IBRI Research Report #49 (2000)


David C. Bossard
Lebanon, New Hampshire

Copyright © 2000 by David C. Bossard. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise attributed, Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. 



A physicist looking at the Bible’s description of Creation Day One can see a remarkable agreement with the modern physicist’s story of how matter was created. This report describes that story, why physicists believe their creation story is close to correct, and where some secular physicists may differ from the Bible’s statements about creation.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 


A Physicist Looks at Creation Day One

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
Genesis 1:1-5 (NIV)

This report is about creation from the viewpoint of a nuclear physicist. It focuses on the creation of matter, and the things that must be in place prior to the creation of life.

1. The Accessibility of the Natural World.

God communicates to us through his creation. The message is a true message that tells us certain things about his nature. It is no accident that scientists are able to probe the material world to learn things about God’s creation, things that in a sense we have no right to expect to learn, and that scientists in an earlier time thought impossible to learn. This accessibility of the natural world is an outgrowth of God’s desire to communicate.

It is surprising that we can learn as much as we have about the universe—and hence about a significant part of God’s creation. The French philosopher, Auguste Comte said in 1835:

“On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to determine their chemical composition or even their density.”
Auguste Comte, 18351

I suspect that many people today would agree with Comte. It does seem incredible that we could learn about such things. How could one learn about the makeup and physical characteristics of stars that are so far away? Comte really states what seems to be intuitively obvious. In this case, however, our intuition, and Comte, are exactly wrong.

Comte said this less than 20 years before the first spectrum of hydrogen was measured by Angstrom in 1853. Although the physical interpretation of atomic spectra was not understood for another 75 years, it was very shortly after this date possible to analyze the composition of stars using spectral analysis. The element helium (Greek for “sun”) was given its name when it was identified on the sun soon after the discovery of spectra. Although this element is very common in stars, it is rare on the earth because helium molecules are too light to be captured by earth's gravity and don't combine to form compounds that would stay on earth (as hydrogen does, for example, in water and other compounds). It was identified on the sun by its unique spectral lines.

Now that scientists have a good grasp of how the atomic spectra come about, it is possible to go further and use spectral observations to show that the physical laws for atomic and nuclear processes here on earth are the same physical laws throughout the universe. It is unexpected and surprising that we earth-bound humans could reach so far in our understanding!

Einstein once said, “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not.” When asked by a colleague what he meant by that, he replied, “Nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of a ruse.”2

In the beginning God in his wisdom created the laws of physics. These laws then led to the creation of the chemical elements that form the heavens and the earth. These laws are subtle yet accessible to human investigation to a remarkable degree. As Einstein observed, God does not try to fool us into thinking that things are different from what they really are. We do not yet understand all of these laws, but in the past century we have learned enough to sketch the outlines of how God created the elements. That is what I would like to discuss today.

I do not mean to imply that God had to use natural physical laws to create the elements. He could have done it by merely speaking the word. But I do not believe he chose that approach, because scientists have learned to read the early history of the universe almost as clearly as you can read a book. God is not malicious, and I do not believe he would have shown the story of creation with this degree of clarity if it were not essentially true—allowing of course for possible misreading of some of the details.

My favorite passage in support of God’s communication through his created world is Psalm 19:1-4.3

Psalm 19:1-4a The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. 4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. [NIV]

The word "knowledge" in verse 2 refers to insight rather than news; that is, the heavens convey an understanding of the Craftsman Creator God. This passage asserts that careful study of his creation can give the observer insight into who God is, and show God's insight in its design.

The word "where" in verse 3 is not in the original text: it is supplied in the translation. The word translated "voice" in verse 4 is literally a "line". The word is used elsewhere for a stretched-out measuring line. In this context the image is that of a tuned harp string. In my mind I picture David composing this Psalm with his harp in hand. As he composes the words and music, he looks down at his harp, and sees a picture of how the "voice" of the heavens proclaims the glory of God. God's creation is like a perfectly tuned harp. The harp by itself is mute: "there is no speech or language; their voice is not heard." But the voice is there, in the tuned harp strings: all that lacks is the fingers of a talented musician who makes the effort to pluck the strings, and the speech will pour forth: "their line goes out into all the earth; their words to the ends of the world." This line goes throughout the world, so that it can be heard (by those who play and listen) everywhere in his creation.

What this passage tells me is that God revels in his creative work, and that inquiry into his creation tells the skillful inquirer much about who he is. I believe that a warranted inference from this Psalm is that God takes special pleasure in honest and skillful inquiry into the nature of his creation, and that he rewards such inquiry with insight into his nature. In short, God loves an honest scientist, and the honest, skillful study of his creation will not lead to false information about the nature of God or of his creation.

So our starting point tonight is to look at this silent voice, this line gone out through the earth that science has partially interpreted.

