A new answer to an old question...
John Hartnett is a research professor at the University of Western Australia, and a young-earth creationist. His book, “Starlight, Time and the New Physics” is his answer to a long-standing question posed to the young-earth position. Namely, why are we seeing light from stars which are millions of light-years away if Creation is only a few thousand years old? In response, Hartnett offers a different perspective on large-scale physics, one which he feels answers this objection. He also makes reference to some other observations about the universe that strongly encourage a theistic or creationist viewpoint. Overall, it’s an interesting read, but it gets a little heavy for those less inclined towards abstract reasoning. With that in mind, I’ve tried to present a brief synopsis of his arguments, as well as a review of the book in general.
Hartnett isn’t a slouch when it comes to credentials. His work has been featured in well over 100 peer-reviewed publications, and his current research deals with applications such as ultra-low-noise radar and microwave oscillators. He also deals with more fundamental aspects of physics, such as Relativity and cosmology. All the same, I’m not sold on Hartnett’s particular answer to the question of starlight. His reasoning seems to provide an answer for how an old universe and a young earth can be reconciled; however, this doesn’t do much to counter the evidence in Earth itself which suggests that its age is much more than a few thousand years. I took the time to scan through the book’s extensive technical appendices, but I’m not qualified to comment one way or the other on their correctness. As a former engineering graduate student, I get the gist of what he presents, but not in enough depth to critique it.
Right or wrong, I think Hartnett’s approach raises some valid points that fly in the face of skeptical attacks on the accuracy of the Bible. He refers to recent astronomical observations which point a clearer and clearer finger towards the idea of a Creator. He also discusses the resulting struggles of anti-religionists in trying to cope with them. These are valuable and thought-provoking in and of themselves. This, along with the crucial question which encapsulates his answer to the dilemma of starlight, is useful for all readers, regardless of their technical aptitude.
According to Hartnett, the first response to pronouncements about the age of any object in the universe has to be: “according to which clocks?” Relativity clearly demonstrates that time does not pass at the same rate for everything in the universe at any given moment. For example, fast-moving objects experience time more “slowly” than slower-moving objects. Imagine a stopwatch placed on an ultra-high-speed rocket, with an identical stopwatch on the launch pad. After the rocket performs its flight and returns, you’ll find that the rocket’s stopwatch has recorded less elapsed time than the launching pad stopwatch. This is important, because it forces any observer to consider the idea that a gap in apparent age between two objects does not necessarily imply that they were created / formed at different times.
So, the idea that some parts of the universe can literally be “older” than others, even though they were created at the same moment, it is not only possible, but almost certain. This single fact of relativity makes a plausible bridge between an old-looking universe and a young earth. As I said before, this doesn’t do anything to explain why Earth itself looks old; then again, that’s not the point of the book. Hartnett is responding to a particular charge leveled against young-earth creationism.
That charge, first mentioned above is this: “How can earth only be six thousand years old if it takes light billions of years to get here from stars we see?” The best answers start with the afore-mentioned reply, “old according to which clocks?” Hartnett presents a few different kinds of answers that have been posed, along with his analysis of them. There are five that he discusses, and he rejects all but one of them. These replies are:
What Hartnett does from this point on is explain how his conception of physics answers the juxtaposition of an apparently-old-universe with a 6,000-year-old earth. He starts with the work of Moshe Carmeli, a physicist who proposed a different perspective from which to view both astronomy and the theory of relativity. There’s no really clean way to condense all of this into a small summary, so let this do for now: Hartnett endeavors to show how his applications of Carmeli’s ideas remove many of the admitted inaccuracies and “fudge-factors” in the current model, resulting in a more precise and cleaner representation of what we see happening around us. This, according to Hartnett, also has the side-effect of creating a means by which clocks on Earth might have run much slower than clocks placed elsewhere. The result is a theoretical framework allowing for Earth to experience a tremendously smaller passage of time since Creation than the rest of the universe.
In a nutshell, Hartnett argues that earth experienced a much slower progression of time than the stars we see. From the perspective of a distant star, light has been racing towards earth for billions of years. From the perspective of earth, only a tiny fraction of that time has passed. This allows a young earth to see light from old stars with exactly the kinds of observations that we see.
Hartnett helps to deflect criticism about the fact that his model overturns some of the entrenched assumptions about physics. Einstein’s relativity, for example, overturned many of the assumptions based in Newtonian physics. Prior to Einstein, those inaccuracies were explained away with appeals to unseen planets and other un-observable effects. Einstein’s model more accurately described observations, without needing the untestable insertions, and that spelled victory for relativity. Hartnett argues that his ideas, applied to Carmeli’s, might just do the same: give a more accurate explanation for what we actually see, without resorting to unprovable assumptions.
That’s the gist of the technical argument being made in “Starlight, Time, and the New Physics.” Beyond that, some of the more enlightening information comes in Hartnett’s description of astronomical properties that point a clear finger towards the idea of God. A particularly interesting fact is the apparent location of earth in relation to observable space. All observations indicate that we are at the center of the universe! This has some serious implications, as some quotes from Edwin Hubble demonstrate (Hubble discovered the wavelength-shifting that first suggested this central position):
“Such a condition would imply that we occupy a unique position in the universe…such a favoured position, of course, is intolerable.Using this reasoning, Hubble and other physicists theorized a curved or self-folding universe, one with no center or edges at all. Note that Hubble is not rejecting the central position of the universe on the basis of evidence – he’s rejecting it purely because he dislikes the idea that Earth might be “special.” The theories that remove this central position are not observationally based, but philosophically based. That is, they’re making sure that they theory points where they want it to. These “tweaks” to the model of the universe were added purely to avoid this cosmic distinction – not on the basis of any observations whatsoever. Hartnett then quotes Richard Feynman, giving a succinct explanation for why this reaction occurs:
“…to escape the horror of a unique position [compensations must be made].”
“It would be embarrassing to find, after stating that we live in an ordinary planet about an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy, that our place in the universe is extraordinary…to avoid embarrassment, we cling to the hypothesis of uniformity.”This is an important observation, as well as important point. Much of what happens in cosmology depends on assumptions that cannot be absolutely proven. In the case of the position of earth in the universe, there are no observations which suggest anything other than what Hartnett describes: we occupy a very particular, unique, and notable location in the cosmos. While there’s nothing strictly incorrect about the theoretical additions that counter this, they are purely philosophical, not scientific. They exist because of a pre-commitment to the idea that Earth is non-important and insignificant.
Hammering the point home, Hartnett then references the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. In brief, these projects essentially discovered that the observable galaxy is arranged in concentric rings/shells around Earth. This is an important point, so allow me to rephrase it for emphasis: Observations of the universe not only indicate that Earth is at the center of everything, but that everything is arranged in a noticeable pattern around it. Combining this with our understanding of a finite universe, the fine-tuning of physics, and so forth, Hartnett persuasively argues that modern astronomy does a lot more to strengthen belief in God than to dilute it.
Overall, “Starlight, Time, and the New Physics” is an interesting read. As I said before, I don’t think that Hartnett has a made a convincing case that Earth is only a few thousand years old. I do think that he’s made at least a worthwhile suggestion that science can rationally reconcile an old universe with a young earth. For those with an interest in space or physics, it’s an educational work. For believer and skeptic alike, its also another reminder that science, religion, faith, and reason are intimately compatible.
May 26, 2008
A new answer to an old question...