Stretching Out the Heavens
Astronomers are looking again. It seems that they can’t agree on the age of the universe, which is calculated from the Hubble constant.
Last year new measurements were made using the orbiting Hubble telescope focused on the galaxy cluster in the constellation Virgo. These were to be the most accurate measurements yet. But when the answers came in, the universe appeared to be younger than the oldest stars (8-11 billion years for the age of the universe as compared to 15 billion years for the oldest stars).
This was not very comforting to the astronomic and cosmological communities. You just can't have the oldest stars being older than the universe. So astronomers are looking again. This time their focus is on the galaxy cluster in Fornax.1 They argue that this cluster should be better because it is smaller and more compact, which will yield better distance estimates, a better value for the Hubble constant, and therefore, a better estimate for the age of the universe.
What is this Hubble constant? In 1929 Edwin Hubble observed a very curious thing about galaxies. It appeared that most of the galaxies he observed were moving away from earth. Also, the farther away a galaxy appeared, the faster it seemed to be moving. Distance divided by velocity seemed to be a constant, which later became known as the Hubble constant or the expansion rate of the universe.
This was not very comforting to the astronomic and cosmological communities. You just can't have the oldest stars being older than the universe. So astronomers are looking again.
Hubble calculated the velocities of the galaxies from the observed shift in the characteristic absorption spectra for elements such as hydrogen. For most of the galaxies he measured, the spectra were shifted to longer wavelengths, or red shifted. This seemed to imply that the galaxies were moving away from us. We experience a "redshift" when a train whose whistle is blowing passes us. (Sound, like light, travels by wave motion, and the effect in sound is the classic Doppler Effect.)
By comparing the distance of the galaxies, estimated from their luminosity (apparent brightness), to their velocities, calculated from the red-shifts, Hubble observed that the farther a galaxy was from earth, the faster it seemed to be moving away. He also observed that velocity divided by distance was constant for a series of galactic measurements. This constant later became known as the Hubble constant.
Hubble postulated that the universe was expanding, and if it was expanding, it must have had a beginning. One could then calculate the age of the universe from this expansion rate (Hubble constant). The faster the expansion rate, the younger the universe must be. For decades, though, astronomers have measured wildly different values for this crucial number, and hence, different values for the age of the universe.
There is obviously biblical support for a universe that had a beginning. Genesis 1:1 tells us this. But what about an expanding universe? Scriptures like Isaiah 40:22 ("Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in") and Isaiah 44:24 ("I am the Lord, who makes all things, who stretches out the heavens all alone, who spreads abroad the earth by myself”) seem to imply an expanding universe, but do they really?
Does the word "stretches" as used here really refer to "expands"? Or is it possible that what is being implied by these passages is a literal stretching of space itself and not just an expansion (a moving away of the heavenly bodies) as we would normally think?
Hubble postulated that the universe was expanding, and if it was expanding, it must have had a beginning. One could then calculate the age of the universe from this expansion rate.
Is space stretched more the farther one moves away from earth, and what would light from this stretched space look like to us? Could not the characteristic spectral lines for the elements be stretched just as observed with the redshift? So can the redshift only be ascribed to outward movement of the heavenly bodies? The scriptures may be showing us that man's thinking about this redshift phenomenon, and hence, the expanding universe, may not be correct. There may indeed be other plausible explanations, as suggested here.
We must interpret our physical observations based on the scripture and not interpret the scripture based on our physical observations.
What affect might stretched heavens have on the speed of light, and what then can we say about the age of the universe? Why must we expect the speed of light to remain constant regardless of the "stretchiness" of the space in which it travels? Just as light travels slower in dense materials, one might anticipate that light travels faster in thinner space than in denser space. If this is the case, objects in a thinner space would look farther away than they actually are. We would falsely conclude that the age of the universe was old when in actuality it was as young as the Bible implies (6,000 to 10,000 years).
In the final analysis we must be willing to go back to God's Word for our answers. We must interpret our physical observations based on the scripture and not interpret the scripture based on our physical observations. We must also keep in mind that God's thoughts are not our thoughts.2 We must seek God for the truth. If we humbly seek him, he will be faithful to reveal himself and the secrets of the universe to us.
Donald Clark received his Ph.D. in Physical Biochemistry from Louisiana State University in 1972. He is currently the Vice President of Development and Medical Affairs at Houston Biotechnology Incorporated in The Woodlands. Dr. Clark is an amateur astronomer who enjoys scientific topics that relate to creation and scripture.
1. “A Milestone in Fornax," Astronomy, October 1995, pp. 42-47.
2. Isaiah 55:8.