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The World’s Oldest Photograph by John Knapp II

A View Within the Canopy

“He stretches out the heavens like a tent.” — Psalms 104:2

At the time of this writing (Feb. 22, 2010), the world’s oldest photograph is about seven weeks old.

What?

First, there are two kinds of “old” pictures:  (1) pictures taken in the past of, say, Grandma and Grandpa, your childhood days, any person or thing (obviously) also in the past, and (2) pictures taken in the present (or recently) of things in the past—of things that happen to be very far away.

Things that happened very long ago.

Here I’m talking about the second kind of photograph, in particular one just taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the world as it existed 13,100,000,000 years ago.¹ (Not, however, quite back to the Beginning—13.7 billion years ago—but comparatively close.)

Really?

Yes, I think so.  Let me try to explain.  To begin:  Technically, we see nothing as it is; we see (or hear or touch or smell or taste) things as they were a split second earlier since it takes time for our senses to tell the brain what’s out there.  Practically speaking, however, light is so fast that we can look, cross our fingers, and declare what things on Earth “are,” not “were,” and get away with it.  The same is true about sound which also travels fast, but much slower than light.  (For example, in London we can say we know Big Ben “is” across the street because we “hear”—not, more accurately, “heard”—it chime;  if we were viewing the clock a mile away, the chiming would be “heard” 5 seconds later.)

But when our senses (just sight, really) reach up and out from Earth things change and, to some of us, become more interesting.

Astronomers, with or without telescopes, are always looking at history, never the present.  So move over, Traditional History.  In fact, David Christian who trained at Oxford has recently developed the notion of teaching “Big History”², encouraging students (and history teachers) to begin at the Beginning—The Big Bang—and trace what we know about big ideas through astronomy, geology with its plate tectonics, paleontology, traditional and modern history, right up to Obama.  To begin to educate ourselves in the 21st century, we need to update ourselves with at least the headlines about everything.

Back to what’s up and out there.

We never see the moon as it “is,” but only as it was a little more than a second ago because light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, and the moon is about a quarter million miles away.  And the sun, about 93 million miles away, needs about 8.3 minutes to send its light here.  We never see the sun as it is, but as it was 8.3 minutes ago.  With pretty good evidence, we have faith that the source of this light is still there though we’d have to stick around ten minutes or so be “absolutely” convincing.

Since astronomers can slice and dice light from stars to identify the main elements they’re made of and how they’re moving with regard to Earth, we can tell how far they are away.  Now, with sophisticated telescopes and spacecraft, as we wade farther and farther into space we find the lag time between stars and the light they give us becomes staggeringly long.  The term “light-year” (5.88 trillion miles), the distance light travels in one year, helps us to more quickly express great distances.

Now where are we going and what’s new?

Until seven weeks ago, the best science we could “see” with telescopes showed us what the universe looked like about 12,800,000,000 years ago.  (Numbers and physics via Einstein and others have consistently maintained that there’s about 900,000,000 years more of stuff out there before we come to nothing, but we haven’t “seen” this—yet .)

Now, with the Hubble’s relaying of photos, we can trace our past back to about 13,100,000,000 years since The Big Bang.

What do we make of this recent photograph?

First, accepting these and other findings which cap off the effort of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, we now have a glimpse of what the universe was like much nearer the Beginning when galaxies were smaller and simpler than they are today.

Second, this is another piece of evidence supporting the strong hypothesis that:

  • the universe is older than 13.1 billion years (13.7, we think);

  • the universe is very, very large, but finite;

  • the universe (with, now, its 4 recognizable and measurable dimensions—3 of space and 1 of time) once had a beginning and will eventually have an end; and

  • time is linear (with a beginning and an end).

Third, these findings are inconsistent with, or are incompatible with, many traditional eastern religions that claim that the physical universe is eternal, goes on forever, or is somehow unendingly cyclic, undergoing long-term “deaths and rebirths.”  This is also incompatible with certain Jewish and Christian “young-earth creationism” views that insist that the Earth was created before stars or anything else, and that the entire universe can be no older than 6,000 to 10,000 years.

Fourth, on the other hand this recent picture is entirely compatible with “old-earth creationism,” held by many Jews and Christians who accept both the age findings of science and the accuracy and reliability of the Bible.³  In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the Bible is the only ancient document (or collection of documents) of a major religion that teaches and assumes that time is linear.

Fifth, and take a deep breath, what we see in this “recent old” photograph is so old that what has been pictured in news releases actually existed before the Earth itself was created!

What does the Bible add, if anything, to all this?  In addition to the first chapter of Genesis, and at the risk of unfairly pulling passages out of context, you may want to glance at these:  Psa. 19:1-6;  Psa. 33:6-9;  Heb. 1:10-12;  and Jn. 1:1-3.   Allow for rich metaphor which is unavoidable in a pre-scientific age with little technical understanding and language, and for a geocentric focus since human needs are being addressed.  The god of these words is hardly a primitive local deity.

Inside the heavenly canopy that God unfolded and “stretched out like a tent,” in a delightful world not yet “[worn] out like a garment,” we can now seriously think and meditate in fresh ways about the God who’s blessed us with so much.

Author: John Knapp II

NOTES

¹Reported by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press on Jan. 6, 2010 in the Binghamton Press of Binghamton, NY.  But google “Hubble Space Telescope” for much more information.

²Discover magazine, Vol. CLVIII, No. 35 (October 2009), pp. 66-69.  In an interview about Walter Alvarez, David Christian, a Russian historian, is mentioned as coining “big history,” and encouraging the teaching (in a single course, as he has done in Macquarie Univ. Australia) the four “great regimes” of real history—cosmos, earth, life, and humanity—to give the big picture of where everything came from and is going.

³The “old earth/young earth” controversy has been discussed in many places by those who consider the Bible to be inspired by God and an accurate and reliable record.  See my earlier article “ ‘In the Beginning God created…’ But When Was That?” at this website (type in my name in the search box to easily reach the archives).  See also “23 Questions Christians Should Ask to Have an Intelligent Discussion About Creation/Evolution” at “Resources” on my website [www.johnknapp2.com] and/or any of several resources at Reasons to Believe [www.reasons.org].

Some may wish to say the Qur’an or Koran also teaches that time is linear.  To that we’ll only make two quick observations:  (1) Much of the Qur’an uses the Old and New Testaments for its information about creation and origins, and (2) the two Bible Testaments predate the Qur’an by many centuries.

If this seems contradictory to a literal reading of Scripture, see note 3 (above).  Key to old earth-creationist views is that the universe (stars, etc.) was created in Gen. 1:1;  and that on Creation Day 4 the sun, moon, and stars—already created—were “made to appear” as the vapor canopy broke apart and unmasked them.  Still further, note that I and other Christians accept many miracles from God at face value such as the creating of the universe at the point where time begins, or Jesus rising from the dead, or even his changing water into wine.  However, if a belief that the Earth and universe can be no older than 6000 or 10,000 years forbids your accepting a Hubble photograph of the universe from what has been interpreted scientifically to be 13,100,000,000 ago, then God could have miraculously created the “light on the way” so that it only seems to be 13,099,990,000 (using the 10,000 figure) light-years away.  God could do that.  He also could confuse scientists in the physics they use to describe light that comes from outer space.

But if so, why?

Add to these, if you like, Job 9:5-12;  Psa. 104;  Psa. 148;  Prov. 8;  and II Pet. 3:4-13.

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