April 24, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Hubble Snaps Colliding Galaxies

A new catalog of colliding galaxy images has been released by the Hubble Space Science Institute.  The 59 images show “close encounters that sometimes end in grand mergers and overflowing sites of new star birth as the colliding galaxies morph into wondrous new shapes.”  The release coincided with the 18th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope.  Space.com and Science Daily covered the story, as did Jet Propulsion Lab that built the camera used by the Hubble.  To see all the images and their captions, visit the Cosmic Collisions Galore! catalog page.

The universe as revealed by modern astronomical instruments indicates dynamic processes that appear to have taken long periods of time.  This may be a challenge to Biblical creationists.  What do the images mean?  We should keep in mind several caveats of interpretation.
    As with any piece of scientific evidence, the data are on the surface of the earth in the present.  The photons from these sources are gathered up in real time by telescopes here on the earth.  The human mind projects “realities” out in space based on a combination of facts, assumptions and interpretations.  Just as photons are focused and magnified by a telescope lens, the resultant galaxies we think we understand are “scientific objects” that are filtered through the theoretical lens of what finite humans perceive them to be.
    Recall that, just last week, the Galex telescope revealed arcs of hydrogen far beyond the visible arms of galaxy M83 (04/21/2008).  Those invisible parts, which surprised the discoverers, now become part of the new reification of the term “galaxy.”  There are other invisible parts astronomers speak of, such as dark matter and dark energy.  In addition, astronomers maintain a host of assumptions about the processes that brought these objects into their current form.  The press release speaks of astronomers watching stars being born, when actually, all they are seeing is light in the present.  No man could ever watch the whole process of star birth.  Observations of stars are taken to represent stages in theoretical models.  It becomes difficult to see where observation ends and theory begins.  A feel for how difficult is apparent when one considers that the assumptions and interpretations about which early 20th century astronomers felt confident changed dramatically since Edwin Hubble first wrote his epochal papers on the nature of the spiral nebulae he observed in the 1920s.

The word galaxy itself reveals the historical character of scientific interpretation.  From the Latin root for milk, galaxy prior to 1923 meant The Milky Way – The Galaxy, which at the time was assumed to constitute the entire universe.  By extension, “galaxies” means “Milky Ways” since after Hubble, astronomers reinterpreted the spiral nebulae to be comparable scientific objects to the Milky Way, but far beyond it.  Some called them “island universes” (a logical contradiction, since there can only be one uni-verse).

Subsequent revolutions in the interpretation of galaxies – some of them profound – have occurred up to the present day.  What confidence can we have, therefore, that our current conceptualization of these scientific objects is accurate or complete now?
    All this is to caution that a scientific object should be understood, therefore, as a mixture of raw data, assumption and interpretation.  None of the above should cast doubt on the reality of what the Hubble Telescope has revealed.  Creationists as well as evolutionists tend to be scientific realists; they understand our empirical evidence to correspond to objective reality.  Galaxies are real; they have a history.  It is the ability of the human mind to fully grasp and understand them that should be questioned.  If the creation of the universe involved one-time, special circumstances (God “stretched out the heavens” – 04/18/2008 commentary) any attempts to understand them using “natural” laws and processes is doomed.  This would be a good time to re-read the 05/11/2006 entry that addressed the question, “Is our universe natural”?

Notice that three of the entries in the catalog have Arp numbers.  These were discovered by astronomer Halton Arp, whose story is instructive about consensus science.  Arp was arguably one of the best astronomical observers in the 20th century.   His Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies documented dozens of colliding galaxies, some of which the HST has now revealed in color at higher resolution.  Halton Arp used some cases as evidence that redshifts cannot be reliable indicators of distance.
    Since Arp challenged the Big Bang consensus, he was considered a maverick and was not welcome in some astronomical circles.  He was even denied telescope time to continue his research.  Many historians of science have considered the treatment he got from his peers as a reprehensible abridgement of the scientific values of openness and honest debate.  Some use it as an example of how “normal science” treats anomalies and marginalizes those outside the paradigm.

All that is preface to some possible interpretations of cosmological history that the creationist can reconcile with a Biblical worldview.  Some of these allow for vast ages to have occurred in the galactic context: e.g., a pre-hexameron creation of the universe (Schroeder, Gray), rapid structure formation with plasma physics and zero-point energy (Setterfield), time dilation due to general relativity (Humphreys), or local “time zone” solutions – i.e., the stars were created on the fourth day “Earth Local Time” (Lisle).  Videos that discuss the last two options can be found at Answers in Genesis.  None of these options is without problems and detractors.  That AIG would promote at least two interpretations such as these, however, is evidence that the strictest young-earth creationists can handle issues of apparent age that come to attention when pondering the Hubble images.
    Any world view, whether secular or religious, will have challenges and problems when looking out at the universe.  The old triumphalist, progressivist vision of science marching onward to Truth must be set aside in this post-Kuhn, post-Quine world.  Let us all view the Hubble catalog of colliding galaxies with fresh awe and rational reflection toward improving our understanding of cosmology (so far as is humanly possible) with integrity, openness and humility.

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Categories: Astronomy, Cosmology, Physics

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