Path Across the Stars

Everything I gained when I left science denial behind

If you live in a city, as I do, you can spot between 400 and 800 stars on a sufficiently clear night. In areas with less light pollution, like rural Virginia or backwoods Alabama, that number multiplies to 15,000.

Time-lapse showing visible stars under different levels of light pollution

The majority of visible stars, even without light pollution, are relatively close by astronomical standards. Most in the northern hemisphere have never seen our nearest celestial neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but the bright star Sirius is “only” 80 trillion km away. The light perceived today from Sirius was produced just eight and a half years ago, the same month that The Walking Dead first premiered on AMC. Polaris, the familiar North Star, lies 433 light-years above the ecliptic plane; its light was produced shortly before Shakespeare began writing The Taming of the Shrew.

Rho Cassiopeia

But some visible stars are much farther away. The constellation Cassiopeia, immortalized in my favorite rom-com Serendipity, has a dim sixth star named Rho Cassiopeia below its feet. It lies 3,400 light-years away, and its starlight was born during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, popularly believed to be the monarch whose daughter raised the Biblical figure Moses.

V762, also in Cassiopeia, is even more distant; its starlight began its journey in the 15th millennium BCE. The Saraha was still a fertile grassland and the last prehumans, the Red Cave People, inhabited China.

Finally, those in areas of low light pollution can make out the fuzzy form of Andromeda. Photons reaching us from the Andromeda galaxy started traveling 2.6 million years ago, while Homo habilis was first learning to use stone tools.

Our closest galactic neighbor. We can only make out Andromeda’s bright core with the naked eye, but it covers a greater area of the sky than the full moon.

Growing up as a creationist, I always knew that the time it takes for light to travel to us from distant stars and galaxies was a huge problem. We believed that both the Earth and the whole universe were created instantly just sixty centuries ago, rejecting the scientific consensus about the Big Bang. With only 6,000 years for light to travel toward us, the problem of distant starlight is one of the oldest and most obvious challenges to the young-earth framework. It was one of the reasons I was motivated to pursue physics, and pursuit of this question ultimately helped provide the final straw that broke down my faith in creation science after years of questioning.

A younger and noticeably thinner Ken Ham, the leading voice in the young-earth creationist movement and the creator of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter.

As with virtually every obvious challenge to their beliefs, creationists have developed numerous explanations to avoid plain conclusions. The first one I ever heard, when the starlight problem was first preemptively explained to me, was remarkably simple. God had surely created trees that already had roots, rivers that already had channels, and creatures that were already mature and able to thrive in every way. If so, it was argued, then why couldn’t God have created a universe already filled with starlight, so that the first humans could see distant stars from the very first day?

It’s a straightforward explanation, well-suited for a Wednesday night Bible study or a Sunday evening sermon. But anyone with even cursory exposure to astronomy would be left unsatisfied. The night sky is not a static projection of billions of unmoving points of light, but a dynamic, living tapestry of change. We watch pulsars rotate; we watch the light from distant stars wobble and waver as it is blocked at regular intervals by exoplanets. We see newborn stars ejecting writhing ribbons of superheated gas, billions of tonnes at a time:

Time lapse of Herbig-Haro 34. Plume extends for approximately 5 light-years. Hubble image courtesy NASA.

We see events that happen far, far beyond 6,000 light-years away. In 1987, sharp-eyed skywatchers were able to witness the explosion of a violent supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy. Neutrino observatories around the world picked up the first invisible signs of a supernova a few hours before the starburst became visible to the naked eye. We were witnessing the death of a star almost 170,000 years after it exploded.

To suppose that all these images are just God’s way of “filling the universe with starlight” is unacceptable. It would imply that everything we see from more than 6,000 light-years away is a cosmic cinema, a light show of events that never actually happened. Even the most strident creationists cringe at the notion that God would have created a spray of neutrinos in transit, followed by images of an exploding star, if that star had not actually exploded.

