Our outdoor astronomy session was preceded by an introductory talk and demonstration on the gym floor by my pastor. He was an astronomy enthusiast and owner of an excellent tracking telescope. The evening lab session provided an appropriate diversion from the regular classroom. It was necessary to schedule the gathering on a moonless October evening when the stars shone in a dark sky and the students were not distracted by excessively cold temperatures.

My students were well versed in the difference between real and apparent motion of the heavenly bodies. At some point in their lives they had learned that the sun’s motion in the heavens is only apparent. What really moves is the earth, rotating on its axis at almost 1000 mph at our latitude, even though we can’t “feel” it. We do not feel the motion, for we are carried along with the earth at the same speed. The sun and stars, as a result, seem to move across our sky, some of them rising above or setting below the horizon in the process.

If we understand the mechanics of earth’s rotation and revolution, we realize the axis of the earth, if extended into space, always points to a single spot in the sky. Conveniently located at that spot in the sky is a famous star called Polaris (the Pole Star). The revolution of the earth, extensive on a human size scale, becomes insignificant when considered within the vastness of space. If we were to visit Earth’s North Pole we would observe Polaris directly above our head 24/7/365. This also has the effect of everyone in the northern hemisphere being able to observe Polaris at the same spot in the sky: directly toward geographic north 24/7/365.

Earth’s daily 24 hours of rotation is real motion. It results in every star in the sky appearing to revolve around Polaris once each day. Close to Polaris they travel in small circles; farther from Polaris they travel in larger circles. During the hour my students were identifying constellations and viewing various “Wow!” sights such as Saturn’s rings and Jupiter with its moons through telescopes, the apparent movement of fifteen degrees did not seem very noticeable. But the most jaw-dropping sight was yet to come. Nine hours later they returned before the crack of dawn’s early light. The sky was then completely different. Earth had rotated out from under the evening stars, revealing a different and exciting celestial panorama. The famous constellation Orion now appeared in the southwest within a beautiful star-filled region of the sky called the Great Winter Hexagon--six bright stars which frame a rich field of interesting and beautiful stars. The startling effect of seeing an entirely different sky pattern taught my students the concept of earth’s rotation more effectively than any classroom activity.

In the public school setting where I offered this annual outdoor astronomy lab, it was not appropriate to express the explicitly religious devotional sentiments those celestial marvels inspired in me. My students, however, were able to share my enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world while studying astronomy and many other topics within our science curriculum. There are many ways in which believers are able to express their Christian worldview in a secular setting.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah contains many magnificent creation passages. Isaiah 40:26 (NIV) exults: Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. This verse is contained in a virtually complete original manuscript of the Book of Isaiah. It was copied over a century before Christ and is now displayed in the Shrine of the Book Museum in Jerusalem. Its words were originally uttered by the prophet over seven hundred years before Christ. I was privileged to view the manuscript in person in 2009. This was an emotionally moving experience not to be forgotten.