2. What kind of world did God Create?

Physicists like to think of the material world in the simplest possible terms. But then physicists use logic, usually in the form of mathematics, to connect their various assumptions and come up with conclusions that can be tested by experiments. The mathematics tends to discourage people—myself included, and even many physicists—and sometimes obscures the simplicity that exists at the root. I don’t want to bore you by enthusing over physics; but to those who are into such things, it is a beautiful subject.

The ideal world of the physicist is completely self-contained. They have not yet really achieved this objective, at least not in a way that convinces everyone. A truly self-contained physical world view is a “Theory of Everything.” It would explain everything we observe in terms of a handful of simple laws. Generally the flaws in the latest physical theories are that they require too many assumptions, and so the push is to try to whittle away on the assumptions. For example, it is not known why electrons have their particular size and mass, and protons have another size and mass. No theory that I am aware of, can derive these masses from basic principles—without in effect feeding the answers into the input.

Even classical physics—the physics of Newton and before Einstein—has some embarrassing gaps. For example, calculations of electrical forces have the embarrassing property of coming up with infinite answers with some regularity.4 These defects force physicists to assume a little—very little!—modesty in their assertions.

The material world is marvelously made. I think that God with his engineering hat on, must take great pleasure in it. It seems to run quite well, following established laws of physics. It doesn't appear to require constant "tinkering." I don’t want to imply that God is not involved with his world, or that he never inserts himself into its development; in fact, I think the opposite. But it is an intriguing exercise to see how much of his world can be run by itself, and I believe the creation of matter is one place where God designed the natural forces so that they would be a great display of his engineering skill. Our job as humans is to seek to understand it, and to marvel at God’s creative skill in designing a dynamic device with a specific end goal in mind: a universe that will be a dwelling place for his ultimate creation, human beings.

3. A physicist looks at Genesis 1.

To begin our story, let’s pretend that we are physicists looking at the creation account in Genesis 1 for the first time.

For the moment, assume we are just skimming the account to see how it compares with what our physical theories would say. We do this, and are immediately struck by God’s first statement: “Let there be light,” in verse 3. “Wow!”, we think. “That’s exactly right: light is the first thing created.”

Now to understand what the physicist means when he says this, you must understand what light means to a physicist. Let me quote Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate, from a lecture series he gave on light:

“When I say ‘light’ in these lectures, I don’t mean simply the light we can see, from red to blue. It turns out that visible light is just part of a long scale that’s analogous to a musical scale in which there are notes higher than you can hear and other notes lower than you can hear. The scale of light can be described by numbers—called the frequency—and as the numbers get higher, the light goes from red to blue to violet to ultraviolet. We can’t see ultraviolet light, but it can affect photographic plates. It’s still light—only the number is different. If we change the number in the other direction, we go from blue to red to infrared (heat) waves, then television waves and radio waves. For me, all of that is ‘light’.” Richard Feynman, QED5

So you see, Feynman, together with all other physicists, would visualize “Let there be light” to mean far more than just “Let the sun shine” or something similar. He and I would be at least tempted to read far more into such a statement, particularly one made at the very beginning of God’s creative activity.

Light, understood in the physicist’s sense, is the most primitive form of energy. Aside from light, energy can be bound up in mass, and is exchanged between objects whenever they change velocity. But the most basic form of energy is light. The heat you feel from a fire or from infrared lamps is energy in the form of light.

According to the physicist’s view, our universe began at the “Big Bang” with a point of pure light, and expanded to become the universe we have today, creating in the process all of the elements, the stars, and the galaxies, and our own sun and earth. So to a physicist, it rings absolutely true that the Genesis creation account begins with light.

Or at least that is God’s first recorded command. Coming in verse 3, after some statements that seem to presume the existence of the elements, and perhaps even the earth, the narrative’s order may be a bit puzzling, but nonetheless, the physicist is struck by the fact that the writer considered light to figure so prominently right at the start of the account.

As he continues to read, the physicist is struck by the second thing that figures into the account: darkness, and the separation of the light from darkness. What is this all about? He puzzles a bit, and then realizes that “Yes, that does make sense.” He recalls a remark made by a physicist, “The darkness of the night skies has profound consequences for the development and continued existence of life.”6

One of the things that physicists are not yet quite sure about is why, after starting out as a lump of light, the universe subsequently developed into galaxies and stars. In order for this to happen, there had to be irregularities—gaps—in the intense light. Without these gaps, the universe would stay as one or a few big lumps of light and then collapse on itself. Without these gaps we would not have the universe. Do these gaps relate to the “darkness” and is the galaxy-making process the “separation of light from darkness?” Look at it negatively: if light had not been separated from darkness then the light would have collapsed in on itself and that would have been the end of creation.

