The Universe between the Need of Faith and the Need of Knowledge:Four Centuries of Scientific Astronomy

The Universe between the Need of Faith and the Need of Knowledge:Four Centuries of Scientific Astronomy

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Astronomy is one of the most ancient domains of human knowledge. From ancient times, people have gazed at the sky, and have tried to identify planets and stars on the sky canopy and to understand the laws according to which they evolve. Monuments and inscriptions from Maya civilization, dating from the 4th century B.C. show the existence of thorough knowledge of astronomy. In the year 2500 B.C. is attested the first known partial Sun eclipse. In ancient Babylon, in the 2nd millennium B.C. we discover the first mentions of the 12 constellations of the zodiac and in 753 B.C. Romans adopted the Etruscan calendar that comprised 304 days and was divided into 10 months.

There was a curiosity as well as a necessity (orientation, chronology, establishment of seasons for agriculture). But the immensity of the sky (as they saw it and understood it according to their reason), as well as the amazing show day by day, night by night and especially during rarer phenomena (eclipses, comets, falling star rains) made them wonder: where does the universe come from? Who governs it? Is there something or someone beyond? This way, since the beginnings, knowledge of the universe combined with beliefs, with religions and even with superstitions.

That is how the development of astronomy as science closely follows the history of development of humankind, being subject to a series of fundamental moments. The present paper aims to emphasize these moments when ideas and important technical accomplishments determined a remarkable progress of knowledge but also the evolution of knowledge on the universe, the thoroughgoing study of religious beliefs, not always in conflict, as some try to speculate, but at least in communist regimes where education was “atheist – scientific”.

We will start with the moment when Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) tried to scientifically found the heliocentric theory. He started from Aristotle’s hypotheses, according to which Earth is moving, and the Sun is the piece in the centre of the planetary system. A first work in which Copernicus exposed his theory was written in 1510 but published later, in 1878. Copernicus’ book “On revolution movements of celestial bodies” was published in 6 tomes at N¸rnberg in 1543, but kept as practical index till 1822. It was obvious that he could not assert a theory too different from what had been accepted for more then 14 centuries. The decades that followed his death knew few advocates, the most renowned being Galileo Galilei? and Johannes Kepler. After the rejection of Copernicus’theory by ecclesiastic authorities on the occasion of Galileo’s conviction (1633), only a few Jesuit philosophers still secretly accepted the idea of a heliocentric universe. Only at the end of the 17th century, alongside with Isaac Newton’s works, was Copernicus’ system admitted by most of European thinkers.

The characters who will play a decisive role in the development of modern astronomy will be Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Four centuries before he first directs a small telescope in order to search and study the sky. All that he saw confirmed Copernicus’ theories and seemed to contradict the Church dogmas: the Sun is not an immaculate planet as it was imagined by his contemporaries, Venus knew phases like the Moon, and Jupiter was also surrounded by satellites. The consequences of his writings and observations were so dramatic that history will keep his memory alive especially through his famous trials with the Church more than for his discoveries that will lead to modern astronomical research.

    • 2009 celebrates four centuries from the first astronomical observation with a “telescopio” but also the publication of Johannes Kepler’s first book (1571-1630) “Astronomia nova” in which there are presented the results of the research on Mars eclipse and where he enounces the second law: “The closer a planet is to the Sun, the faster it moves.”


    • Kepler is the true parent of sky mechanics, the map of the planetary system drawn by him being 10 times more precise than Copernicus’ map. Even if he formulated a correct theory of movement of planets, Kepler did not succeed to find an explanation of the regular movement of planets around centres of attraction (planets round the Sun). This explanation came in 1666 when Newton introduced the concept of gravitation and formulated the law of universal attraction. The force of gravitation became one of the fundamental forces in the universe. Kepler lived in a intolerant epoch of fights between Catholics and Protestants during the 30 years’ war, defending his mother against witchcraft accusation or taking refuge in order to escape persecutions.


    • Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the first who demonstrated that the laws of nature govern both the Earth’s movement and of other planets, having the intuition that orbits cannot be only elliptical, but also hyperbolic or parabolic. The theological preoccupations of Newton can be considered only as an inevitable tribute that he paid to the epoch, as many of his contemporaries, even if he himself was sometimes inclined to consider his preoccupations in the domain of theology and religion as his main activity. This insured him a quiet life.


