Science in Christian Perspective



H. Harold Hartzler, Ph.D.
Mathematics Department
Goshen College

From: JASA, 2, 1(1950): 16-19.

Where is the north? From the point of view of one interested only in the earth, that question is easy to answer. The earth revolves on its axis once in each twentyfour hours. Now if one faces the direction of rotation, then his left hand will be toward the north and his right toward the south. If one then travels in the northward direction he will eventually reach the point where the axis of rotation intersects the surface of the earth. This point is called the north pole and is as far north as an earth bound inhabitant can go. Therefore this must be the north.

However from the point of view of the universe of stars, the answer to the above question is somewhat more difficult. If we extend, in our imagination, the axis of rotation of the earth indefinitely far in the northward direction, then any point along that axis might be said to be in the north direction. This would be quite satisfactory in defining north if the earth did not have a number of additional motions other than the rotation on its axis. First of all the earth revolves about the sun keeping its axis of rotation inclined at an angle of 66kO to the plane of its orbit. The path of the earth about the sun is elliptical in form, the sun being at one of the foci of the ellipse, and its average distance being approximately 93,000,000 miles. As a result of this motion, the position of the line of north would travel in an elliptical path among the stars at the rate of about 18 miles per second. The extreme variation in the direction of north due to the revolution of the earth about the sun amounts to approximately 186,000,000 miles. Since this distance is not very significant from an astronomical point of view, it might be dismissed as of no consequence.

Due to the fact that the earth rotates on its axis there is a large centrifugial force acting upon its equitorial region. This force acting over a considerable period of time has caused an equitorial bulge in the shape of the earth so that the radius of the earth is less when measured along the axis of rotation than when measured from the center to the equator. Now the plane of revolution of the moon around the earth does not lie in the plane of the equitorial bulge of the earth with the result that, due to gravitational attraction, the earth is given a slight rotation in a direction different from that of its daily rotation. This results in a precession of the axis of rotation of the earth just as the axis of a spinning top precesses. Due to this precession, the north pole of the earth slowly rotates in a circle. If we now consider the north point as the point on the celestial sphere (whose radius is definitely large) where the axis of the earth extended from the north pole cuts this sphere, then we have the result that due to precession, this north point rotates, having a radius of 23kO on the celestial sphere. The time required for a complete revolution is about 26,000 years. At the distance of the bright star Deneb, in the constellation of the northern cross, the resulting change in position of the north point would amount to about twenty thousand billion miles or more than 327 light-years. A light year is the distance light travels in one year which is approximately six million million miles. So in addition to revolving around in a rather small ellipse, the north point also revolves in a large circle. Therefore to speak of the north as a position in the starry heavens is rather misleading.

Furthermore the sun, together with the whole solar system including the earth, has two other important motions. One is in a straight line at the rate of 12 miles per second in the direction of the constellation Hercules. This motion is inclined at an angle of 600 with the north direction. Thus this motion causes the north point to move rather rapidly with respect to the stars. Finally, the galaxy of stars in which we live, known as the Milky Way is rotating; with the result that the sun together with the whole solar system is traveling toward the constellation Lyra with a velocity of 180 miles per second. This direction is also inclined to the north at an angle of approximately 600, so this fact again causes the north point to move very rapidly among the stars.

Thus we have shown that it is improper to speak of some point among the stars as being the north point. Speakers and writers who do so should take an introductory course in Astronomy. The following quotation is taken from a small booklet by William Pettingill entitled "Is Heaven a Place?" "How significant, it is too, that the geographic and magnetic poles of the earth are always kept pointing north. Who can tell why the magnetic needle
in a compass points toward the north star?" Here we notice several errors. In the first place, the magnetic and geographic poles of the earth are about 1000 miles apart from each other so that they cannot both be pointed toward the north. In the second place, even if the Magnetic needle did point toward the north geographic pole, still it would not always point toward the same position in the sky. At the present time the north point in the sky is near the star Polaris. Due to precession, as we have previously pointed out, the north point is continually moving among the stars. About 4000 years ago the pole was near Alpha Draconis, which was then the pole star. Five thousand years hence the pole will pass within a few degrees of Alpha Cephei and in 12,000 years within about 80 of Vega in the constellation Lyra. This will make a most glorious pole star.

Now let us turn our attention to the alleged opening in the starry heavens where there are supposed to be no stars existing. All the individual stars, visible either by the naked eye or through an ordinary telescope, belong to our immeiate galaxy of stars which we call the Milky Way. Extensive investigation has shown that this group of stars, about thirty billion in number, are not arranged uniformly within a spherical space, as one might suppose, but are chiefly located in a space which has been described as being like a cart wheel. That is, it is a much flattened discoid, or an ellipsoid of revolution, the long axis of which lies in the plane of the Milky Way. The equatorial diameter of the galaxy is about 100,000 light-years; the polar diameter about 15,000 light-years.