Notice that the physicist up to this point is not thinking about the earth, or narrowing down the scope of the creation account to the earth. He is thinking about the creation of the elements. Is it possible that the creation account has the same grand scheme in mind? Or does the account pass over the creation of the elements and start with a raw, empty, formless earth? As the King of Siam would say, “Is a Puzzlement!” to which we will return later. But now, let’s set the Genesis account aside and consider the physicist’s account of the creation of the elements.

4. The physicist’s story of the creation of matter.

The universe began as a point of light some 12-15 billion years ago, and has expanded since that time to its present size. We see evidence of this expansion when we look at distant stellar objects, which appear to recede from us at rates that increase with their distance. By projecting backwards in time from the present, we can estimate the time of the Big Bang. Even though 15 billion years seems to be a lot, we will see that it is in fact a very moderate lapse of time to create the material world necessary for human existence.

The elements were created in a series of six distinct stages7. By analogy to the creation account of Genesis 1, let’s call them the days in which God created the elements, using the word “day” to denote a pivotal stage in creation.

Day One: The Creation of Energy -- “Let there be light.”

Time after the Big Bang (Sec.): 0 to 10-43
Temperature (°Kelvin): ?? to 10+33
Size of Universe: 0 to 10-33  cm 

Physicists have a basic difficulty talking about Day One because quantum mechanics and general relativity, the two basic theories that concern the electrical and gravitational laws, break down at such small dimensions. The diameter of the universe at the end of day one is called the Planck Distance (= 10-33 cm) and the time is called the Planck Time (= 10-42sec.). For distances and times less than this it seems that no testable theories can describe what happens because physics descends to random behavior.8

On Day One, all the energy in the universe, in the form of light, was created. Truly, “Let there be light” is an appropriate command to start the day. Everything is pure light, pure energy. There is no matter because the temperature is so high that “the elements would melt” quite literally, and immediately go back to pure energy.

One of the most basic laws of modern physics is the conservation of energy. This law says that energy cannot be created or destroyed.9 Energy can change from one form to another, but it is never created or destroyed. So all of the energy in today’s universe was present at the Big Bang. All the energy for all time was created when God said, “Let there be light.”

Why do physicists believe that energy is conserved? Simply, because this conservation law has never been shown to be violated in any repeatable experiment.
In the early 1900's, before the equivalence of mass and energy were understood, it was thought that perhaps radioactive elements such as radium created energy, but it is now known that the energy that they release comes from a small change in the mass, following Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2.

Every time it has appeared that there may be a violation of the energy conservation law, it has been shown that something has been overlooked, and when the missing thing is put into the equations, energy is conserved. This is how some exotic particles such as neutrinos were first postulated10 and then, only recently, actually observed in elaborate and expensive experiments11.

Day Two: Inflation and the Creation of Quarks and Electrons.

Time after the Big Bang (Sec.):  10-42 to 10-32
Temperature (°Kelvin):  10+33 to 10+26
Size of universe:  10-33 to 340 cm. 

An amazing thing happened on Day Two. For a brief period of time, the universe suddenly expanded beyond anything we can imagine. It is as if a small dot suddenly blew up larger than the size of the present universe.12Except that it began much smaller than a dot and exploded to something still very small. But the expansion was far faster than the speed of light during this time. Some physicists speculate that gravity briefly turned into a repulsive force. There does not appear to be any direct way to prove this by experimentation, because the energies and temperatures are so far beyond anything that can be reproduced in any laboratory.

This expansion had two very important consequences. First, the uniform light that creation started out with, developed small “rips” or ripples which means that the universe was no longer a uniform smear of light, but had minor variations in light intensity. This was absolutely necessary so that at a much later time—millions of years later—stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters would form. Without this expansion and ripping, the universe would have collapsed in on itself.

We can see the remnants of these rips if we make a three-dimensional map of the universe: the galaxies appear to lie along strings and in groups separated by large regions that are mostly empty of galaxies.

Redshift map of galaxies13

I would like to share a little skit to illustrate the importance of this step in the creation of the elements.

Ariel Skit -- see Appendix

The second consequence of the sudden expansion is that the universe cooled during the expansion, so a lot of energy “condensed” into quarks.

What are quarks? Quarks are the building blocks of protons and neutrons. They were discovered and named in 1970 by the physicist Gell-Mann.14A proton has two “up” quarks and one “down” quark, and a neutron has two “down” quarks and one “up” quark. An up quark has a charge of +2/3 and a down quark has a charge of -1/3 . If you add the charges of the three quarks you find the proton charge is +1 and the neutron charge is 0, as they should be.15

One peculiar feature of quarks is that they experience the strong force. This is a different force than gravity or electromagnetism. The difference is this: the force of gravity or electricity between two objects gets less as the objects move away from each other, but the strong force between two quarks gets greater as they move apart, something like a stretched rubberband. Because of this strong force, quarks like to be squashed really close together, and so they were very happy during Day Two. But as the universe expanded, the strong force caused what is about to happen on Day Three to occur very rapidly.