    • A fundamental issue in modern astronomy was linked to the construction of star maps. The first maps, strictly linked to the solar system, were drawn very late, practically after the discovery of Galileo’s telescope. As far as the drawing of maps of our galaxy or of far galaxies is regarded, major progresses were registered only starting with the 19th century. An important reference point in this direction is represented by the British astronomer William Herschel who managed till his death in 1822 to register on the star map of the Milky Way galaxy over 2500 nebula and over 800 double stars. Moreover, he is the one who discovered one of the last planets of our solar system, Uranus.


    • In an unexpected way, Einstein’s formulation of the theory of relativity (in 1905 – the theory of special relativity and in 1919 – the theory of generalized relativity) is considered as a      key-moment in the development of astronomy. Newton’s classical mechanics did not succeed to explain a series of recently observed astronomical phenomena as for example a greater acceleration of Mars than the one foreseen by the classical theory or the curving of light beams when passing close to stars of galaxies. In the theory of generalized relativity, mass can produce the curving of space and time, thus promoting a model of universe with curvature. Einstein’s exceptional scientific contributions raised several questions regarding his religiosity. Everything seems to have started from his well-known assertion: “Religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind.” We do not believe that Einstein was a religious man. Himself said “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”1


    • A reference point in the history of modern astronomy is represented by Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). Using the gigantic telescope from Mount Wilson (USA), the American astronomer managed to discover far beyond our galaxy, the Milky Way, other resembling galaxies, drawing up their first typology. Thus he lays the basis of extragalactic astronomy. He is also the one who, on the basis of repeated measurements of distances between far planets, draws in 1925 the hypothesis of “universe in expansion”, hypothesis that constituted an important experimental support for the formulation of Big-Bang theory.


    • And since we are talking about Big Bang, we cannot forget to mention its father Monsignor Georges LemaÓtre (1894-1966). He was a catholic priest, honorary prelate but, in the same time, professor of physics and astronomer. LemaÓtre was the first to propose that the expansion explains the redshift of galaxies.


    • We cannot close the enumeration of important moments in the history of astronomy, at least of those till the beginning of the spatial era, without mentioning the emergence and development of radio-astronomy. This is linked to the emphasis of signals given out by far planets, signals in the domain of radio waves that permitted the gathering of important data linked to the early Universe and more generally, offered a new image on the cosmic space. The beginnings of radio-astronomy are linked to the name of Karl G. Jansky, engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, he who in the 1920s carried out the first radio detections originated from outside the solar system. It is interesting to mention that in 1964 Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias were rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Physics following the identification by radio-astronomic methods of a cosmic radiation left behind by the process of creation of the Universe (Big-Bang).


    • In 1957 is launched the first artificial satellite and man has anew vision on space. The discoveries which follow are spectacular: the Van Allen belts (1958), the sources of X rays (1962), the background radiation of the universe (1965), pulsars (1967), solar neutrinos (1968), the black hole(1976), the black hole in the centre of galaxies (1978), the black matter in galaxies (1980-1981), chaos in the planetary systems (1982-1989), trans-Neptunian objects – Kuiper’s belt (1992), extrasolar planets (1995), the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe – black energy (1998-1999), water on Mars (1995) and the list is surely subjective and extremely reduced as compared to what science offered us in the past few decades.


    • A question that preoccupied and still preoccupies all men of science is linked to our uniqueness in the Universe. Is the earth the only planet that can be inhabited? Are there other stars round which gravitate planets similar to the Earth? A clear affirmative answer was recently given to this question: in October 1995, the Swiss astronomers Didier Queloz an Michel Mayor managed to do an exact positioning of a real extra-solar planet, planet named 51 Pegasi b. Today the number of identified extra- solar planets reaches over 350, and this is due to extremely advanced techniques and technologies linked to the measurement of gravitational effects that these exoplanets generate on their stars.



Why the world is as it is? Is the Universe intelligible? There are different attitudes, situated between two extremes: 1) to accept everything as “brute facts” or as “a given reality”; 2) to claim the existence of a rationality expressed in terms of the “principle of sufficient reason” which states that the world is at it is because of some reason.

On the connection between the “reality” and its “mental construct”, we have to note Plato’s “dualistic vision”: there is the physical reality created by the Demiurge, “fleeting and impermanent”, and, on the other stood “the realm of Ideas, eternal and unchanging”, an “abstract template” of the physical world. The equations and other mental construct belong to this Ideal realm. 

When discussing about “models of reality” we have to think of the following type of problems:

    • Semantic problems: are the models or not linguistic entities? If no, how can they describe the reality?


    • Ontological problems: what type of models we discuss of: material (concrete) models, theoretical (mathematical) models, or abstract (immaterial) models?


