From Gas to the Morning Star

The modern secular mindset takes the view that God is irrelevant or does not exist. So everything tends to be viewed in the light of this assumption. Even many who believe God may exist do not really treat God as important or relevant. So this certainly has bearing on how we live our lives down on planet Earth, but lets think about outer space first and then come back down to Earth. Do stars in space depend on God? In the New Testament, Colossians 1:16-17 says this, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This passage (and others) imply that every physical thing in the universe depends on Jesus Christ since Christ is the Creator. If objects in space and the atoms in our bodies depend on the Creator, then so do we.

I would say that there are physical laws by which the universe works but these laws are dependent laws, not independent laws. That is, they are not independent of God. The laws of the universe are also intelligently designed by God. The laws of the universe are information built into the fabric of the universe itself by God. So the universe does not operate as if it is a clock that once it is set up and started, it continues forever unaided. There is a term for this idea, called the “clockwork universe.” This concept came up after Isaac Newton’s discoveries which revolutionized physics in the 1700’s. But Newton himself did not believe the universe was a clock that kept itself going, he believed God created and he was a firm believer in the Bible. Human beings are intelligent in a way that imitates God. So we have a finite limited way of understanding what God made. We think of it in terms we can understand. Our “models” of how it works fall short of perfection but they have their usefulness. This is admittedly my imperfect way of understanding it but this is a Biblical view that reconciles with my physics background. Since the God of the Bible is the Creator and the Law Giver, he can supercede or overrule the Laws at any time.

How and when do stars form?
Modern astronomy thinking believes that stars form from clouds of gas in space called nebulas and then stars go through relatively predictable stages as they use up their nuclear fuel. Stars are very dense and are hot enough in their interiors to make amazing things happen to atoms. So in nebulas, some regions are very hot and are ionized. These areas may glow in different colors and this makes for some beautiful pictures of nebulas. Astronomers don’t believe stars form from the glowing colored regions but from the dark dusty regions that you can’t see into. There is some radiation that can make its way through a dark and dusty cloud though, such as microwaves and infrared light waves. Near some of these dark dusty regions there are also some very bright stars that astronomers think are young stars. Actually you can’t really tell a stars age just by looking at it, but astronomers make assumptions about various types of stars by assuming stars go through similar stages of change. This process of stars going through stages of change is called stellar evolution. I think stellar aging would be a better term for it. If scientists detect some hot infrared object glowing inside a dark part of a nebula and nearby there are bright hot stars, they may make the assumption that the infrared object is a new young star that recently formed.

Given that these ideas on star formation are well accepted, I was surprised to discover a comment to the contrary by a well known astronomer from a book published in the 1970’s. The book is a well known one called Astrophysical Concepts by Martin Harwit, published in 1973 by John Wiley & Sons, of New York. Dr. Harwit (from Cornell University) spent a few pages describing star formation theory and some of the difficulties with it and then he included a very interesting two paragraphs which I am quoting below. Though this is 1973, the basic problems of star formation have not changed much over the years. The quoted portion below is from page 14 in Harwit’s book,

    ‘Let us backtrack for a moment and view the question of star formation in a different way. Early in our argument we made an assumption that need not necessarily be correct: The association of dust clouds with recently formed stars is not absolute proof that stars form from these clouds. Some causal relation presumably exists, but is it impossible that stars just form out of nothing at all, and that a lot of dust get raised in the process? Such a picture, while unsatisfying because it postulates an apparently unphysical origin, after all at least avoids the angular momentum and magnetic field difficulties.
     We should keep this important point in mind: Perhaps stars do form out of “nothing”! For the moment, however, we prefer to work, as far as we are able, within the framework of ordinary physics.’

In case someone says this is just too old of a quote to use, it’s no longer valid, here is a much more recent quote that describes the same thing Martin Harwit was dealing with in the 1973 book. This is from Dr. Neil DeGrass Tyson, Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandries, published in New
York: W.W. Norton and Co., p. 187, 2007.

“We know the cloud wants to collapse under its own weight to make one or more stars, but rotation as well as turbulent motion within the cloud work against that fate. So, too, does the ordinary gas pressure you learned about in high-school chemistry class. Galactic magnetic fields also fight collapse: they penetrate the cloud and latch onto any free-roaming charged particles contained therein, restricting the ways in which the cloud will respond to its self-gravity.”

There are solutions modern astronomers have proposed to address the problems Dr. Tyson speaks of but that is another story. The significant point is that we do not actually see stars forming. We see that there is something faint glowing in a dark cloud and then we infer that it is a new star. But this is not necessarily the only way to understand it, it is just a choice people make about what to believe. There are always limits of what we can do with our scientific methods. There are many limitations of our methods in astronomy, though we have accomplished a lot in terms of learning about things in outer space. To say that stars form out of nothing may be the most unpalatable idea you could ever suggest to astronomers, but does this mean it’s impossible?

