The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg

Chapter 13.
Astrophysics and Mormonism: Parallel Paths to Truth
R. Grant Athay

[p.249]I belong to a profession in which there is some common ground with religious teachings. In both subjects we deal with the origin and nature of the physical universe and with the origin and nature of life. I am qualified, as an astrophysicist, to speak only about the former of these—the origin and nature of the physical universe. Rather than launch into a discourse on astronomy, however, I prefer to talk about the areas of common ground where astronomy and religion each state their views.

In order to think about some of the complexity of the subject with which we are dealing, let me ask a series of questions. For the moment, think about the questions themselves, not about answers to them. How, for example, does one go about answering such questions:

1. What sorts of objects are stars? Are they vast and complicated like the sun, or much smaller, simpler objects?
2. Do stars vary in physical size?
3. Do stars other than our sun have planets that support life?
4. Have some stars ceased to exist and will new stars come into being?
5. What are the ages of stars?
6. Do stars rotate on an axis as the earth does?

These questions were common topics of discussion in Joseph [p.250]Smith’s day, both among scientists and some segments of the general public. Speculation about the age of the universe ranged from a few thousand years to a few hundred thousand years. There was much debate about the nature, evolution, and sizes of stars and about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Thus it should not be surprising to find that Joseph Smith himself was interested in these subjects.

It is not my intent to discuss at length the current scientific picture of the universe except in a general way. It is to me both remarkable and awe-inspiring to realize that the chemical elements of which we are made were manufactured billions of years ago inside a star, most likely several different stars. These stars lived out their life cycles, exhausted their nuclear fuel, and left as ashes the elements of which our sun, its planets, and we are made. In their death throes these dying stars sprayed much of their matter into outer space where æons later it coagulated to form our solar system and eventually to provide our present home.

This picture has been arrived at in science by a long, complicated path. It required that we find the means of answering most of the questions listed above, plus many other questions of equal or greater complexity. The scientific answer to these questions required sophisticated telescopes and ancillary equipment in addition to sophisticated theories, none of which were available to science in Joseph Smith’s day. For many of the questions that needed to be answered, answers have come only in recent years. Prior to that, our knowledge and understanding of physics were not sufficiently good to answer the questions, even though much of the necessary data were at hand.

The merits of scientific information in the scriptures are best judged in terms of the level of science in the day in which the scriptures were produced. Let us then back up to the mid-1800s and ask what astronomers in that day knew and what tools they had to work with. Their telescopes were limited by today’s standards. The largest lenses in use were about twelve inches in diameter. Knowledge of physics was still very limited. The structure of atoms and molecules was not known. Also the laws of thermodynamics, which are crucial in describing the state of matter in stars, were not known. Matter was believed to be both creatable and destructible. The velocity of light [p.251]had been measured accurately, but the nature of light itself was not at all understood. Thus the messages carried in starlight were still unreadable to the scientist. As a result, nothing was known about the chemical composition or the physical nature of stars. Evolution of astronomical and physical objects was a common topic of discussion, but there was not sufficient physical foundation upon which a theory of stellar evolution could be based. Photography was just coming into use, and astronomers still relied mainly on their eyes to record whatever data they acquired.

By the mid-1800s the distance, size, and luminosity of the sun were reasonably well known. It was known also that the sun rotates on an axis. Scientists knew that the sun required a vast energy source, but the only sources of energy known were incapable of sustaining the sun more than a few hundred thousand years. This picture changed in 1853 when Helmholtz postulated that the sun was heated by its own contraction and found that such a mechanism could sustain the sun for approximately 18 million years. Even though this was still a crude and inaccurate picture, it represented a major step forward.

By the mid-1800s the distance to Alpha-Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor, had been measured as being about four light years (23 million million miles), which is quite accurate. Herschel had shown from star counts in the Milky Way that the Milky Way was a vast star system exceeding 3,000 light years in width. Stars were known by this time to be sun-like objects at great distances and requiring, because of their distances, immense amounts of energy.

Rotation was believed to be a common property of all planets, but it could be studied for only three objects: the earth, moon, and sun. Orbital motions of planets and their moons and gravitational forces were known and reasonably well understood. By contrast, however, it was widely (but not universally) believed that stars were fixed, immovable objects.

