NASA recently celebrated the end of the unlikely long run of the Kepler spacecraft. Sent up in 2009, this marvelous flying telescope lasted well beyond its projected mission terminus and slipped off to sleep, and out of communication with Earth, just last month.
Kepler’s main task was to look for exoplanets—planets outside our galaxy. And it found evidence of hundreds, from gas giants (like our Jupiter) to rocky planets orbiting at possibly life-sustaining distances from their suns.
So far, so wondrous.
But increasingly, it seems, journalists feel free to indulge in metaphysics and ethics when they are reporting…science. One sees such amateurish philosophizing all the time nowadays in National Geographic, Discovery, and other popular science journals, and one sees it here, too, in the pages of The Atlantic:
“The Kepler mission was named for Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German astronomer who proposed three laws that govern the motion of planets around the sun. Kepler’s work relied on the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century Polish astronomer who determined, much to the chagrin of religious leaders, that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but orbited the sun. Centuries later, the Kepler mission continued in these scientists’ footsteps in its own way. With each discovery of a planet around a distant star, the telescope seemed to scream, Here’s yet another reminder that we’re not the center of the universe, not even a little” (emphasis in original).
There is more than a little irony here in a paragraph featuring two Christians, Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus. Kepler and Copernicus certainly did not believe that humanity was unimportant simply because we are far away from the physical centre of the universe.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). That sentence is chock-full of significations of human worth: “God,” “the world,” “his only Son,” and “eternal life.”
The Supreme Being joined God’s being with our flesh, as early Christian theologians liked to put it—determined as they were to scandalize their pagan counterparts who were appalled at the idea of divinity becoming enmeshed with materiality. Yet the Word did become flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), thus certifying the status we humans have as creatures created in the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).
To be sure, as Immanuel Kant put it, the “starry heavens above” do “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe” (Critique of Practical Reason). And the Psalmist wonders likewise:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet. (Psalm 8:3-6)
So perhaps I’m being a little hard on the Atlantic writer. The splendours of the heavens do tend to challenge our human tendency to self-importance, and so they should.
Still, however much I loved the eight years we lived in Winnipeg, I’m rarely tempted to think that it’s more important than my current homes in Vancouver and Moncton simply because it’s almost at the E-W centre of Canada. And not many Canadians even know where the actual geographical centre of Canada is. (It’s a matter of some dispute, in fact.)
The Kepler mission itself can help us with our perspective. For as fascinating as are the stars of the cosmos—stars like ours, and the more exotic species of pulsars, quasars, neutron stars, binaries, white dwarfs, black holes, novae, and supernovae—aren’t we most interested in those planets and the possibility of extraterrestrial life? Christian or not, isn’t what matters most the communion of persons?
That’s something on which Kepler and Copernicus, I’m sure, would have agreed.