That’s not the end of the story of Day Two, and the rest is even more amazing.16When pure energy condenses, it forms pairs of quarks and antiquarks, so the universe is filled with quarks and antiquarks in equal amounts. Quarks are matter and anti-quarks are antimatter. When matter and antimatter collide they mutually annihilate into a burst of light energy. But for some reason it appears that quarks are very slightly more stable than antiquarks; that is, the antiquarks tend to self-destruct slightly more often than quarks. So that by the time quarks find antiquarks to mutually annihilate, there aren’t quite as many antiquarks around. By the end of Day Two, there is about 1 quark left over for every 300 million quarks that were originally formed in quark-antiquark pairs17. All of the antimatter is destroyed and what is left is the quarks that form the matter that we have today. That’s why we don’t have antimatter around today!

All of this happened on Day Two. By the end of this day, the universe consisted of light energy, free quarks and free electrons18. There are no elements and not even any nuclei as yet. Quarks can exist alone only at the densities and temperatures that existed during Day Two. Earlier than this, things are too energetic for even quarks to exist and after this, they do what happens in Day Three.

Incidentally, one of the mysteries in physics is why electrons and quarks have the exact size and mass that they do.19There must be some kind of universal physical law for this, but as far as I know, nobody has come up with a good answer. And, if we have quarks then we also have electric charge: no-one knows what electric charge really is, or why quarks and electrons have only a very precise value for this charge. Perhaps future physics will clear up some of this.

Day Three: The Creation of Protons and Neutrons.

Time after the Big Bang (Sec.): 10-32 to 1 
Temperature (°Kelvin):  10+26 to 10+10
Size of universe:  10+16 to 10+18 cm. 

As the creation days pass, the universe becomes larger, less hot, and less dense. The cooling allows more stable structures to appear. During Day Three, the quarks combine to form protons and neutrons. All of the free quarks combine in this way so that there are no quarks left by themselves. Protons are hydrogen atoms with the electron stripped away. It is still far too hot for the protons to capture and hold a neutron or electron, so none of the periodic table elements exist.

At this point the temperature has dropped to a level that can be reproduced in some of the high energy colliders that are used by physicists today. Therefore it is possible to study the details of the nuclear interactions that occur from here on through the remaining days of creation.

Day Four: Creation of Hydrogen and Helium (and some Lithium) Ions.

Time after the Big Bang (Sec.):  1 sec. to 3 min. 
Temperature (°Kelvin):  10+10 to 10+9
Density (x density of water):  200,000 to 20 
Size of universe:  1018 cm to 48 light yr. 

On Day Four the temperature of the universe has cooled enough that some atomic nuclei can form from combinations of protons and neutrons: Deuterium (which has one proton and one neutron), Helium-3 (two protons and one neutron), Helium-4 (two protons and two neutrons) and a small amount of Lithium. It is still far too hot for these nuclei to hold electrons, so they exist as bare nuclei, called ions. The formation of proper elements is still in the future.

Nuclei created on Day Four will become the primordial elements. Almost all of the ordinary matter in the universe today is primordial. In the universe 91% of all atoms are hydrogen, and 8.9% are helium. All of the other elements—carbon, oxygen, through to uranium—amount to only 0.15% of the atoms in the universe. Most of the hydrogen and helium in the universe today are primordial, that is, they are created on Day Four.

It is fortunate for the subsequent fate of the universe that almost all of the neutrons created on Day Three were captured in hydrogen or helium atoms, and that this occurred in the space of three minutes. Protons are stable, but free neutrons are not, and they disintegrate in about 15 minutes on average to a proton, electron, anti-neutrino and a considerable amount of light energy20. When the neutrons are captured in a nucleus they can become quite stable. If the formation of nuclei had been prolonged there would be very few elements in the universe today.

It is perhaps surprising that few of the heavier nuclei were created at this point: why no carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc? The reason is something called the lithium barrier. What this means is that lithium and boron, the next elements heavier than helium, are unstable nuclei and they almost immediately break up back into helium and hydrogen—too fast for any further reactions to occur. The only way to get significant numbers of heavier elements is to pass through this “barrier.” This occurs on Day Five. On the other hand, it is fortunate that this barrier exists, because otherwise almost all of the helium might be combined right up the element ladder to form iron and nickel, and that would be the end of a universe suitable for human life. We would all be walking around like the mediaeval knights in skins of mail!

Day Five: Creation of Stars and the Light Elements.

Time after the Big Bang (years):  300,000 to Now 
Temperature (°Kelvin):  3000 to 2.73 
Size of universe (light years):  11 million to 15 billion 

Between 3 minutes and 300,000 years, not much further happens. The universe cools and expands, but atoms cannot form because radiation intensity is too high to allow the hydrogen and helium nuclei to hold onto their electrons. There are no stars; in fact gravitational forces are hardly noticeable because of the much higher electrical forces that occur between ions and electrons.