In the early 1800s astronomers commonly (but erroneously) saw clouds and fortifications on the moon. Prior to about 1850 it was commonly believed that the interior of the sun was solid, cool, and habitable; only the outer atmosphere was thought to be hot and incandescent. Thus in the early 1800s the moon as well as the sun and all the planets were believed to be inhabited. By 1834, however, [p.252]Besel had shown that the moon had little or no atmosphere, and by 1850 the idea that the sun’s surface was liquid (actually it is gaseous) rather than solid prevailed. At the time that Joseph Smith was working on the Book of Abraham (now contained in the Pearl of Great Price) the majority of scientists advocated a plurality of habitable worlds for humans, but this idea was opposed by many religious creeds.

The evolution of scientific thought concerning life in the universe has followed an interesting pattern. Pannekoek states that, “In the mid-19th century the doctrine of a multitude of planetary systems, all inhabited by intelligent beings, formed part of the world concept often expressed in materialist and rationalist forms strongly antagonistic to the dominant religious creeds.”1 This concept of universal worlds changed dramatically over the next three-quarters of a century, and in 1927 Eddington stated his feeling that our planetary system is unique in the stellar universe and that hence the Earth, as an abode of living beings, is also unique as a world.2 That view dominated scientific thought for several decades. Within the past thirty to forty years, our ideas have again given way to a widespread belief among scientists that habitable planets and life itself are relatively common features of the universe. The change in concept concerning life in the universe is not merely scientific whimsy. The questions involved are complex and cannot be answered with certainty without a deep understanding of the nature of the physical universe. Present evidence, however, indicates that Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life are far more common than Eddington had supposed.

The six questions we asked earlier in this essay were each the basis for lively discussions during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. LDS scriptures produced by Joseph Smith contain information on these same questions. Let us then turn to the scriptures to see what information they give.

It would be a mistake, I believe, to attempt to interpret science literally as scripture or to interpret scripture as science. The two serve different purposes, and even though they describe the same events they need not describe them in the same way. With this note of caution, we glean the following “scientific information” from the books of Abraham and Moses in the Pearl of Great Price:

[p.253]1. Stars are sun-like objects; some great and some small (Abr. 3:2).
2. Stars are numberless and extend endlessly into space (Moses 1:37, 38).
3. Stars occur in associations and some stars govern others (Abr. 3:3).
4. Stars rotate (Abr. 3:4).
5. Heavens (star systems) and populated worlds exist without number (Moses 1:37).
6. Stars are continuously being born; some have already died (Moses 1:38).
7. One star (Kolob) is the greatest of all. It rotates once each 1,000 years and is associated with many other great stars (Abr. 3:4, 16).
8. The sun borrows its light from Kolob (Abr. fasc. 2).
9. Kolob governs the annual revolutions of the moon, earth, sun, and fifteen other fixed planets or stars (ibid.).

An additional item of interest was printed in the Times and Seasons 5 (1844) on page 758. The following quote is from a letter from W. W. Phelps to William Smith, Joseph Smith’s younger brother (Phelps was a scribe to Joseph Smith and worked with him on the Book of Abraham): “and that eternity, agreeable to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system (not the world) almost 2,555 millions of years; and to know that deists, geologists, and others are trying to prove that matter must have existed hundred of thousands of years:—it almost tempts the flesh to fly to God, or muster faith like Enoch to be translated and see and know as we are seen and known!” This is a remarkable statement, and we will return to it later.

The scientific information extracted from Abraham and Moses plus the information from the Times and Seasons answers each of the above six questions. Furthermore, they correspond with current concepts of astronomy. Only one question—the first one—was answered correctly by science in the early 1800s. In fairness, I should point out that this is why I chose to ask these particular questions—to show compatibility. I could have asked other questions the scriptures do not answer or answer incorrectly according to science. Also the scriptures give answers to questions I have not asked.

[p.254]Of the nine statements listed above as scientific information, I understand what is meant by the first seven only. I have no idea what is meant by the statement that the sun “borrows” light from Kolob. As an astrophysicist I am perfectly content with the idea that the sun generates its own light from nuclear fusion in its deep interior and requires the help of no other star. Similarly, I have no idea what is meant by the statement that “governing power” from Kolob governs the moon, earth, and sun in their annual revolutions. For that matter, I do not even know what is meant by the “annual revolution” of the sun. The sun turns on its axis about once each month; it revolves with our Milky Way galaxy once each 200 million years or so, and it moves steadily about within our Milky Way. As far as astronomers know (and they have every reason to know how the sun moves through space) the sun has no “annual revolution,” unless the word “annual” simply means period of time. The concept of a central governing star (Kolob) in our stellar system is not part of our current scientific picture. However, the central regions of our galaxy are heavily obscured by matter and are poorly understood.