. The sun (and of course the solar system) is located slightly north of the galactic plane at a distance of about 30,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy. The stars within 2000 light-years of the sun form a local system or cluster of dislike form. The local cluster is but one of the local condensations of stars within the galaxy, of which there are probably numerous others. The galaxy is in rotation about an axis perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way. The rotational velocities of the parts decrease and the rotational periods increase with the distance from the center, in accordance with Kepler's laws. At the distance of the sun, the rotational velocity is about 180 miles per second and the period of rotation about 200 million years.

Due to this structure of the galaxy, the number of stars within a given area of the sky decreases considerably as one goes from the plane of the Milky Way to the perpendicular to this plane. That is, there is a thinning out of the stars in both directions in the vicinity of the axis of rotation , However, since this thinning out of the stars is gradual and since the axis of rotation is inclined about 620 to the axis of the earth, it is hardly scientifically correct to speak of a rift or of a hole in the north.

However, there is Another matter that needs to be considered in connection with the alleged hole in the north. That is the presence ' of numerous dark nebulae in the sky. 1 quote now from Kennon: Astronomy, page 623: "Many patches occur in the richest parts of the Milky Way which appear either to be entirely devoid of stars, or to have star concentrations conspicuously less than those of the bordering regions. Earlier observers, including Sir William Herschel regarded these regions as vacant vistas, or holes in the sky where one could look with unobstructed view into the depths of space. We now know that these dark, cloudlike areas are regions of diffuse, opaque material that are outlined by their obscuration of background stars and by delineating the foreground stars. Stars nearer than the nebulosity are, of course, projected upon it, while those more distant are obscured by the opaque clouds. Because of the wide areas of the sky obscured by many of these dark nebulosities, and because of the noticeable manner in which they diminish relative star concentrations, dark nebulae are rather inconspicuous to the unaided eye. As with the bright diffuse nebulae, their sharp outline and intricate detail become prominent only on properly exposed photographic plates."

Concerning the nature of these dark areas of the sky which have sometimes been called "holes", I quote again from Kennon: Astronomy page 626; "The existence of a system of radiating lanes, or tunnels, devoid of stars, extending entirely through the stellar domain is most improbable. Because of the random proper motion of the stars such a system of radiating lanes, or tunnels, devoid of stars, extending entirely through a large portion of the sky could not have existed in the past, nor could it continue to exist in the future. This adds to the improbability of its present existence. The presence of obscuring matter is confirmed by the distances and magnitudes of the foreground stars, as compared with the distances and magnitudes of stars near the borders of the dark areas. Dark areas occur infrequently except within the limits of the Milky Way, where we find the rich, distant star fields necessary to delineate the dark areas. There is no a priori reason for denying the existence of opaque nonluminous matter in the stellar system. Finally an inspection of the magnificent photographs of these areas by E. E. Barnard, Hubble, Duncan, Slipher, Bailey, Ross, Ritchey, Lampland, Wolf, and others leaves one with the inescapable conviction that no other interpretation than that of obscuring clouds is adequate to explain these truly marvelous photographs."

In spite of the abundance of evidence as to the nature of these dark areas, we still find statements like the following coming from some who wish to champion the Christian point of view. I quote again from Pettingill: "Is Heaven a Place?"; "And there is yet another point of tremendous interest in connection with this study. In the northern heavens, in the constellation of the Swan, the telescopic camera reveals an apparently empty space where there are no stars, though the region all around is thickly "peppered" with them. Astronomers differ as to the meaning of this phenomenon, some saying there is a "rift in the sky" and others that the apparent abyss is a dark nebulae. When doctors disagree we shall not attempt to decide, but it may be wondered if the Holy Spirit had any reference to this when he said of God through Job, 'He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing' (26:7)."

With reference to this passage from Job, I believe that this is merely an example of Hebrew parallelism which shows that God by His omnipotence was able to firmly fix the earth in empty space. The northern part of the earth and sky was thought in ancient times to be the most important part and is here used as representing the whole world. Therefore I believe that Job 26:7 has no reference to the hole in the north.

Finally I would like to state a few of my convictions concerning the position of Heaven in space and the dwelling place of the most high God. I believe that the reason that people are interested in the possibility of a hole in the north is due to their misunderstanding of the nature of Heaven and of God. As Dr. Paul Bender pointed out in his paper "A Physicist's Glimpse of God" at our meeting last year, the God whom we worship and adore transcends, or is not limited by, the fundamental quantities which we study in Physics such as matter, space, and time. God is a spirit and fundamentally we are spiritual beings. In the life after death we are to have spiritual bodies and will live in the spirit world where we too, will transcend matter, space, and time, Heaven then, as our eternal home, must be a spiritual place and it too will transcend physical quantities. So what need have we for a hole in the north or in any other direction. Space will no longer be a limitation to us so that we will then be in the presence of God continually.

Some speak of Heaven as though it were a particular location in space and of God as though He had His particular dwelling there. In other words, they picture the future life in terms of the concepts and conditions of this life, It is my firm-conviction that such ideas are very much in error, We will live in the new life after death in an entirely different manner from the life we now live. The details of this life we do not know. Paul says "For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known " (1 Cor. 13:13). The important thing for us now is to accept God's offer of full and complete salvation through belief on his Son as our Savior and Lord, and then to devote our lives in His Service that the good news of a Savior may be made known to others.