The Universe in the Classroom

An Ancient Universe: How Astronomers Know the Vast Scale of Cosmic Time


Humanity has always wondered about the nature, origin, and purpose of the universe, and these thoughts have been important parts of many religious traditions. Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict. Indeed, many scientists have strong religious beliefs. A survey of American scientists conducted in 1997 found that 40% believed in a personal God, the same number as was found in similar surveys conducted in 1914 and 1933 (See the article on "Scientists and Religion in America", in the Sept. 1999 issue of Scientific American magazine.) Many people from a variety of religious faiths accept the testimony of science, including evidence for the great age of the universe. Indeed, they may find that it deepens their understanding of creation and reinforces their faith.

The approach a person adopts for relating science and religion probably depends on his or her life experience and presuppositions. When talking with students, we should avoid claiming that science and religion are necessarily opposed to each other. Students need not give up their faith to be scientists or to appreciate the scientific view of the universe.

Neither do they need to reject science to keep their faith. We should avoid giving simplistic answers to questions about the relationship between science and religion. Such questions are complex, and people of many faiths have found many different answers to them.

The awe and splendor of the universe have inspired artists and poets as much as they have scientists. Planets, stars, galaxies, and their histories remain a source of beauty and wonder for people of all ages and all beliefs. The illumination brought by science can enhance every form of spirituality - religious or humanistic. The awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the vast scales of space and time can enhance the life of all our students, whatever their cultural background or religious belief. Sharing the sense of belonging to the universe with our students can be one of the most satisfying tasks of a teacher. None of us should feel insignificant or unimportant when we look at, or think about, the universe. To paraphrase the French scientist Henri Poincare: "…astronomy is useful because it shows how small our bodies how large our minds." Knowing that we are part of a vast, evolving universe, billions of years old, is part of the birthright of every thinking being on planet Earth.

Acknowledgements: We thank Nalini Chandra (University of Toronto), Douglas Hayhoe (Toronto District School Board), and Eugenie Scott (National Centre for Science Education) for their helpful comments.


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An Ancient Universe - Table of Contents

Home | Introduction | The Universe: An Overview | The Process of Science | The Ancient Universe - The Age of the Expanding Universe - The Age of the Oldest Stars - The Age of Light From Distant Galaxies - The Age of the Chemical Elements | The Changing Universe - Changes in the Solar System - Changes in Stars - Changes in the Universe | Science and Religion | Resource Guide | Activities

© Copyright 2001, American Astronomical Society. Permission to reproduce in its entirety for any non-profit, educational purpose is hereby granted. For all other uses contact the publisher: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Ave., San Francisco, CA 94112.

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