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Friday, February 02, 2007

Numbering the stars

How many stars are there? Good question.

The Bible makes a few references to counting the stars, or to their number. Some of these are Genesis 15:5 (there are similar passages) wherein God promises as many offspring to Abraham as the stars, Deuteronomy 28:62, in which Moses reminds the offspring of Abraham of this promise, and points out that it was achieved, in Egypt, but that the number has declined, because of disobedience. In Isaiah 40:25-6, God asks who created the stars, and says that He has them all numbered and named, and under His control.

So, how many stars are there? The short, and correct, answer, is that we don't know. However, there are estimates, based, as they must be, on various assumptions. Here's what the European Space Agency says about this question. Their estimate is on the order of 10 to the 22nd to 24th power. In other words, a 1 with from 22 to 24 zeros after it. The Cornell Astronomy Department has proposed a similar number. These numbers are obtained by estimating the number of stars in our galaxy, and multiplying that by the estimated number of galaxies. (Both numbers are estimated to be about 10 to the 11th power.) CNN reports a similar estimate, by a different method.

The Cornell Astronomy Department says that we can see (on a clear night, with no air pollution) a few thousand stars. Thinkquest gives a similar number. (Bear in mind that we can only see, at most, half of the sky from any single location -- there are stars visible from the Southern Hemisphere that I have never seen, and a person from, say, New Zealand, who has never traveled above the equator, must experience the same phenomenon in reverse.)

Did God mean to tell Abraham that he would have 10 to the 24th power offspring, or only a few thousand? I doubt if He meant either. My guess is that He was trying to say the sort of thing that we might say, and understand, namely the Abraham was going to have a lot of descendants. That has come true!

I'd like to muse a little about God having all the stars numbered and named. Wow!

We are so finite. We have only detected two hundred or so planets beyond our own solar system. One of the planets we thought we had has been downgraded to a "dwarf planet" in this century. In other words, we aren't even sure how many planets there are in our own solar system. We don't know for sure if any of them, or their moons, have living things on them, or used to. (Except, of course, for earth. I suppose that it is possible that there is some yet to be discovered life form on our own moon. Not probable, possible.) We surely don't know exactly how many stars are in our galaxy, or how many galaxies there are. We don't know how large the universe is. We don't know if it has a boundary or if it just goes on forever. Some scientists (I am not making this up!) speculate that there are a large, maybe infinite, number of universes that are parallel to ours, and that the entire group of such parallel universes makes up a multiverse. (See this Wikipedia article.) It may comfort your sanity to understand that these ideas are far from universally (sorry!) accepted. Philip Pullman, award-winning author, used these ideas in his books. (Pullman has been accused of attacking Christianity in his fiction, but that doesn't prove that the idea is wrong.)

How ever many planets, stars, locations where living things exist, galaxies, universes, and even multiverses, there may be, God has them all under control -- counted and named! As indicated above, he told Isaiah that. He also expresses this in Colossians 1:15-20, in which we are told that ". . . in him [Christ] all things hold together." (ESV)

Thanks for reading!

I have posted a follow-up to this, considering some of what the Bible says about Abraham's descendants.


Matt said...

Great stuff Martin!

It would be pretty impressive if the number of descendants was actually the number of stars! I suppose we would have to hope that life could be sustained on other planets... even if they were of the dwarf variety. ;)

Martin LaBar said...

Very much later. Sorry.

Thanks, Matt!