The heavens declare the glory of the Lord
The Bible verse set for our study this evening is Psalm 19 Verse 1, “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord.” I prepared my lead earlier this week, and I was satisfied with it. Then yesterday I tore it up. Instead I want to lead by giving you a five‐minute science lesson.
The heavens declare the glory of the Lord. What does that mean?
Thirteen hundred million years ago, life on earth was rudimentary. There were yet no plants nor animals, however primitive. The most advanced life forms on earth were fungi.
Meantime, at a distance of thirteen hundred million light years from Earth, give or take a bit, two black holes collided. This converted some matter into energy, in the form of a gravitational wave. Now, when you convert matter into energy, you get a lot of energy. The exchange rate is huge. The atomic bomb that destroyed the city of Hiroshima in 1945 produced as much energy as 16 thousand tons of exploding TNT, by converting into energy about as much matter as the mass of a butterfly. But when the two black holes collided, the matter converted into energy was not the mass of a butterfly. It was a million times the mass of the Earth. For a fiftieth of a second, the collision radiated fifty times as much power as the combined power of the four hundred thousand million million million suns in the observable universe.
The gravitational wave spread out in all directions at the speed of light. Since then it has been spreading out at the speed of light for some thirteen hundred million years, thinning as it does so. Meanwhile, here on earth, plants evolved, and animals evolved, and the dinosaurs came and went, and humans appeared. And still the gravitational wave spread out.
And then last year, on 14 September 2015 at 09:50:45 Coordinated Universal Time, it reached Earth. In one twentieth of a second it passed through Earth and was gone for ever. But Earth was ready for it. Scientists had spent 1.1 billion dollars building two observatories in the USA, each with two arms 4 kilometres long, in the hope of detecting gravitational waves of just that kind. The gravitational wave reached Earth as a little ripple in the fabric of spacetime which changed the length of each of the 4‑kilometre arms. These changes of length were detected by the two observatories. And how big was the change of length of each 4‑kilometre arm? It was about one thousandth of the diameter of a proton, and you would need to line up fifty thousand million protons side by side to reach the width of a human hair. Yet the observatories detected it.
For the last five months, the scientists have been carefully checking their work, and yesterday they announced their discovery. Yesterday, the biggest release of energy ever witnessed in the entire cosmos passed into public human consciousness.
Yesterday, as never before, the heavens declared the glory of the Lord.
Eric P Smith
12 February 2016