This Beautiful System

When the Apollo astronauts first photographed Earth from deep space, the photo became an instant classic. Shining like a blue-and-white jewel against the emptiness of space, planet Earth is clearly special. It is the only planet in the Solar System known to harbor life. Recent discoveries in astronomy suggest that our entire solar system is even more special, more remarkable than we had thought. The evidence is mounting that it did not arise just by chance, but was designed for a purpose: to support life. Last week astronomers at Harvard and San Francisco State University announced that they have discovered evidence of three planets orbiting a nearby star, Upsilon Andromedae, 44 light-years away. But the new planets defied astronomers' expectations in many ways. In our own solar system, for example, the planets closest to the sun are relatively small and dense: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—while those farther away from the sun are large, gaseous planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (The only exception is Pluto.) As a result, the standard theory of planetary formation suggests that giant planets must be farther out from their star. When a planetary system evolves from a cloud of gas and dust, the theory says, the particles of ice that are thought to begin the condensation process in the large planets would have been melted by the star's intense heat. But the newly discovered planets throw the standard theory into a cocked hat. The planets are roughly the size of Jupiter, yet they lie astonishingly close to their star. One is so close that it circles the star in a mere four and a half days. Remember, it takes a year for Earth to go around our own sun. No wonder astronomer Geoffrey Marcy told the Washington Post, "This will shake up the theory of planetary formation." It turns out that our own solar system is even more remarkable and unique to a greater degree than scientists had previously thought. And that's not all. In the past four years, nearly 20 planets have been discovered outside our solar system, and about half move in eccentric, egg-shaped orbits. Astronomers label these "killer" orbits, because they would tend to intersect with the orbit of any other planets, leading to massive collisions. By comparison, our solar system is a model of stability and order. "It's like a jewel," says Dr. Marcy. "You've got circular orbits. They're all in the same plane. They're all going around in the same direction.... It's perfect, you know. It's gorgeous. It's almost uncanny." Dr. Marcy may not realize it, but his language echoes that of the great Isaac Newton more than 300 years ago. Isaac Newton likewise found our solar system beautiful, but he took that insight to its logical conclusion. "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets," he wrote, "could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being." What a great apologetic argument this is for you to use with your secular neighbors. Astronomy has advanced in astonishing ways since Newton's day, but its findings still lead to the same conclusion: The heavens still declare the glory of God.


Chuck Colson



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