This is an picture of the Andromeda galaxy, the thing that is the farthest away from us and still visible by the naked eye in the night sky by many accounts. The more scientific name for this is M 31, where M stands for Messier, a French astronomer of the 18th Century who cataloged about 100 comet-like looking things in the night sky. The galaxy, a large smudge that seems to us on earth to be stuck in the sky somewhere over the North Pole, was one of the things Messier put on his list, and it is included in sky maps from astronomers of 1,000 years gone by. Some can see M 33 with the naked eye, which is farther away still. Me, I'm too old.
Some like to think that science is common sense, but that isn't the case. It is only for the past few centuries that we understood that light has a speed, and the idea that the speed is constant is credited to the Michelson Morley experiment, so it is now celebrating its 120th birthday. The upshot of all of this is that when we look at things that are astronomical distances away, we are looking at the past. The light from the moon is about a second old when we see it, the light from the sun is a snapshot from eight minutes ago. Really close stars are light years away, and the closest, the Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri stars, are showing us now what they were like less than 5 years ago. The Andromeda galaxy we see is actually its state from about 2.9 million years ago. These measurements are done by measuring parallax, which deals with angles and sides of a triangle, and by the red shift, a brilliant idea of Einstein's that says that while light moves at a constant speed, it does bend perceptibly when it hits a large enough gravity field.
There are deep philosophical implications to the simple scientific statement "Light has a speed." We know sound is not instantaneous if we sit in the cheap seats at a ball game. We see the swing of the bat and the ball starting to fly and only then do we hear the loud CRACK of the contact. (If you are 400 feet away in the bleachers of a stadium at sea level like the ballparks in Oakland and San Francisco, the delay is about 1/3 of a second.) The light gets to our eyes before the sound gets to our ears, because light is so much faster than sound, we can experience this. But nothing we can perceive is faster than light, so nothing in our physical experience can make clear that we do not look at a true instantaneous snapshot when we look at the night sky, but a glimpse a many different objects at many different moments in the past.
One of the implications is disturbing to some. Those who deny evolution, who lump together their hodgepodge criticisms under the heading "intelligent design", do not all believe the same thing, but many are bound together by a desire to believe a literal interpretation of the biblical account of Genesis. The most literal of these people hold to the Young Earth hypothesis, that by doin' the math of all the "begats", we can date the start of creation at about 6,000 years ago. It's a problem for them that the most mathematical of the sciences, physics as applied to astronomy, lets us do the math and show beyond serious debate that some parts of God's creation visible to us for centuries had to exist for at least 2,900,000 years, and 2,900,000 > 6,000. Moreover, we have really cool telescopes now, and we can see that in terms of the universe, M 31 is a close neighbor and there are things in the universe that are really far away.
I was at work a few days back and talking to another math teacher about M 31. I asked if he knew how far away it was, and he guessed. It was a bad guess, because he thought it might be hundreds of billions of light years away. I'm used to students guessing badly, I don't think less of them for it. It shows they are willing to learn. His guess was bad because the accepted age of the universe is around 13.5 billion years, so there's no way that we could see anything older than that. He nodded his head at his mistake, and I added that this sighting with the naked eye puts the lie to the Young Earth hypothesis in much the same way photography from outer space makes it clear the Flat Earth hypothesis isn't correct.
His next statement, a statement from a math teacher, was that when dealing with the maker of all things, our ideas of time and space have no relevance, since the wisdom of the Great Maker is infinitely greater than our own. I was looking for common ground with this person, so I said that he was taking the ideas of "days" as they were defined in Genesis metaphorically and he agreed.
In fact, I was being kind. He was not being metaphorical at all, but reflexively defensive. I cannot give his exact quote, but I am paraphrasing him correctly when he said our ideas have no meaning when we discuss the Creation. In other words, when it comes to God, any crap bullshit believed by a large enough number of people should be given equal weight with the best efforts done by people doing serious and brilliant work trying to discover without prejudice the way the universe works.
I'm not trying to pick a fight with the faithful, at least not the faithful who hang around here. I know Padre Mickey believes that devout Christians do not have to accept Iron Age creation myths to accept the love of God. I don't think I've made any statements that will upset FranIAm or others. But to those Americans who make the Young Earth part of their view of the universe, let me say it's time to sit down and shut up. You hurt our country by forcing us to fight again these already decided battles, and countries where the insane do not get an important voice in politics are going to continue to kick our ass in science and technology, and soon enough our status as the World's Only Superpower will be as quaint as the idea that Nobody Fucks With The Spanish Armada.
Here endeth the lesson.
(Major errors corrected by Ken, freelance fact checker who works for beer when I see him, and lives hundreds of miles away. Such a deal!)
(Yet another error corrected by my good old pal Alan. Dammit, Jim, I'm a mathematician, not a scientist!)