When American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon, July 21, 1969, few knew of the contributions of Seventh-day Adventist scientists to that achievement. Fifty years later this month’s issue of the Adventist Review celebrates the event while highlighting the contributions of but a few of the thousands of Adventist scholars whose scientific research in space and astronomy continues to bless the world today.
Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things, who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, by the greatness of His might and the strength of
His power; not one is missing” (Isa. 40:26).*
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then, during the six days of Creation week, God transformed the formless, void, and dark earth into a habitat for all kinds of living creatures, culminating in the creation of Adam and Eve in His image (Gen. 1:3-28). Our first parents were given dominion over the earth and its creatures to fill and subdue it as God’s stewards. When humans fell the curse affected the whole of creation (Rom. 8:20-22), ultimately contributing to heaven and earth passing away (Matt. 24:35).
Even though “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), can a dying universe witness to us about God’s glory—His character, and His plan for humanity? In what follows I answer yes. Throughout, the expression “space science” includes both astronomical research and space exploration.
Before ad 1600 humans could observe the sky with the naked eye only. The invention of the telescope around ad 1600 made it possible to see much more and much farther. More recently, launching an animal—Laika, the dog—on board the Russian Sputnik 2, November 1957, and humans landing on the moon, July 1969, have led to space exploration.
Space science is part of a large collection of natural sciences, from astronomy to zoology, in which progress in one field is often linked with progress in another field: Kepler’s and Tycho Brahe’s observations of the planets led to the subsequent mathematical formulation of gravity by Newton; laboratory spectroscopy taught us about the chemical constitution of such celestial objects as stars and nebulae. Such links between disciplines bring people with different abilities and knowledge together in fruitful collaboration. Good stewardship!
The applications of our research and exploration often bring widespread benefits. Artificial satellites gave us navigation by GPS, vastly improved understanding of global cultivation and of atmospheric circulation and weather forecasts. Space is the poor person’s laboratory where matter in extreme conditions of pressure and temperature can be studied in our efforts to know about and learn from God’s creation. And exactly because space science finds its hunting ground far removed from our everyday conditions, we now develop precious new and unusual ideas, problems, and possibilities.
The Bible implies the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe: heaven’s hosts worship God (Neh. 9:6) and delight in His works (Job 38:7). Laika and the Apollo 11 crew helped focus our attention on the search for extraterrestrial life. With our search thus far limited to life as we know it, the requirements for human life have come under scrutiny. The results have been surprising. Our studies show that life is not only very complex, but also requires dozens of favorable conditions for its origin and development. These conditions have to fall between extremely narrow limits: any one condition falling outside these limits is enough to make life impossible. Thus, the universe tells us that human life is very special and cannot originate at random. Intelligence, which is not a characteristic of lifeless matter, is required for the origin of life. What or who else can supply this intelligence but God, and what does this tell us about our Creator?
Early theologians believed the “book” of nature was a source of God’s revelation to humanity: when read alongside sacred Scripture, the study of God’s creation leads to knowledge of God Himself. Understanding nature’s language requires some knowledge of the natural sciences. This is where space research plays a crucial role too. Nature’s strict connection between cause and effect teaches us to distrust appearances and prompts us to look for deeper truths, the real values in life.
Humanity’s happiness requires the satisfaction of the primary necessities for life. Beyond that, the search for truth and understanding has become a further source of genuine joy in life. To share the characteristics of nature—and therefore, of God’s glory—is a duty and privilege of those who are engaged in the natural sciences.
Astronomy in particular has been acclaimed as one of the highest scientific disciplines because it liberates us from the fear of seemingly capricious forces of nature ascribed to the working of mysterious personalities that we find in many older religions. The melody of science would sound poor and empty if people in general could not relate to it, if it did not evoke an echo from the community at large. Science can flourish only when an interested population provides a fertile ground of ideas and questions.
Scholars release their discoveries from being the egoistic privilege of the professional few when we bring them to the general public through education and popularization. We thus engender a better understanding of the book of nature and its God. The community that offers astronomers and space scientists the opportunity to dedicate our time to research and exploration has the right to have a share in the results of this undertaking. As Luis Feuillée (1660-1732) remarked: “Beginning at the university, science must spread out to all people as the fertility-bringing water comes down from the mountains to irrigate the valleys.”
Our stewardship of creation is best done in cross-discipline collaboration that, when applied, creates new ideas and methods to the benefit of all. Searching for extraterrestrial life shows us God’s awesome design of life, and points us to God’s second book for what is of real value in life. Popularization is unselfishness in action as we share the good news about God’s glory. Surely, the Christian researcher can contribute much to mankind when observing the above suggestions.
* Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), p.417.
Mart de Groot practiced astronomical research and administration for 40 years, directing the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland for 18 of those. He is also an ordained pastor and lives in Northern Ireland.