Picture:  Eagle Nebula from Hubble Space Telescope, 2014 (STScI/AURA)

 

What do creationists say about star formation? Young age creationists vary in their point of view on this question. Some would say stars can form today and some would say they cannot. Now creationists could believe one of these options:

1) All stars were supernaturally created on the fourth day of the creation week (Genesis 1:14-19). Stars have never formed since that day.
2) Stars were supernaturally created on the fourth day of the creation week, but they can also form by known processes today. There are no clear statements in Scripture that rule this out.

Note that Genesis does not give an actual description of what happened when God created the stars. I do believe we can infer it happened on the fourth day of creation week, not over a longer period of time. The universe is described as essentially all complete in Genesis 2:1. So the two options above do not necessarily mean stars were created from nothing in an instant, though that is possible for God. Scripture does affirm that God spoke some things into existence in an instant, but exactly which things were spoken into existence in this way? Of this we can’t be sure. I would go by the “Let there be …” statements in Genesis 1 where God is giving a fiat command. We know it was supernatural and quick, but we don’t know exactly how. It could be that stars were pulled together supernaturally within a time of less than a day. Some creationists have suggested that some matter was created on the first day but not organized into anything until the fourth day. I believe this is an option that has some scientific advantages.

Out of three or four proposed mechanisms today for how star formation is thought to be possible, these theories all have limitations. First, supernova explosions are suggested as a solution. Gravity is not sufficient to collapse a cloud enough to make it become a star. The cloud starts heating up as gravity contracts it so that the pressure in the cloud will stop the collapse. It can’t get dense enough for gravity to keep it stable as a star. But if there is another force that compresses it, like a supernova shock wave from a nearby star blowing up, this is thought to explain star formation in dark nebulas. One problem with this scenario is that it requires an old star that blows up to form a new star. Another potential problem is would there be enough supernovae in the right places to form all the stars? There’s really a lot of stars out there! It is thought that one supernova shock wave may trigger the formation of multiple stars, but it’s still not clear that would be enough. What if the supernova was too far away, or the nebula wasn’t dense enough?

There are other theories for star formation but they all seem to require a previous generation of stars. A second theory of star formation is that dust in a nebula can help the cloud cool down and thus help it contract by gravity. Martin Harwit seemed to follow this idea in his Astrophysical Concepts book. There is some legitimate physics to this but this also has a limitation. Where does the dust come from? Dust is made up of a variety of elements in the Periodic Chart and so dust in space requires more stars! Stars have to go through their “lifetime” and blow up in a supernova in order scatter dust across space. So this theory also requires old stars to make new stars. Also, this still has a limit to how much a cloud could contract by gravity. The cloud would still heat up and stop contracting at some point. A third theory says that nebulas or perhaps galaxies could collide in space and this could compress clouds enough to trigger star formation. But this also requires that something existed prior to the new star so that objects can collide to make something else. So with all these theories, how would the very first star form? There is still no good explanation of this today. The Big Bang itself does not explain how stars or galaxies form. So it seems there is room for believing that it requires a creator to make stars, though whether stars continue to form today by known processes is a debatable question.

What can we learn from the stars?
Another issue about stars to think about is what should we learn from them? Obviously there is science we can learn from them, but is this all? How is God’s glory evident in the stars? Certainly seeing the stars on a clear dark night is beautiful, so that is something we can enjoy. Abraham was told to consider the number of the stars by God related to God’s promise to him about his descendants. The New Testament says that believers are supposed to ‘shine’ like stars in Philippians 2:15-16, “children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.” Then there is the variety of types of stars. The range of sizes and types of stars is amazing. Some stars are really strange and it can be hard to believe they exist. Many people have trouble believing in Black Holes but there is very good evidence they are real. The evidence for Black Holes also has nothing to do with the origin of the universe or Big Bang theory.

Our Sun has often been described as just like other stars, but it is actually a bit unusual. It is classified as a Class G2V dwarf. This puts in on the large end of the range of dwarf stars. It is larger than about 88% of dwarf stars within about 30 light-years distance. This is important for us because it puts the habitable zone around our Sun farther away than for many other stars with planets. If a star is small, the habitable zone has to be closer to the star. That means that even if there were a planet in the habitable zone for a small dwarf star, the planet would probably be in tidal lock. The planet would have one hot side always facing the star and a cold side that always faces away from the star. That would not be a good environment for life. It would also make the planet tend to be more exposed to solar flares. Our Sun is exceptionally stable as a star. It’s solar flares are much tamer than for many other stars. So our Sun is of a very nice size and temperature for us. The largest known star seems to be one called UY Scuti. This is in a constellation called Scutum; the star is near the center of our galaxy and is considered a Red Hypergiant star. If UY Scuti were placed where our Sun is, the outer edge of it would be at 7.9 Astronomical Units distance, which would put it between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. The brightest star is apparently one called R136a1. It is 8.7 million times as bright as our Sun! So these make our star seem pretty small and tame by comparison, but our Sun is created with a purpose to provide for us on Earth.

