Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Our Marvelous Backyard

Saturn, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft in October 2004
(Above: Saturn, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft in October 2004)

Brightly-colored planets with violent, swirling storms big enough to swallow the Earth and mountains as large as Arizona may seem like the products of a creative science fiction writer, but they all exist within our very own solar system. In fact, each object has its own unique features that show the creative freedom God used when forming it.

The Sun - The nearest star to Earth, the Sun maintains a surface temperature of approximately 10,382°F and provides light and heat to the solar system. In fact, it is crucial for the production of oxygen on Earth. With a diameter of 863,705 miles, the Sun comprises 99.8% of the total mass of the solar system, and is more massive than about 90% of the stars in the universe.

Mercury - This charred, heavily-cratered planet has a year lasting only 88 Earth days as it orbits the Sun at a brisk pace of just under 107,000 mph. Due to the lack of any substantial atmosphere daytime temperatures can reach a blistering 806°F, while nights drop down to -292°F. This is the widest temperature range of any planet in the solar system.

Venus - An atmospheric pressure 90 times that of Earth and temperatures reaching as high as 867°F (i.e. hotter than Mercury) provide one of the harshest climates in the solar system, not to mention the constant presence of sulfuric acid clouds hovering overhead. Another interesting note...Venus is the only planet where days are longer than years. There are 243 Earth days between each sunrise. However, the planet needs only 224 Earth days to complete its orbit around the Sun.

Earth - Vast expanses of water and vegetation give Earth its beautiful, vibrant colors. They also keep us alive. In a universe filled with blazing stars and icy bits of rock I'd say the ability to support life is a unique trait, wouldn't you? ;)

Mars - Our small red neighbor is home to the largest mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons, with a summit of 88,600 feet and a base large enough to cover the state of Arizona. The planet's red appearance is caused by iron (III) oxide...better known to us simply as "rust".

Jupiter: The largest planet in our solar system
(Above: Jupiter is the solar system's largest planet, 2.5 times more massive than all other planets combined)

Jupiter - The Great Red Spot is this planet's most recognizable feature. This enormous storm is characterized by a mass of violently swirling clouds nearly as big as three Earths. The planet spins on its rotation in rather violent fashion as well, resulting in 9.5-hour days and a bulging equator.

Saturn - A complex system of rings composed of rocks, ice and dust encircle this planet, stretching some 300,000 miles across. Saturn is without doubt the most photogenic of the planets and is also one of the least dense. In fact, Saturn would float in water.

Uranus - The first planet formally discovered with the aid of a telescope, Uranus spins on an axial tilt of 98°, meaning that its polar regions receive more energy from the Sun than its equatorial regions. This results in some of the most unusual seasons in the solar system.

(Above: Neptune's blue color is caused by traces of methane found in its atmosphere)

Neptune - Even though its inner core is hotter than the Sun (12,632°F), temperatures on Neptune's surface dip down to -364°F. However, with winds on the planet reaching 1,500 mph it would actually feel more like -807°F (just for fun, check out the wind chill calculator). Neptune's winds are the strongest in the solar system.

Pluto - Always a planet to me ;) Pluto moves so far from the Sun during part of its orbit that its thin gaseous atmosphere actually solidifies and falls to the ground. The atmosphere is then restored as the planet moves closer to the Sun and the solid surface becomes gaseous. The cycle repeats in perfect balance.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Unparalleled Craftsmanship

A beautiful aurora borealis forms when electrons collide with atoms of the upper atmosphere
(Above: A beautiful aurora borealis forms when electrons collide with atoms of the upper atmosphere)

A sculpture sits atop a brightly-lit pedestal in a very prominent area of an art museum. We do not see the artisan who crafted this particular piece, but we can draw certain conclusions from it. The finely crafted sculpture is certainly a testament to his skills, but upon closer inspection we can no doubt discern features of his character, and perhaps even glimpse his inner-most and heartfelt desires and dreams. Indeed, his creation is a reflection of himself.

When we gaze upon the stars at night or watch the sun set behind a range of snow-capped mountains we ponder the Artisan who crafted these things. We recognize the sheer skill that was required for such perfect craftsmanship, and the meticulous love that allowed such beauty to be created.

"God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)

Children of Cosmic Soup or Divine Hands?

The Crab Nebula
(Above: The Crab Nebula is a supernova expanding into space at a rate of 3,348,000 mph)

Modern science has made great strides in portraying our civilization as the illegitimate offspring of a random, cosmic event. Even as the tools available to researchers become more and more advanced there is still a fundamental question looming in the background that, with a deafening voice, begs to be answered: Why?

Why are we here? If we were essentially born from a ball of cosmic "soup" that magically formed into planets and stars and people then what value can our lives possibly have, for we are, in this context, accidents? What was the driving force? And where did the "soup" come from to begin with? What created it?

As the field of secular science burrows deeper and deeper into its exploration of our universe it is indeed answering a lot of questions and gaining a lot of insight into the laws which God established—laws governing matter and life. However, the collective genius of all the world's scientists, coupled with the most advanced technological tools, can not afford man even a tiny glimpse into the enormity of God's knowledge, nor of His purpose for all humans.

Oh, Lord, that we would set our gaze upon You and bring glory to Your name for all the wondrous works of Your hands laid out in majesty before us. Amen.

Measuring God's Greatness in Light-Years

Andromeda Galaxy (M31) - 'Andromeda Island Universe', Robert Gendler
(Above: M31, better known as the Andromeda Galaxy, is believed to contain 1 trillion stars)

It only takes one second for light to circle the Earth 7 times. Just imagine how much distance light could travel in a whole year! This is precisely what is meant by a "light-year", and scientists use this unit of measurement to gauge distances in our universe. In order to put some more meaning behind this idea, let's actually calculate the number of miles in a light-year:

  • Long ago it was discovered that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second
  • There are 3,600 seconds in an hour, so that gives us 669,600,000 miles per hour
  • There are 24 hours in a day, so now we're up to 16,070,400,000 miles per day
  • Multiplying by 365 days gives us our final distance of 5,865,696,000,000 miles per year

Nearly 6 trillion miles! And that's just one measly light-year. The closest star to Earth (besides the Sun) is 4.3 light-years away, or
25,222,492,800,000 miles (i.e. 25 trillion). The space shuttle, traveling at its orbiting speed of 17,500 mph, would need over 164,000 years to reach this star. I will assume NASA isn't planning any missions there anytime soon. Nor will they be sending anyone to the Andromeda Galaxy, though it is one of the most beautiful and intriguing objects in the universe. This galaxy sits about 2.2 million light years away, meaning that the shuttle would need 84,178,285,700 years to reach it. Amazingly, it is still visible from Earth with the naked eye! Can you imagine how enormous this object must be for it to be visible from 12,904,531,200,000,000,000 miles away?

In the book of Genesis we read the following:

"He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good." (Genesis 1:16-18)

I love the image of God forming these objects and setting them in place in the vast expanse of outer space. Our God must have incredibly long arms...at least 12,904,531,200,000,000,000 miles in length :) And there are objects much further away than the Andromeda Galaxy. Much, much further.

We are indeed privileged to be living in a time when crisp, colorful photos of amazing far-away objects are captured and made readily accessible via an Internet connection or TV set. Those without such worldly luxuries need only look upward at the star-filled sky and ponder the greatness of the God who created these things. The universe is the stage and we have been given a private screening by the Producer.

Thank you, Lord, for allowing us to behold Your amazing Creation, whether through sight, sound or simply contemplating its limitless height, breadth and width. Amen.