To count the number of the stars…

Vera Rubin

Among the recent deaths of public figures is that of the astronomer Vera Rubin, whose career began in the 1950 s when many of the most prestigious departments of astronomy would not accept female students. Working at rhe Carnegie Institution she began to study the orbital speed of stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral nebula like the Milky Way. Her results showed that the stars farthest from the centre rotated at rhe same rate as those near the centre, an impossibility according to Newtonian laws. She put forward the hypothesis that there must be a a great quantity of invisible matter which was unknown to science. Her hypothesis has never been proven, but most astronomers now accept that the visible matter of the universe is about 5% of its total mass, invisible matter about 25%, and dark energy the rest.

She never received a Nobel Prize because its committee is notoriously biased in favour of men, but her work is generally recognised as changing our view of the universe. When asked what she felt about not receiving sufficient recognition she said, “Fame is a passing thing. My real reward will be if my colleagues still use my numbers in their researches.”

I have nothing against those who mourn Debbie Reynolds or George Michael, but clearly they have contributed less to the human race than Vera Rubin. It’s not just her discovery of dark matter tbat impresses me, but also the fact that she was measuring orbital velocities in the Andromeda Galaxy! What an extraordinary processs of meticulous investigation over hundreds of years, by patient people who whatever their faults, respected each others’ work, made possible her research and her discovery!  I guess that scientists are not better human beings than the rest of us, but the necessary disciplines of rational enquiry have favoured honesty over fakery and cooperation over individualism. Even the most radical scientists have built on the achievements of their predecessors and the practice of peer review has exposed dubious results to critical examination.

Vera Rubin was from all accounts a sparky, confident woman, who navigated her way through the prejudices of her profession, but her scientific work shows an endearing modesty. When asked by a school pupil, “What exactly is dark matter?” She answered, “We don’t know.”  Her greatness as a scientist came from a bold desire to find new truths, along with a humility in the face of the inexplicable findings she obtained from her investigation.

Andromeda Galaxy

I also belong to a discipline whose aim is to discover truth about the universe, namely theology. Its best practicioners, in my view, have been those who were strong enough to believe they should discover truth and modest enough to respect those who had gone  before them , knowing that any new truth was only ever provisional. Unfortunately many theologians have believed they had access to eternal and immutable truth and that any who questioned their doctrines should burn in this life or the one to come. The worst were aggressively prepared to see opponents and unbelievers murdered for the good of their souls and rhe welfare of Christendom.

One may  call this arrogance, but it is also a pitiful lack of enterprise, based on the conviction that all truth has already been revealed. Good theology of course looks back towards historical sources of truth, like Moses or Jesus or Mohammed, but if it purports to express the living God, it must be ready to investigate, to  make new hypotheses and to subject them to appropriate testing. It must take into account the discoveries of other disciplines, and share openly in the common human enterprise of asking, “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Andromeda Galaxy

Scientists do not consider theology a science, because it does not subject itself to scientific method. But clearly that method is required only for certain kinds of enquiry. The understanding of art or literature requires its own, different disciplines. I think nevertheless, that as indicated above, theology has much to learn from science, and from scientists like Vera Rubin, who have added to our knowledge of the universe God is creating.


1 Comment

  1. A notable death indeed, and I’m sure the scientific community grieved her death far more than people outside the scientific community even noticed her death! Yes I also have nothing against people who mourn the deaths of George Michael or any other other pop stars who died this year, but I took issue with a recent comment in the Guardian which looked for meaning in the death of George Michael. Only in the mind of the writer of that article perhaps could a meaning be looked for. Your contrast of the scientific and theological enterprises is well stated, and having been part of both communities in my lifetime I can certainly say that the scientific community is more congenial to disagreement and mutual correction.


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