  • Epistemological problems: how the models help in the acquisition of new knowledge?

From the perspective of the Philosophy of Sciences, two important questions arise:

    • What is the connection between models of reality and natural laws?


  • How is the usefulness of models seen from the realism and anti-realism point of view?

Creation of the world

The histories of human race and of the planet are parallels. In the Judeo-Islamic-Christian tradition the world was created in six days. The creation is dated at about 4000 B.C. Scientists consider that the solar system appeared as result of the condensation of a swirling mass of dust. It is 4560 million years old.

The ancient Greeks imaginated the Earth on many hypostases. Atlas could be the Earth’s support. The most accepted scientific model for the creation of the Universe is the „Big Bang” theory. From the oldest times, people observed the power of the nature and were afraid of the unknown forces. In the Greek mythology, one of the symbols of such forces was Medusa with her petrifying capacity.

The model – stresses between universality and particularity

The laws of classical Physics, expressed under the form of differential equations, are local and deterministic, while the natural reality is global and stochastic. Classical mechanics is a particular case of the Quantum Mechanics. Differential equations constitute the appropriate expressions of some deterministic and local physical laws, while the path integrals (belonging to Quantum Mechanics) are the natural formulation of the laws which rule the global and stochastic evolutions. The wonderful side of things consists in the fact that path integrals are the solutions of some differential equations.

The evolution of a dynamical system in the configuration space from Classical mechanics is a point of equilibrium in the space of all the possible evolutions within Quantum Mechanics.
The study of the Universe as a whole brings up a crucial problem: that the Universe could not be integrated into a larger model (or system) of which we might know, by their features, the structure, the laws or the evolution. Even the creation of such a supermodel is impeached by the human being powers of thought or perception.

There are proposals of models and laws labelled as “universally valid” (under the reserve of the limitation to human experience). Three of them have to be mentioned: the principle of the critical stability, the principle of evolutive causality and the principle of insufficiency for dimensions.

The principle of insufficiency for dimensions states the fact that a continuum space-time with 3+1 dimensions is not enough to provide room for all independent quantities which describe the evolution of any natural dynamical system. Dimensions provide an ordered structure in the human knowledge; they are necessary so that we could locate and measure; morever, they do not depend upon the referential system that is they are invariant quantities imposed by the nature itself.  

Concluding questions and remarks

  • How reliable are our actual models used to describe the Universe?
  • To what extend could a model be useful to human understanding?
  • Do we dispose of some other models (should they be non-mathematical) that should be able to describe unexplained facts of reality (even of some parts of reality, not of the reality in its whole).
  • Could we create models that would be able to avoid the inconsistencies caused by the interference between theory and measurement?
  • How much from reality does the human being seize and on what extend is he able to construct its mental representation?
  • No matter what picture of the reality we might construct, it will be only a partial one, there will always be something placed between the reality and its model, something that would be situated beyond our human power of representation and understanding.
  • Between two apparently antagonic ways of approaching reality or searching for the truth – science and religion – the dialogue has become a really required necessity. Luckily, in most of cases, it is it is understood the right way.


In Romania the knowledge of the universe also has a long tradition. Dacian sanctuaries (Sarmizegetusa Regia from the 1st century AD is the most well-known) keep alive the testimony of advanced knowledge in astronomy (a proof of this is the knowledge of the calendar with great precision) but strictly linked to practical necessities (agriculture, hunting, orientation) and especially to religious necessities. Afterwards few data regarding astronomical knowledge or of other nature were kept. Most of the Romanian territories, situated beyond the Carpathian Mountains arch, were the theatre of continuous fights and attacks, from Barbarian tribes till the Turkish invasions and ending with the Soviet invasion. All this lead to the slowing down of the scientific and cultural progress that continued though in the monasteries. These were not only religious places, but also defence fortresses that keep untouched Romanian culture.

We would give other two examples that illustrate the best the link between Church and knowledge along the centuries on Romanian territories.

The most well-known is the example of Dionysius Exiguus monk. At the beginning of the 6th century, the Christian Church tried to establish a chronology as adequate as possible for the religious celebrations, of Easter in particular, set up in keeping up with various astronomical moments. Its author was Dionisie the Small (Dionysius Exiguus), a monk born in the territory of Dobruja (Dobrogea). In 528 A.D. he introduced in Liber de Paschal the enumeration of the years since the birth of Jesus Christ. His exceptional erudition (impressive knowledge of astronomy, history, foreign languages, literature, etc.) enabled him to establish the date of the Saviour’s birth after five centuries, with a precision of 4-7 years. It is an extraordinary fact if we take into consideration the fact that no modern method has managed to come closer to the exact year of Christ’s birth.