It does not bother me particularly that I do not understand some of the statements in the Book of Abraham. That lack of understanding could reflect our own lack of knowledge of the universe. I personally doubt that this is the proper explanation, however. I see no reason to insist that all scriptural statements of a scientific nature be rigorous in today’s concepts and couched in today’s scientific jargon. Also I am content to allow Joseph Smith the freedom to miss one or two questions in the astronomy examination. That would not in any way diminish his greatness as a man or as a prophet.

Of far more importance to me than the things I do not understand in Abraham are the things I do understand. The problems considered are pertinent to topics of discussion in Joseph Smith’s day. The questions asked were answered more correctly and completely by the books of Abraham and Moses than by mainstream science in the mid-1800s. In addition, the statement in the Times and Seasons that there have been goings-on in this system for almost 2,555 million years predated science’s reasonable estimate of the age of our local stellar system by almost a century.

The subject of astronomy is among the oldest of the sciences. It has taught us much about the nature and history of the universe. [p.255]In some ways, however, astronomy is still in its infancy. The universe is more complex than any of us are ready to admit. Even our sun, which is far better understood than any other star, is not at all well understood. As a specialist in solar physics, I readily admit my failure to understand much of what I, or others, observe to be happening on the sun. The sun is marvelously complex and provides us with one of our best laboratories for studying some of the less well-understood areas of physics.

Many stars seem more complicated than the sun and are even less well understood. Astronomy is a science in which we seem to have an increasing number of unsolved problems. In the course of finding the solution to one problem, we invariably uncover new problems to take its place. Thus as we create a collection of solved problems and piece them together to form a picture of the universe, we are seemingly faced with an ever-increasing number of new challenges.

Modern astronomy has been vastly increased in scope by the invention of radio telescopes and by our ventures into outer space where we now look at the universe with telescopes that are capable of seeing x-rays and extreme ultraviolet rays. These new devices provide new eyes through which we can study the universe. With these new eyes we are seeing new classes of objects with bizarre characteristics.

The newly-discovered objects in astronomy are beginning to play key roles in our understanding the universe and are upsetting our current picture. The foundation on which we have built the picture is beginning to shake a little. Some of the pieces that we thought were fitted snugly into place no longer seem to fit quite so well, and men and women of science are once again reexamining the most fundamental building blocks.

Our ventures into space have just begun, and radio astronomy is still relatively young. We have certainly not yet discovered all of the mysteries or even all the objects of our universe, and we have not yet answered the most important questions conclusively. Our children may learn a different brand of astronomy. They will undoubtedly look back on us as a group who made some progress but who were handicapped by limited experience and outmoded ideas. Their picture of the universe will differ from ours and will [p.256]undoubtedly be more complete. It may well contain, as essential ingredients, objects and phenomena to which our scriptures do not even refer.

Until we developed radio and x-ray telescopes, we believed the universe to be completely dominated by objects that could be seen and studied with ordinary telescopes. This picture may still be partly true, but it seems also to be partly in error. How much the picture will evolve we cannot predict. Even if the picture were to change to the extent that stars, nebulæ, and galaxies no longer dominated, the understanding of Joseph Smith would not be diminished. He spoke and wrote of things scientific as they were known to him and his contemporaries. He had neither the need nor the proper framework for discussing objects unknown to the general populace even if he himself had known of them.

In the Book of Moses, when Moses sees the earth in all its detail and all its inhabitants, he is overcome with awe and wonder. After regaining his composure, he says, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (1:10). Moses was subsequently told of the complexity of the universe, of innumerable worlds some of which had already passed away and others which were yet to be born. He was carefully reassured by God that all things were created in wisdom and for a purpose and that they were numbered and known to God (vv. 31, 35). This, not science, is the message of the scriptures.

Science, on the other hand, reveals only the marvels and beauties of nature. It is the marvel and beauty of those creations and not God’s hand in them that is the message of science. Let us not confuse the two and let us not find fault with either just because they seek different goals. Each is important by itself and in its own right. Together, however, they are both stronger and more beautiful to comprehend than either would be in the absence of the other.

Notes:

[p.256]1. A. Pannekoek, A History of Astronomy (New York: Interscience, 1961), 402.

2. A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1927), 178.