Some creationists of the last century, like Australia’s Barry Setterfield, had a more creative solution. Light, they explained, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. If the speed of light was greater in the past — perhaps exponentially so — then light from the most distant corners of the universe could have reached Earth rapidly, only to slow down to a near-constant baseline in recent years. In a 1981 article, Setterfield cherry-picked early, imprecise measurements of light speed from the late 19th century and claimed to be able to “fit” an exponential decay curve to the data; conveniently, the speed of light on his curve approaches infinity in 4,004 BCE (the date commonly proposed for the start of the universe by young-earth creationists).

Barry Setterfield, “The Velocity of Light and the Age of the Universe, Part 1,” 1981

While initially acclaimed with excitement, reactions from fellow creationists quickly turned negative. We know that the speed of light is not a property of light alone, but is intrinsic to the fundamental fabric of spacetime; any variation in c would make the existence of atoms and molecules and basic physical interactions wildly different. Moreover, if the speed of light had changed in the past, the rotation rate of distant pulsars would have recorded it, since looking away from Earth is looking into the past.

Still, the question fascinated me. At a creation science conference in the late 1990s, I heard Dr. Russell Humphreys suggest a different solution: time must have ran at different rates across the universe, permitting billions of years for light travel across the edges of the cosmos during only a few years on Earth. This approach affirmed a recent, six-day creation, making it palatable to creationists, while still allowing light to reach Earth no matter how far away it started from.

Humphrey’s solution, officially referred to as “white hole cosmology” within the more educated creationist ranks, held popularity for a brief period. It was doomed, however, with egregious math errors and basic misapplication of special relativity (for example, billions of years of light from distant stars would have reached us all at once, making the night sky bright enough to vastly outshine the sun). Trying to fix these errors was the very first problem I tackled in college after I learned basic computer programming, only to find that they were, in fact, irreparable.

Another explanation, proposed by my old friend and former AiG scientist Dr. Jason Lisle, pointed out that that physics allows many different transformations of time, velocity, and simultaneity. As a result, he claimed, we can define a reference frame in which our measurement of time depends on our location in the universe, and thus define the speed of light however we want it.

The math for this one is actually valid (though convoluted), but Lisle admitted to me in 2014 that his explanation “implies the progressive creation of galaxies from the edge of the observable universe toward us over a period of many billions of years.” Not only does this mean he is actually proposing an old universe, but his specific model runs into catastrophic problems when dealing with gravitational potential.

The cycle proceeds like a cosmic game of whack-a-mole, with each new explanation more creative than the last. This is all most creationists need. In We Believe In Dinosaurs, Ken Ham is caught on film saying, “You should listen to our PhD experts talk, even though you won’t be able to understand anything they say,” and his slip keenly illustrates the underlying strategy of the movement. Creationism doesn’t have to prove anything; it only has to maintain a veneer of scientific respectability. Their goal is control, abusing science to safeguard their authority. As long as they can maintain that their pseudoscience is “just as plausible” as the mainstream alternative, their power to interpret Scripture unchallenged remains protected.

But plausibility wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know the truth, to figure out explanations that would get stronger over time, not weaker. I wanted young-earth creationist models that could make real, testable predictions about reality. Scientific advancements don’t happen just because a new theory springs up; they happen when a new theory is able to explain both the failures and successes of the previous one. I decided to major in physics so I could understand every theory for myself.

As the years passed, I spent more and more time reading everything I could about geology, biology, and astrophysics. My limit for inter-library loans was always full. I was looking for a pattern, a reason why astronomy and geology and evolutionary biology seemed to be so good at making predictions and lined up so well with other areas of science.

No matter how much I learned, the problem of starlight and time never seemed to get any easier to solve.

I’ve written before about the mental shift I experienced when everything changed. The moment took place in 2014. I was looking deeper into the problem of starlight and time, searching for anything I might have missed, when I saw a Hubble photograph that changed everything.