The second example is that of Hrisant Notara. He was a collaborator of Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712), the first director of the Observatoire de Paris set up in 1667. He left us Introductio ad geographiam et sphaeram (published in Paris, 1716), the first Romanian scientific work with chapters dedicated to astronomy. After he was sent abroad by the ruler Constantin Brancoveanu to improve his studies, Notara returned to Brancoveanu’s court and then dedicated himself to clerical life, ascending the highest clerical positions, even becoming Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Astronomy evolved in the following centuries parallel with European astronomy, receiving a pronounced scientific feature after 1859 when the Romanian Principalities united.We will take a time leap till we arrive to recent years.

After a few communist decades and implicitly of atheist- scientific education, the chance is that, due to one of the representatives of Romanian culture living in France, Basarb Nicolescu, he recontacts his native country and opens the gates towards a new domain unknown to us: the dialogue between science and spirituality. In the autumn of 2001 takes place at Bucharest the first international conference in an Orthodox post-communist country:  “Science and Religion. Antagonism or complementarity ?”

In spite of the totalitarian system in Romania before 1989, a powerful and original theological thinking was developed. It is sufficient to quote here the names of the Fathers Dumitru Staniloaie and Andrei Scrima. Their work opens on one hand towards a Philosophy of Nature in agreement with the theological thinking and, on the other hand, towards the interreligious dialogue. It is also important to indicate well-known Mircea Eliade, the founder of the modern history and philosophy of religions, who was born in Romania and lived in USA and France. The work of such internationally known thinkers has a strong influence on the young theologians and scientists as well, would be leaders of the orthodox Religion & Science dialogue. Romania is a country of complementarities in his own right: Latin speaking and orthodox as well. Its Latinity gives Romania a privileged place in the Orthodox dialogue with the Catholic Church and with different religious traditions of Europe and Latin America. It is not a random event that, for the first time in a thousand years when a Pope traveled to an orthodox country, in 1999, that country was Romania. Pope John-Paul II had a triumphal reception in Bucharest by the Romanian Orthodox Church and the cultural and political authorities of Romania. Similarly, not by chance, in 2002, a Messa was celebrated for the first time in Vatican in the presence of an Orthodox Patriarch, HE Teoctist.

All the programs that followed enjoyed the support of John Templeton Foundation as well as the support of high cultural and political Romanian authorities, including the Romanian Academy.

            Based on the results and the potential developed by the first three projects Science and Religion in Romania, we proposed a new project which has as main general objective Big Questions linked to the existence of the human being in the Universe.

  • absurdity or purpose and hope in the universe
  • rationality of the universe
  • why is there something instead of nothing?
  • are there other universes?
  • how did life appear on Earth?
  • is our world quantic?
  • which is the nature of time?
  • memory – from quantum to cosmos, from individual to society
  • physical information and spiritual information
  • social impact of spiritual information
  • how will all end?
  • can art contribute to the dialogue between science and religion?

This non-exhaustive list of subjects treated by multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary methodology. Otherwise, this will also constitute a part of the congress.

“Romania, as laboratory of the dialogue between science and spirituality in the contemporary world” that will take place in Bucharest between the 17th and the 21st of October 2009.

More useful details on this congress and on other activities and publications are to be found on the site It is the site of the Association for Dialogue between science and religion in Romania. You will also find here the summaries for the first four issued of the review “Transdisciplinarity in Science and Religion”.



  1. Paul Davies – The mind of God, Ed. Penguin Books, 1993
  2. A. Einstein – Science, Philosophy and Religion, Symposium, New York 1941 (translated in Romanian in the volume “A. Einstein -How I see the world” ( Ed. Humanitas, 2008)
  3. Graham Farmelo (editor) – It must be beautiful, Ed. Granta Books, 2003
  4. Richard Morris – The big questions probing the promise and the limits of science, Henri Holt Comp., 2002
  5. Jean Staune (editor) – Science and the search for Meaning, Templeton Foundation Press
  6. *** – Last mysteries of the world, Ed. Reader’s Digest (Australia), 1999.
  7. Science and Religion, series edited by Basarab Nicolescu & Magda Stavinschi, Curtea Veche publishing house, 2007-2009



1 Albert Einstein in ‘Albert Einstein: The Human Side’