The starlight and time riddle is another stumbling block to Biblical faith. But if you apply Einstein’s famous equations consistently, it need not be.
The starlight and time riddle simply stated
The starlight and time riddle runs like this: If the earth is no older than 6,015 years, how can we see objects at the edge of the universe, 13.7 billion light-years away?
A light-year is the distance that light can travel in a year. It is the most convenient measure of the distance of far-off objects from human eyes. (It is also a sharp reminder that we are isolated in our solar system. We cannot send a conquering navy to the stars, nor fear such a navy troubling our peace. The Alpha Centauri system, nearest to our sun, is 4.5 light-years away.)
Astronomers generally agree that our universe has objects as far away from us as 13.7 billion light-years. That is not the same as saying that we are at the center of the universe. Conventional astronomers don’t care to admit that our universe has a center. But that’s another subject.
The point here is that the farthest objects, in any direction, are 13.7 billion light-years away from earth. So while the earth might be younger than that, the universe cannot be younger than 13.7 billion years.
The starlight and time argument rests on three assumptions:
- Clocks on earth have always run in lock-step with clocks everywhere else in space.
- The speed of light is a constant. (Its symbol, c, means “constant.”)
- The light that strikes our eyes gives a reliable history of the object that gave it off or reflected it.
If any one of those assumptions is wrong, the starlight and time argument fails.
Notice that God made Adam, and later Eve, in a mature state. In fact, God created all plants and animals as mature specimens, not as spores, seeds, or eggs. Why should He not create planets, stars, and galaxies as fully formed objects?
Some have said that God went further: He formed the far-off objects, and formed the light rays between those objects and the earth. If He did, then the starlight and time problem disappears. But some of these objects have suffered explosions or other great changes. Why should God put on a show for our benefit, of events that never took place? That’s out of Character for God. God does not lie.
Is light slowing down?
Others try to solve the starlight and time riddle by saying that light once moved faster than it moves today. If that’s true, then the fine-structure constant is not constant, either. And it might not be—that’s another hot question.
But we can solve the problem a lot more simply: the clocks on earth have run more slowly on earth than at the edge of the universe. Impossible? No. Here’s why.
The Hubble Deep Field, a picture of some of the farthest objects in the universe. Objects like these are the posters for the starlight and time riddle. Photo: Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute.
Albert Einstein developed the first modern cosmology, or a system to describe the sky. He reckoned that the speed of light is constant. It depends on other fundamental constants but does not depend on whether you’re standing next to the lamp, walking around it, or moving toward or away from it. That alone told Einstein that all the laws of relative motion that Sir Isaac Newton had developed were far too simple. His most radical idea is that events in any frame of reference that is moving relative to you will be slowed down, depending on how fast the frame is moving.
Imagine a train moving faster than even a Chinese bullet train can move on a good day. Aboard the train, a passenger switches on a light to read. You are in the station, watching him do this as the train rushes by. How long does the light from his lamp take to move from the lamp to the book he wants to read? He’ll get one answer—and you will get another. From where you stand, the light has a longer way to go, but travels at the same speed. So it takes longer.
This time dilation is the one thing that conventional cosmologists forget when they pose the starlight and time riddle. Einstein worked out his system of Special Relativity to cover simple motion. He then added gravity, and saw no reason to treat it any differently from stomping on the gas. Result: events on earth take longer than events in outer space, especially in objects beyond the reach of earth’s gravity. And events in our solar system take longer than events outside it. This is Einstein’s General Relativity.
In 1994, Moshe Carmeli asked himself: Is it reasonable to treat all the universe the same as the space around the earth, or even the space within one solar system? His answer: No. Look in any direction, and what do you see? You see far-off galaxies and larger objects seeming to rush away from earth. Any astronomer knows this. As they look at any star, they see that its spectrum, or “signature” of light, is the same as one would expect from burning the elements that it is made up. Except for one thing: the spectrum is shifted toward the red.
This is a classic Doppler effect. If you’ve ever had to stop for a passing train, you know what this means. As the train blows its whistle, that whistle seems to drop in pitch as the train passes. (On the other hand, if you’re on the train, the grade crossing bell seems to drop in pitch as you pass it.) Light works the same way. This redshift looks for all the world like billions of objects rushing away from one another—and the farther away they are, the faster they seem to be rushing.
Carmeli noticed that he could predict how fast a far-off object seemed to be rushing away from earth from its distance. He also noticed that this redshift could predict time dilation in the same way that regular speeds can predict it on a local scale. His conclusion: time on earth runs more slowly than does time at the edge of the universe. And at that distance, the redshift is so great that the time dilation has to be just as great. This was the beginning of Cosmological Relativity.
John Hartnett (Starlight, Time and the New Physics) worked out a complete system that accounted also for the masses of these objects. He calculated that the time dilation would be at such an order of magnitude that a period of one day on earth could easily fit with a period of 13.7 billion years at the edge of the universe.
So where is the argument about starlight and time? Do clocks on earth really move at lock-step with clocks everywhere else in the universe? No, they do not. In fact, they run slower. Relative to us, clocks run faster the farther out you go from our sun. That’s why we see those far-off objects: the light has had plenty of time to reach us, while our clocks have barely ticked by. And on that ground, the starlight and time argument fails.
Of course, this explanation is still not complete. It’s not enough to show that starlight and time do not contradict one another. One must show how even Adam could have seen the stars after clocks on earth had ticked on earth after six days, the time that God formed him “from the dust of the earth.”
Different creation-oriented cosmologists explain this differently. D. Russell Humphreys said that at a critical moment when the universe first formed, all clocks on earth and for many light-years around stopped completely. Hartnett says simply that our clocks ran very slow, and ran their slowest during Day Four of creation. Your editor will explain that in another article.
The earth is indeed 6,015 years ago, by the clocks that run on earth. Those are the only clocks that matter, because they are the clocks we use. When God gave Adam the Annals of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2.4a), He did not bother telling Adam about clocks at the edge of the universe, because Adam would never travel there. Neither will we, or at least, not this side of eternity.
Why should you believe any of this? Because in solving the starlight and time problem, the Hartnett solution solves two others: the “dark matter” and “dark energy” problems. That’s a powerful statement that nobody—yet—wants to admit.