Hubble, 2009

ESO 137–001 is a barred spiral galaxy, not unlike our own, 2.1 quintillion kilometers away. It’s plunging into the center of the Norma Galaxy Cluster at 20,000 times the speed of sound. Inside tight clusters of galaxies, like Norma, the intergalactic medium contains concentrated hydrogen gas much thicker than average. The impact of ESO 137–001’s spiral arms into this gigantic gas cloud is tearing them away in pieces like a dandelion in a hurricane. Clouds of dust and hot gas trail behind in brilliant blue and brown streaks.

The question, for me, was obvious. How long had this been happening? This image, of course, is coming from 220 million light-years away and thus dates to the earliest dinosaurs…but even if we handwave the starlight problem and pretend the light is reaching us in real time, it is still a challenge. This is real motion and change taking place on an intergalactic scale. If the universe is only 6,000 years old, how far could this galaxy have traveled?

It turned out I still only had part of the story.

The first image I’d seen was merely visible light, captured by Hubble. Astronomers had also imaged the Norma Cluster using the Chandra X-ray Observatory, an enormous telescope launched into low Earth orbit in 1999.

The image from Chandra, combined with the one from Hubble, shows a vast trail of superheated gas in the wake of the galaxy, stripped away by the shock of plunging into the core of the galaxy cluster. The trail stretches unbroken for a distance of 280,000 light-years.

This was the moment when everything broke down. To claim that light could somehow move infinitely fast to reach us was fantastic enough, but this was an example showing that it didn’t matter how fast light might move. I couldn’t conceive any way for an entire galaxy to traverse 280,000 light-years in just 6,000 years. The universe simply could not be young, and my whole edifice crumbled.

I couldn’t conceive any way for an entire galaxy to move 280,000 light-years in just 6,000 years.

If I had seen the same image even a year earlier, I don’t think it would have had the same effect on me. My deconversion from creationism was the result of years of learning new information and exposing myself to different ideas. It just happened to reach the breaking point at the right time.

Simulation courtesy NASA

In 2018, the LIGO gravitational wave interferometer — a 4-km-long laser array that can measure a warping in the fabric of space smaller than the diameter of a proton — detected the ancient collision of two enormous black holes. The objects, which had been spinning closer and closer for eons, met with unbelievable violence. The impact converted vast amounts of matter — five thousand times the weight of Jupiter — into pure energy in an instant. A massive gravitational wave shot out from the new black hole at the speed of light.

Images of the gravitational ripple and spacetime distortion
The impact converted vast amounts of matter — five thousand times the weight of Jupiter — into pure energy in an instant.

It was the most energetic gravitational wave ever detected, but it was also the most distant. The colliding black holes lay in a galaxy 2,750 megaparsecs away…8.9 billion light-years from Earth, making it older than our Sun.

This morning, however, LIGO detected a gravitational wave coming from even further away.

This ripple in space began its journey while the Milky Way Galaxy itself was still being born. It sped on and on as a series of supernovae compressed a nebular gas cloud that would form into our solar system. While its journey continued, solar fusion ignited in our sun and the planets began to form. When a Mars-sized world collided with Earth, forming the moon, this wave was still moving toward us. Its journey spanned the first spark of life, the Cambrian explosion, the age and extinction of the dinosaurs, and every moment of human history, just to arrive here, today.

As a creationist, I couldn’t appreciate any of that. I couldn’t even comprehend it. I would have had to say that the detection of a gravity wave from billions of light-years away was a mistake, or a misunderstanding, or something we just needed to interpret differently. All but the last few moments of the history of the cosmos had to be handwaved away. If I hadn’t left science denial, I would have missed so much of the vastness and complexity of the universe that makes creation so surpassingly beautiful.

Science is real, and the real world is wonderful.

David MacMillan is a freelance writer, paralegal, and law student in Washington, DC and features in the upcoming independent documentary We Believe In Dinosaurs, screening in Washington DC on June 22 and 23.