For Heaven’s Sake: A Jewish Astronomer’s Odyssey
The year was 1969. The event had been advertised on the radio again and again. I arose at four o’clock in the morning and watched a blazing comet with utter awe, as its tail stretched across the eastern skies. My love affair with astronomy had begun.
South African astronomer Jack Bennett, who discovered the comet and whose name the heavenly object bore, became my hero. The next day I telephoned him and asked him rather timidly, May I meet with you?” To my surprise he said, “Yes, do come over.” And it was really then that the little hidden flame which had been ignited began burning to understand the cosmos.
Shortly after that my father bought me a four-and-a-half inch reflector telescope. That was no little thing for a teenager. With that incredible instrument I could start to look at planets like Saturn and at some of the nebulae in which stars are born.
I wanted to pursue studies in astronomy and my father was my biggest supporter. Leon Block always encouraged me to question things, to look beyond the ordinary and to make up my own mind. After all, we were Jews and that was part of our tradition as well.
My Jewish Upbringing
Both of my parents’ Orthodox Jewish families have their roots in Lithuania. And we certainly kept to all the traditions as well: My mother would light the Shabbos candles and we would have a traditional Shabbos meal together. I went to shul both on Friday night and Saturday. We kept Pesach. I fasted on Yom Kippur. I was bar mitzvah. We were practicing Jews. And I did all the things expected of a good Jewish boy. Actually, I felt that I was doing the best that I knew how to live out my Jewish faith.
Now that didn’t mean that I was unquestioning when it came to the things of God. On the contrary, I’d listen in shul as the rabbis expounded how God was a personal God and how God would speak to Moses, to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and wonder how I fit into all of it. And by the time I entered university I became concerned over the fact that I had no assurance that God was indeed a personal God. I did know that he was a historical God and that he did deliver our people from the hands of Pharaoh. But that seemed far removed from me in this scientific age. Those were “stories,” as it were.
Where was the personality and the vibrancy of a God who could speak to David Block? If God is truly God, I reasoned, then why had he suddenly changed his character? The seeds of doubt were sprouting.
In order to follow my interest in astronomy I entered the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. I sought a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics and computer science. As a professional astronomer, a background in mathematics and statistics was essential.
While still a student, I was appointed as a “demonstrator” on the staff—in other words, I would help students with their tutorial problems on a formal basis. And while a student I also became quite friendly with Lewis Hurst, then professor of genetics and of medicine. He had a great interest in astronomy, if only from an amateur point of view, and he asked if I would give him individual lessons.
Week by week, Lewis and I would sit around the table and I would discuss the complexities of the cosmos with him and also explain fundamental terms in astronomy such as “black holes” and “quasars.” It was a full but private course I was giving him.
The friendship grew and I started sharing my feelings about the cosmos with him—that it is so beautiful, that God is so creative, that he’s made this stunning world. I even shared my doubts with him:
“Are we, as Shakespeare said, just as a ‘fleeting shadow to appear and then disappear’? What is our purpose for living? What’s the raison d’etre for being here? Is there a Designer out there?”
Lewis listened thoughtfully and then spoke, “David, there is an answer to all your questions.”
“You know, Lewis, what does concern me is that the universe is so large, it’s so immense. Do we go anywhere when we die?”
“There’s an answer to all the questions you’re asking. Would you be willing—I know you come from an Orthodox Jewish family—but would you be willing to meet with a dear friend of mine, the Reverend Mr. John Spyker?”
My parents had taught me to seek answers where they may be found and so I consented to meet with this Christian minister. Of course, in my heart, when I had put my telescope on Saturn, and saw it in all its majesty and splendor—its rings simply encircling that globe—I just knew that there was a Great Designer. In fact, I knew there must be a personal God.
The Reverend Mr. Spyker read to me from the New Testament book of Romans where Paul says that Yeshua (Jesus) is a stumbling block to Jewish people, but that those who would believe in Yeshua would never be ashamed.
The planet Saturn, with some of its moons. The rings of Saturn were already observed in the 1600’s by Galileo Galilei and Christiaan Huygens using their small telescopes. ? National Aeronautics and Space Administration/Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Suddenly it all became very clear to me: Yeshua had fulfilled the messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as where the Messiah would be born and how he was to die. While my people were still waiting for the Messiah, I suddenly knew that I knew that I knew that I knew that Jesus was the Messiah and is the Messiah. And I surrendered my heart and my soul to him that day. That was in October of 1976.