Another lesson we can learn from stars is that we don’t know everything. This should be something we know, but we need reminders of it now and then. Scientists sometimes discover stars or other objects in space that are very puzzling and hard to explain. A very puzzling star was discovered in 2015. It’s actual ‘name’ or designation is KIC 8462852. However, this star has been often called Tabby’s star, named after the woman scientist who discovered it. Extrasolar planets are often discovered by watching how the light of a star varies. If a planet passes in front of the star, along our line of sight, it makes a very slight dip in the light of the star. This dip from a planet in orbit is a very predictable periodic change that usually happens like clockwork. But for Tabby’s star, there are dramatic and unpredictable changes in the light of the star and no one really knows why. Sometimes the light of the star dips by 10 or 15%, which is very dramatic but brief. Other times it only dips a little but it lasts for a long time. Astronomers are studying Tabby’s star trying to explain it. Some bizarre ideas have sometimes been proposed, including aliens are building large megastructures around the star. I doubt that is it. My best guess would be there is a lot of material around the star that is falling into it, such as perhaps from an asteroid belt or maybe even a planet that broke up.

Click here to see a video about Tabby’s star.

The strangest stars to me are the ones called crystalized white dwarfs. If this doesn’t sound strange enough, they are also sometimes called diamond stars. Old stars apparently can go through multiple levels of strangeness as they age as it relates to Carbon. Stars normally fuse Hydrogen into Helium. When stars run out of Hydrogen many of them seem to shrink into a small very hot object called a white dwarf star. When the Hydrogen is running out the star, if it is large enough, will start fusing Helium. There are several possible nuclear reactions that can happen at this point. Two Helium nuclei can fuse into one Berylium atom. Or Helium can react with Hydrogen, or Berylium, or with Carbon. If Helium reacts with Berylium it forms Carbon. If Helium reacts with Carbon it forms Oxygen. If this process can continue it can form lots of Carbon. I would like to describe this as if it is a process of getting more and more weird, since that is how it seems to me. The first stage is common, the other two stages are unusual for stars.

Stage 1 weirdness
Star runs low on hydrogen and it starts fusing together Helium atoms.

Stage 2 weirdness
The star does not explode in a supernova or shrink by gravity into a white dwarf star. Instead it keeps making more carbon until all we can detect in our telescopes is pure carbon gas in outer layers of these stars. These stars are still pretty hot, so the Carbon is a gas that rises to the outer layers so we can detect it.

Stage 3 weirdness – crystalized white dwarfs
This is where a star that had a lot of pure carbon cools down and crystallizes. This is a diamond star. Very dense and very cool compared to other stars. They are hard to see also because they aren’t very bright. There are two types of crystallized pure Carbon. One is graphite, the other is a diamond. Graphite is what we use in pencil lead. Graphite has layers of Carbon that form flakes that are brittle and can slide past each other. But diamond forms a more rigid interlocking type of crystal. Diamonds are more valuable, such as for making beautiful jewelry. In recent years there have been multiple news reports of what scientists believe are diamond stars. I had trouble believing it when I first heard of it. But there is good science behind this. Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Note that it is not certain that all three stages above are possible for the same star but all these stages have to do with stars forming Carbon from Helium, with different results.

The Morning Star
Let us come back “down to Earth” as they say. I write this on Easter weekend. We remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. Someone once said that Easter is not just something that happened to Jesus, it is something that happens to you, to every Christian. In Revelation 22:16 Jesus is speaking and he says “I am the Root and Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” The term “morning star” is interesting and has different uses. In astronomy it is often referring to the planet Venus, that appears early in the morning in the East or in the evening in the West. Sailors could use it as a navigation guide because it is one of the brightest objects in the sky. Jesus is like the light we should sail by. Also, since Venus is a planet, it’s light does not twinkle, it is a steady bright light, which makes it a good guide. The morning star is not always visible but it is always out there. So there is a parallel between Venus and Jesus that Revelation seems to be making.

The Apostle Peter also uses the term “morning star” somewhat differently in 2 Peter 1:19. Peter uses it to refer to God working in the heart of a believer. In 2 Peter 1:16 Peter says, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” So Peter here is referring apparently to Jesus’ transfiguration where he appeared in the light of his glory just for a moment. It was an amazing experience that seemed to confuse the apostles that were there. But Peter is emphasizing that Jesus’ is really God in human form. He could not be defeated by death because he has all authority in heaven and in Earth. Then Peter goes on in 2 Peter 1:19, “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” In our sin we are in a dark place, but Jesus can turn on his light in us. So this is a way of thinking about how Easter isn’t just something that happens to Jesus. It is something that happens to us.

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