FROM THE BIBLE’S GENESIS TO THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE’S GENESIS: THE HISTORY OF CREATION
In 1701, an Irish scholar named James Ussher reached the conclusion that, if the events narrated in the book of Genesis are true, they happened in the week from October 23 to October 29 of the year 4004 BC. With the data available to Science 300 years ago, this was the most that Ussher could do. But in 1785, geologist James Hutton got new data.
Considered the father of Modern Geology, Hutton pointed out that the relatively constant erosion processes were extremely slow. For example, the Great Canyon in Colorado has been excavated into rock by the passage of the Colorado River. By analyzing the amount of sediments that the river drags along, it is possible to discover the volume of material that is detached each year, and by knowing the volume of material it is possible to learn how long it needed to carve this 1500-m deep, 800-km long trench: definitely it needed much longer than just 6000 years.
THE LIVING BEINGS
Then, in 1816, another geologist, William Smith, realized that in many locations it is possible to see that sediments have accumulated in layers, and that in each layer there are fossils of animals that are similar between themselves, but different from those that are in the lower or upper layers. In 1830 the Frenchman Georges Cuvier, considered the father of Paleontology, suggested that the differences between fossils mean that the Earth was inhabited successively by beings that then became extinct, giving way to different others.
In 1809, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck suggested that the beings changed in order to adapt themselves to a new environment: for example, an antelope forced to live in the savanna had difficulties to feed from the tree canopies, so its neck grew until it was able to reach them, turning itself into a giraffe. In 1859 the great Charles Darwin proposed that this evolution happened in another way, not by the “wish” of a certain individual, but by a selection of the best individuals by Nature itself. Two antelopes that are born could have, accidentally, necks of different lengths. The one that has the shorter neck has more probabilities of dying from starvation, and the one with the longer neck of feeding and survive. With time, the longer-necked antelopes become more abundant and the shorter-necked ones begin to disappear. In our case, once upon a time we humans were free-handed, big-brained, upright-walking monkeys, and that allowed us to rule the world and leave our relatives, the small-brained, bent monkeys, at the brink of extinction.
In 1860, Louis Pasteur made his discovery that transmittable diseases are caused by microbes, and that by killing the microbes the disease is eliminated. Even more, once dead they don’t arise again: they are not created from scratch. Actually, all current living beings arose from earlier living beings. This is a chain that is trailing from the origin of life itself, in a remote past.
In 1896, physicist Henri Becquerel discovered that certain atoms suffer from spontaneous disintegration, what we now call natural radioactivity. In 1904, New Zealander Ernest Rutherford discovered that these disintegrations, that actually have as a result the conversion of a substance into another, happen at a very well determined rhythm. With this, in 1907 Bertram Boltwood developed a method for calculating the passing of time by comparing the amount of new substance created from this decay with the amount of original substance still remaining. For example, a sample of carbon-14 has 50 % of its mass transformed into nitrogen after about 5730 years.
With this method of radioactive dating, then it was possible to know that the fossilized bones of an “Australopithecus afarensis”, a relative of us, found in Kenya, came from strata 3,18-million years old; that a fossil of “Archaeopteryx lithographica”, the oldest known bird, found in Germany, has 150 million years; that a jaw from the amphibian “Elginerpeton pancheni”, the oldest known terrestrial animal, has 368 million years; that the remains of a “Cooksonia caledonica”, the oldest terrestrial plant, found near New York, has 420 million years, and that a fossil of the microbe filamentous “Cyanobacterium” found in Australia, the oldest known living being, is 3500-million years old.
In 1828, Friedrich Wöhler achieved the synthesis of urea, a component of urine, from inorganic substances. Thomas Henry Huxley determined in 1868 that all living beings are composed basically of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Aleksander Oparin, in 1924, and J. S. B. Haldane, in 1929, proposed that the primitive Earth’s atmosphere and oceans had chemical conditions favorable for the formation of complex organic molecules. Stanley Miller took this theory to the laboratory and in 1953 he created amino acids, which are components of proteins. That same year James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA), and explained how this molecule is capable to self reproduce and direct the construction of a living being. They won the Nobel Prize for this.