I gave Judaism a chance and I accepted him who is fully, fully Jewish. Paul, before he believed in Jesus, was a student of the great rabbi, Gamaliel. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He had studied. He had examined. Yet, when Paul met the Master face to face, the Master mastered him. The Master mastered me as well.
Faith and Science
It might seem strange to some that a scientist and a Jew could come to faith in Jesus. But faith is never a leap into the dark. It is always based on evidence. All people believe and all scientists believe. They don’t all believe in a personal God, of course, but each one of us uses our own measure of faith. Each one of us has a personal world system, a personal belief system.
As a scientist, I always think logically and I reason things out. That was how my whole search for God began. I looked through my telescope at Saturn and said to myself, Isn’t there a great God out there? And when I studied relativity, relativistic astrophysics, cosmology and all these beautiful areas of mathematics, they pointed me to the fact that this whole universe is masterfully made, finely-tuned and controlled by the Great Designer. The logical next step was to want to meet this Designer face-to-face.
Among astronomers today there is great theistic sentiment, where even if scientists don’t say Jesus has made the universe, they are coming to the very distinct conclusion that the universe is not an accident. The “Big Bang” was not a cosmological firecracker. As the physicist Freeman Dyson put it, the universe seemed to be acting in anticipation for the appearance of mankind.
So it is on the basis of logic that we can understand that we live in a universe made by a personal God. It’s logic from start to finish.
When it comes to God, many scientists lean toward assumptions which are philosophically comfortable to them. For example, in the “Big Bang” universe there is an unverifiable assumption called the principle of homogeneity, which asserts that on a large scale there is “no preferred center”—each point is equivalent in every sense to every other point. This, then, is a drastic departure from the cozy framework early cosmologists had worked with in their geocentric universe models.
Let me explain: If we go back to the 1500s, before the impact of the work of Copernicus, the worldview of the universe was a geocentric one. The earth was the center and the sun went around the earth as did all the stars, and to many it was a very reassuring ideal to adopt. In 1543 Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus was published and we perceived ourselves to be living in a heliocentric world, (although Ptolemy’s earth-centered system was still taught at Harvard University in the first years after its founding in 1636). Mankind was dethroned from his central position in the universe.
Many astronomers have gone to extremes by saying we are simply a “zero” in this large cosmos. After all, there are 100,000 million stars in our Milky Way galaxy. That can make us feel very lonely and unimportant in the light of all the immensity. Yet a simple study shows the opposite is true.
The universe has not always existed. It had a definite beginning. Our early universe expanded at just the critical rate to avoid recollapse. Galaxies and stars then formed, but one must realize that half the stars in the night sky are members of binary or multiple star systems and are therefore unable to support life. (No stable planetary orbits could exist around such star systems.) Of the remaining half there are about 30 parameters which must be met in order for them to support life. With billions and billions of stars, it is improbable that all the conditions which must be met for the existence of life exist elsewhere. I would not be surprised if we were the only intelligent life species in the entire universe. In fact, leading evolutionists, such as Dobzhansky and others have agreed that there has not been enough time for mankind to have assembled spontaneously within the time span of our universe.
We’ve astronomical evidence that demands a verdict. And I’ve examined this evidence, not from an emotional point of view, but from a logical point of view. We’ve got historical evidence that Jesus, the Jew, lived and died and rose again from the dead. When Albert Einstein was asked by a reporter if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus, he responded, “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
To the person who is seriously seeking today I would say, read the gospels from an objective point of view, as Albert Einstein did. As Isaac Newton did. Don’t let your emotions override or cloud your decision.
Seek after truth and don’t let anyone make up your mind for you. It is far too important. It does matter what you believe.
Dr. David Block is Professor of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy at the multiracial University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics and computer science, a Bachelor of Science Honors degree in applied mathematics, a Master of Science degree in relativistic astrophysics and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in astronomy dealing with “The Morphology of Spiral Galaxies.” He has been a visiting astronomer at the European Southern Observatory near Munich, West Germany and at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Hawaii. He resides in Johannesburg with his wife, Liz, who is also a Jewish believer in Jesus.
*Regarding the first photo of stars: there is a very wide range in the color of stars. Cool stars radiate with a deep red color; hot stars with a deep blue color. Our own star, the Sun, is yellow. Seen here, to the left of center, is the star Eta Carinae, six million times more luminous than the sun. Ⓒ The Anglo-Australian Telescope Board