Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fiat Ka-Boom et Ka-Boom Erat

Hunter Baker is the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at Union University. His work regularly appears on the commanding heights of contemporary Christian thought in journals such as First Things and Salvo. In a recent issue of The City, I came across a passage that stopped me cold (emphasis mine):
"In the 1960s, two astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, discovered that when they used a radio telescope, they heard a constant sound in the background. It seemed to come from everywhere, and they couldn't get rid of it. Eventually, they came up with the theory that the sound was the reverberating echo of radiation created by the massive explosion associated with the creation of the universe. Think about that. The moment of creation still with us even now -- a sound so incomprehensively [sic] powerful that it continues to be heard."
To be fair, Mr. Baker's article was titled Thoughts on the Age; it did not purport to be scientific in any way. Nor was the quoted passage his main point, but merely illustrative of a much larger point -- The Point if you will -- namely that the Resurrection of Christ changed everything and the change continues to this day.

He does not cite his source, so we're left to conjecture about how or whether he filtered this information, or if he just misunderstood it. But more to add to his point than to nitpick his illustration, the evidence of the Big Bang discovered by Penzias and Wilson is much more dramatic in scale than that of a sound that "continues to be heard".

Penzias and Wilson reported "noise", which is engineer's parlance for static - undifferentiated radiation. At first, they disbelieved the universal direction of this "noise" thinking that their equipment was faulty, that their microwave receiver horn antenna (pictured below) had bird droppings in it, or something else. When they eliminated all the possible variables and remade their observations, the "noise" was still there - no matter where they aimed the horn - no matter what they did. It was unshakably present in every direction at about 3 degrees Kelvin: that's HEAT (or the near absolute lack of it) not sound! And it is that radiation at that wavelength that provides the nearly universally-accepted evidence of the Big Bang. The rate of expansion of the universe is known. The temperature of the background radiation is known. That makes the rate of the red shifting from light to heat known. The trap closes around a single explosive event about 13.7 billion years ago.

Is that a distinction without a difference? Maybe. After all, the Bible says Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant whose "sprinkled blood that speaks (continues to be heard) more graciously than the blood of Abel". But in my mind, the red-shifting of supremely intense light to low-grade heat shows that turning around the arrow of time points to one, inescapable Source. How great Thou art.

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