But beginning at 300,000 years, the temperature of the universe has dropped to the point that electrons can attach to the nuclei and so stable atoms of hydrogen and helium appear. The temperature at the start of this day is about the temperature of a very hot fire, one that would melt iron.

The atoms are electrically neutral so that when enough of atoms have formed, the weak gravitational forces can be felt and the atoms begin to cluster into galaxies and stars.

By 1 billion years after the Big Bang, galaxies and stars are being produced in abundance. Some of these primordial galaxies can be viewed by the Hubble telescope.

Once stars begin to form, the production of the light elements begins. The stars are the place where elements up to iron21 are formed by the process of thermonuclear fusion. Fusion occurs when lighter elements combine to form a heavier element and release excess energy in the process. This “burning” of the lighter elements can take place if the heavier element has a mass that is slightly less than the combined mass of the lighter elements. That is how the hydrogen bomb works. In the case of the stars, hydrogen and helium provide most of the fuel. A typical mature star has concentric layers in which different stages of fusion occur.

There are many fusion formulas that produce the various elements up to iron. Usually the fusion occurs when pairs of lighter elements collide. Although in theory more than two elements might collide at the same point in space and time, this is very hard to bring off (imagine throwing three baseballs so that all three hit each other at the same time). At one time physicists were puzzled about how carbon could be produced from helium because it would seem to require such a triple collision of helium atoms:

3 He4 è C12 + g + 7.656 MeV.

But it was discovered in the 1950’s that this reaction actually takes place as a two-step process in which each step involves only simple collisions:

He4 + He4 è Be8
Be8 + He4 è C12.

The intermediate element, beryllium only lasts for a brief time, about 10-16 seconds, but that is long enough in an intense thermonuclear reaction to have a reasonable chance that the beryllium atom will meet another helium atom.22 These reactions could only take place because neutral helium atoms exist in stars; during Day Four the collisions needed to cause fusion were deflected away by the electric repulsion between the helium ions.

I don’t want to belabor these formulas, but they are typical of what goes on in stars. Collisions between hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen and silicon are responsible for most of the elements up to iron. Elements heavier than iron cannot be produced in this way, because fusion to form the heavy elements does not release energy to keep the burning going; instead, energy must be added to complete the fusion. The production of these elements must await Day Six.

Thermonuclear reactions cannot start unless the temperature is high enough so that neutral atoms (particularly hydrogen and helium atoms) can collide with enough energy to force the nuclei together, temperatures on the order of millions of degrees. It is ironic that this combination could not occur earlier when the universe was very hot, but when that was the case, the atoms were ionized, and the electrical force of repulsion between helium ions was too much to overcome. But on this Day Five, the helium atoms are neutral, and they are gathered together in stars, and pressed together by gravitational forces, and so the stars heat up, nucleosynthesis begins and then the heat of the fusion reactions keeps it going. Starting with hydrogen and helium, the elements are produced right up the element chain to iron.

We don’t have time to give the details of the nuclear reactions within stars, except to note that stars go through a predictable reaction sequence that begins with production of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and ends with iron. Usually these different reactions occur in layers within the star. For example, the following is a diagram showing the production of elements in a typical massive mature star.

Fusion Layers in a Massive Mature Star

There is one particular “coincidence” that makes this production of the elements possible. Richard Feynman describes the coincidence as follows:

“The remarkable thing about nature is that the whole universe in its character depends upon precisely the position of one particular energy level in one particular nucleus. In the carbon12 nucleus, it so happens, there is a level at 7.82 million volts. And that makes all the difference in the world.
“The situation is the following. If we start with hydrogen, and it appears that at the beginning the world was practically all hydrogen, then as the hydrogen comes together under gravity and gets hotter, nuclear reactions can take place, and it can form helium, and then the helium can combine only partially with hydrogen and produce a few more elements, a little heavier. But these heavier elements disintegrate right back into helium. Therefore for a while there was a great mystery about where all the other elements of the world came from, because starting with hydrogen the cooking processes inside the stars would not make much more than helium and less than half a dozen other elements. Faced with this problem, Professors Hoyle and Salpeter said that there is one way out. If three helium atoms could come together to form carbon, we can easily calculate how often that should happen in a star. And it turns out that it should never happen, except for one possible accident - if there happened to be an energy level at 7.82 million volts in carbon, then the three helium atoms would come together and before they came apart, would stay together a little longer on the average than they would if there were no level at 7.82. And staying there a little longer, there would be enough time for something else to happen, and to make other elements. If there was a level at 7.82 million volts in carbon, then we could understand where all the other elements in the periodic table came from.” -- And it was so. “Therefore the existence in the world of all these other elements is very closely related to the fact that there is this particular level in carbon.”23

So you see that the hapless angel Ariel might still fail to produce a suitable universe!