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his discoveries that the same force of gravity that attracts an apple downwards also makes the Moon turn around the Earth, and in fact it affects the movement of everything in the Universe. In 1796, Pierre de Laplace observed through telescopes clouds of gases and dust in space that accumulate in whirlpools due to the gravity of the materials that compose them. Then he suggested that the Solar System arose by a similar process. In 1944, Carl von Weizsäcker demonstrated that the movements of objects inside the Solar System truly indicate that they were born from a single spinning mass.
Gravity makes everything attract everything, so the gases and dust particles glue themselves in even bigger particles, until they become pebbles, and then asteroids and comets that finally join together forming planets. At the center, most of the cloud mass joined into a superheated ball, from which the Sun arose.
Astonishingly, many meteors (the rubble from planet formation) contain a chemical make-up similar to the Sun, proving that they were all part of a same cloud. Between 1969 and 1972, the Apollo missions brought samples from the Moon (which practically had suffered no change since its formation) and with them it has been established that the age of the Solar System, including the Earth, is of more than 4500 million years.
In 1905, Albert Einstein discovered that inside the atoms huge amounts of energy are hidden. At the center of the Sun, gases are so compressed due to gravity that the conditions for the fusion of atoms appear, making the Sun turn into a hot star. The process is so efficient that, with the amount of material that it has, it may shine for 10 000 million years.
In 1815, Joseph von Fraunhofer, by closely analyzing the colors of flames, discovered that some tonalities appear more readily, or on the contrary, they are filtered. In 1861, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen demonstrated that this has a direct relationship to the chemical composition of whatever is emitting or interfering with the light. So the unthinkable it was now possible: knowing the chemical composition of the heavenly bodies without even touching them.
In 1913, Ejnar Hertzprung and Henry Russell, by analyzing a great number of stars, discovered a trend on them: they become cold and loose their brightness as their chemical compositions become enriched with bigger and bigger atoms. This process begins in the nucleus of the star, where hydrogen atoms fusion to each other producing bigger ones: helium atoms. With the passing of time the helium content gets higher and the star rearranges itself, from now on producing carbon at its nucleus. Then, from carbon it produces oxygen, and later neon, then magnesium, then silicon and later iron. At the end of its lifetime the star becomes unstable and starts to throw away these substances into space. If it is too big it generates a final explosion that produce all of the other kind of atoms that now exist in the Universe.
In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered the galaxies, huge agglomeration of thousands of million of stars, and proved that they are rushing away from each other at tremendous speeds: the Universe is expanding. That same year, Jesuit Priest Georges Lamaître proposed that, if everything is expanding, then it means that once upon a time everything was in a single place, a “cosmic egg”.
In 1948, George Gamow proposed that for some reason this “cosmic egg” from which everything arose exploded, and in this way the current expansion of the Universe began. This theory became known as the “Big Bang”. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, while searching for the source of some interference with a satellite antenna, discovered that this radio signal was coming from everywhere, and that its characteristics corresponded to the calculated “echo” that the “Big Bang” should have left: it was the first confirmation that this energetic event really took place. This discovery was worthy of a Nobel Prize for them. Detailed analysis by the CoBE satellite, published in 1992, show that the explosion was not uniform, and that explains why matter tends to become grouped in galaxies.
A telescope is also a time machine that allows us to see the past. As nothing travels faster that light, and light may need millions of years to come here from other galaxies, we don’t see the galaxies the way they are now, but the way the were millions of years ago. In 2002, data from the Hubble Space Telescope, which observed very distant objects, showed that the Big Bang happened nearly 14 000 million years ago.
In 1988, cosmologist Stephen Hawking published his famous book “A brief history of time”, where he explains mathematical calculations predicting that if we go backward in time, when we reach the Big Bang time stops. This means that there are no such things like past times before the Big Bang. To sustain the contrary hypothesis is like pretending to say that there are places south of the South Pole. Time is a property of this Universe, like everything else, which implies that there is absolutely nothing before it and outside it. The Universe is self-contained and self-explainable: it arose without any kind of external aid. The result of this line of investigation is momentous: simply, there is no Creator.
And as shown by the collision of comet D/1993 F2 (Shoemaker-Levy 9) with Jupiter in 1994, and the recent observations of star formation in nebulas such as the one in Orion, the process of Creation has not yet finished.
Copyright © 2002-2011. Reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.
Based on a lecture given at USP, on 12 October 2002. First published in ABC Color, on 1 October 2006. Illustration: The creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, ca. 1511, fresco, 280 cm X 570 cm, Ceiling, The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.