Day Six: Creation of the Heavy Elements and the Solar System

Time after the Big Bang (years):  109 to present 
Temperature (°Kelvin):  3.58 to 2.73 
Size of universe (light years):  11 to 15 billion 

The typical time for stars to pass through their complete cycle, beginning with helium fuel, and producing a core of iron or nickel, is on the order of a billion years. When a star reaches the end of its life, some of them explode in a cataclysmic event called a supernova. What happens is the central core that is producing iron uses up its available fuel, and the explosive forces of the thermonuclear reactions die out. This leaves a temporary vacuum at the center of the star. Gravitational force causes the star to collapse, heat up and then explode violently. Literally in the space of seconds to a few minutes, an entire star erupts with a vast release of radiation energy, predominantly neutrons and high frequency light called gamma rays. The intense neutron radiation bombards the debris of the star and forms the elements heavier than iron, using the radiation energy to provide the energy needed to force them together (a sort of reverse atom bomb). The explosive energies in a supernova are so great that some remnants that can be seen today still have radiation temperatures in excess of 10 million degrees, hundreds of years after the event.24

Supernovas can make a spectacular display in the sky. The Crab Nebula, visible by telescope today, is the remnant of a supernova that first appeared on July 4, 1054 from a distance of about 5000 light years from earth. This supernova was recorded by Chinese astronomers. It was visible to the naked eye during daylight, for three weeks. In 1987 the first supernova visible to the naked eye in nearly 400 years occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a feature that is visible in the Southern Hemisphere. This supernova is about 160,000 light years away.

Records by the Chinese and others indicate that there have been 9 visible supernovas in the past 2000 years, including the one in 1987. So supernovas visible on earth are not common events, arriving about every 250 years or so.

The supernovas cause the debris of the star to be scattered into the surrounding space. The bulk of this debris is unburned helium and hydrogen, together with all of the elements produced in the star and in the supernova. A new cycle of star formation then begins. These are called the second-generation stars ("second" here just means "not first"). The solar system and the sun are both made out of the debris of first and second generation stars. Thus most of the elements of the earth were once formed in the hearts of stars, and the sun itself is a second generation star, made up of the same debris.

Uranium and other heavy elements were formed at the time of the supernovas that provided the material for the solar system. Many of these elements are unstable and break down into lighter elements. For example, Uranium breaks down into a series of radioactive products that end up in lead. The breakdown is called fission. By studying the amount of these products found in ore that is rich in uranium or other radioactive heavy elements, it is possible to estimate the age of the sun and the solar system. That is the basis for the assertions that the solar system and the earth are about 4.5 billion years old.

The creation of the earth and the solar system is the end result of the creation of the elements. The total time from the Big Bang allows time for some early first and second generation stars to form and mature, forming the debris that became the second-generation sun and the earth. So from the viewpoint of the creation of the universe, a habitable earth appeared nearly as soon as the raw materials were available.

This ends the physicist’s story of the creation of the physical elements. There are a number of places in the story where success depended on things working out “just so.” We don’t have time to explore these further here; the interested person might consult some books by Hugh Ross, such as The Creator and the Cosmos, and Barrow and Tipler’s classic, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

5. Another Look at Genesis 1.

We have now come full circle. We started out just skimming a part of Genesis 1 with the eye of a physicist, and then we went on to describe a physicist's view of how matter was created. So now we are all budding physicists, and can see things as a physicist would see them. So let’s go back to Genesis with this more complete understanding.

When we looked at Genesis earlier we kind of jumped in at verse 3 and latched onto that remarkable command, “Let there be light.” We did this without considering how the creation account is usually read.

In a common reading of Genesis 1, the creation of the elements is all over with by the time we get to verse 3. In fact, verse 2 seems to talk of the earth, as something that already exists, albeit “formless and empty.”

Light comes into the picture not only on day 1 but on day 4 as well, when the activity of the day involves the “lights in the expanse of the sky.” We could spend another hour discussing the usual way that these verses are understood, but it is sufficient for our purposes to note that creation of the elements is missing in the usual view of Genesis 1, except of course for the first all-encompassing sentence, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Since we physicists were so impressed with verse 3, we would like to be able to interpret verse 2 in some way that did not imply that the earth was already in existence. Do we have any basis for such an interpretation?

Well … yes! It may come as something of a surprise to you (it did to me!) that there was a discussion over fifteen hundred years ago about the meaning of verse 2, which came to a conclusion that is quite consistent with the idea that verse 3 describes the first act of creation. Since this discussion was long before modern science came onto the stage, long before the physical significance of light was known, it can hardly be argued that this is after-the-fact exegesis! The original discussion was by St. Augustine, around 400 A.D. and is cited in a discussion of Question 66 of the Summa Theologica written by St. Thomas Aquinas around 1250 A.D.25

The relevant point is found in the first article: "whether informity of created matter preceded in time its formation." In other words, "Was matter non-existent before it was created?" You may say (with some merit) that this sounds like yet another of those angels-dancing-on-the-heads-of-pins type of question that was so popular among mediaeval theologians. But the interesting thing about it is that in the process of answering the question, Aquinas discusses the proper meaning of the statement in verse 2 that the NIV translates as "Now the earth was formless and empty."

Aquinas asks, what is the meaning of "earth" and what is the intent of the phrase "formless and empty?" He argues, citing St. Augustine, that "earth" may refer to matter, not to the planet (or whatever he would call this thing we stand on).

As to the word "earth" referring to matter, you may realise that from before the time of Aristotle and through the Middle Ages, it was thought that there are four elements: earth, water, fire and air. It was thought that the different kinds of "earth"—all of the solids—differ due to their form, that is, different construction, but not in their essence. Form distinguishes matter.26 I do not know how ancient this concept is, or whether, for example, a Hebrew physicist would think of things that way. Neither Plato nor Aristotle take credit for originating the idea.

Of course the modern view is that some kinds of matter do indeed differ only in form (for example, diamonds and charcoal are both carbon), but other kinds of matter differ in essence (as iron differs from copper).

Aquinas remarks:

"The word earth is taken differently in this passage by Augustine, and by other writers. Augustine holds that by the words earth and water, in this passage, primarily matter itself is signified. For it was impossible for Moses to make the idea of such matter intelligible to an ignorant people, except under the similitude of well-known things.… In this respect, then, the earth is said to be void and empty, or invisible and shapeless, because matter is known by means of form. Hence, considered in itself, it is called invisible or void and its potentiality is filled by form…But other holy writers understand by earth the element earth [that is, one of the four elements - added]."27

Aquinas argues that actual matter has not yet been created in verse 2, but only its potentiality,28and that is what is meant by formless and empty, a phrase that Augustine translated invisible and shapeless. With either translation, the phrase is a way of saying that the "earth" was not yet created (whether meaning the physical earth or meaning matter in general—and Aquinas recognizes both meanings as possible).

From the viewpoint of modern physics, some misunderstandings about the nature of matter can be seen in Aquinas' argument. But the point I would like to make is that he argues that the description of verse 2 is a picture of things before creation began. That is impressive, because it's exactly what is implied by the physicist jumping right to verse 3 as the first creative act. Our physicist did it because the command "let there be light" matches exactly with what happened in the Big Bang. Aquinas did it for different reasons.

Frankly, I don't know how the original readers would understand the words "earth", "deep" and "waters" in verse 2. I see the word “earth” and I think of the Third Rock from the sun. Very likely the original reader would not see the word in the same way. But I don't know how the original readers understood the nature of matter—whether or not they thought in terms of four elements as Aristotle did, and whether they placed special signifance on "form" to distinguish different kinds of matter, as Aquinas implies. But Aquinas' argument that "formless" denotes the absence of objective existence of matter, does make considerable sense to me, and it certainly is consistent with an interpretation that begins creation with verse 3. Incidentally, the phrase “formless and empty” only appears one other time in the Bible, in Jeremiah 4:23, where it refers back to this verse.

Here is a suggestion. Verse 2, describes a vision of the indescribable emptiness and the vacuous void of the cosmos before there was a cosmos. The “earth” is just matter. There is “darkness” of course, before there was light. The “deep” is the unfathomable expanse of emptiness. The “waters” in parallel with “earth” are fluid nothingness. And then God said, “Let there be light”. Such a script would lead to our physicist’s view that this command starts everything.

We are treated to descriptions of the indescribable at other places in the Bible: Ezekiel’s description of the throne of God; John’s description of the same thing in Revelation. Daniel’s descriptions of his visions. In these places you can see the author struggling to express in words to human readers, something that is totally beyond comprehension in its awesomeness and majesty. I don't see the need to call the readers "ignorant" as Augustine apparently did—perhaps this is just a dubious translation—any more than one would say that Ezekiel or John were ignorant: we are dealing with indescribable things!

Therefore, in our reading of verse 2 we have to give allowance for this struggle, just as we have to recognize that any artist’s attempt to depict John’s visions of the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, would be a grotesque parody of a glorious scene. The words taken literally do not do full justice to the scene, and so they must be read as an inspired attempt to describe a scene, but one that is hampered by limitations of human language and experience.

A second thing that makes me hesitate in my interpretation of these verses of Genesis is, aside from the intended meaning of the words, the question of time sequence. The most common current views of Genesis 1 take the 6 days as sequential: Day One came before Day Two came before Day Three, and so on.

Two things complicate this view. One is that there is an obvious parallelism between Days One to Three and Days Four to Six. Light figures prominently in Days One and Four; water figures prominently in Days Two and Five; and land in Days Three and Six. The NIV Study Bible calls the first three days “Days of forming” and the second three days, “Days of filling,” and claims that “formless and empty” in verse 2 hints of this structure. Might not this parallelism cloud the assumption of a strictly sequential timeline?

The second complicating factor has to do with the different way that we weave the time element into our language, as compared with the Hebrew language. Linear sequence is built into our way of thinking: Things had happened, they happened, they are happening, they will happen, and they shall have happened. The Hebrew language doesn’t express things in this straightforward way: things happen at a point in time, or they happen repeatedly; it is up to the context to determine whether the intent is in the past, present or future. You might say the Hebrew language tends to be spatial, to paint a picture, whereas our way of speaking is linear, we paint the yellow line down the center of the road.

What I suggest is that perhaps we try to force our linear way of thinking into the reading of Genesis 1 when we read the days as sequential. I don’t suggest that the days are all mixed up, just that the ancient reader might not have been quite as prone as we are to read sentence A as occurring before sentence B just because A precedes B in the text.

In conclusion, I suggest that perhaps the events of Day One really were the first creation events, even though the events are described only in verse 3, and that verses 1 and 2 refer to the indescribable scene prior to the first creation event, the creation of light. References in these verses to earth, water and the deep are words used to describe this scene, and do not refer to earth, water and the oceans as we know them. I don’t suggest this dogmatically, or even as a necessary interpretation to reconcile the account in Genesis with the physicist’s account of the creation of the element. But such an interpretation would give new meaning to the statement, “Let there be light,” and in view of what physicists understand, I think a new look at the meaning of this command is warranted.

I would like to close with an observation of how the Biblical view of creation differs from the usual secular view. Both views, of course, have a beginning, whether it is by God or not. The essential difference is that (following the view developed here) the Bible says that creation involves two ingredients: light (energy) and wisdom. This view is repeated again and again throughout the Bible. The secular view is that creation involves only one ingredient: light. The presumption in the secular view is that the laws of physics are eternal, and need no creator, or else that this is just one of an infinity of universes with all sorts of different physical laws, and that the subtle features that make our particular universe work are just happenstance (we wouldn’t be here to discuss them unless they had turned out as they did).

There is an irreconcilable difference between these views. The secular scientist is not going to admit the need for wisdom regardless of the evidence, and the Biblical student is not going to give it up. But the “voice that goes out into all the earth” is still there, and I believe that there will always be some who will hear the voice, and will heed the drawing of the Holy Spirit to make the appropriate conclusions.

David C. Bossard



Narrator: God is ready to create the universe. His angels want to help, especially one particularly precocious angel named Ariel. So God explains to Ariel that the first thing that must be created is light, because all of matter is built out of light. He tells Ariel that there are lots of other details that you have to look after, but you have to start with light.
Ariel is a little mischievous, and a bit impatient. So he says to himself, “This sounds exciting. I’m going to try it for myself. Won’t God be pleased when he sees how much I have learned from his little talk?”
So Ariel goes off and creates a universe. Bang! He makes the light just as God said he had to do it. Just then God drops in.

Ariel, excitedly: “I tried out what you said. Look at it!”

Narrator: God looks at the universe that Ariel just created.

God: “That’s a nice job, Ariel, but I am afraid it won’t work.”

Ariel: “But why won’t it work? I created light, just as you said.”

God: “You need darkness in your universe.”

Ariel: “Darkness? What do you mean? Darkness is nothing. Nothing is made out of darkness. You need to have light to create anything. You said so yourself!”

God: “You need darkness.”

Ariel: “You talk as if darkness was something. But darkness is nothing. You can’t create matter out of darkness.”

God: “Well, Ariel, you did a good job with your light. Let’s just watch and see what happens.”

Narrator: So God and Ariel sat down and watched Ariel’s new universe. It started expanding from the microscopic point of intense light that Ariel had made. It grew and grew—and then started to collapse. When it started collapsing, everything was over in a minute. Ariel’s universe had self-destructed.

Ariel: “What happened?”

God: “You need darkness.”

Ariel: “Well, God, I guess I need to learn some more about creating universes. Why do I need darkness?”

God: “You need to have many areas of darkness spread all through the light, because the gravity in light makes it come together in clumps. In your universe there was no darkness, so all the light just collapsed into a point and poof! there went your universe. If you want, let us say, two clumps of light, then you need to have some darkness between the two clumps so the light in each clump will be attracted mostly to the rest of the light in its own clump and not to the light in the other clump.
“Of course, you need lots of clumps, and you need clumps small enough so that you will be able to produce useful kinds of matter, but that’s another story. You can’t get anywhere with your universe unless you can get the great mass of light that you created to separate into clumps. For that you need darkness. Not darkness outside of your universe, but darkness in your universe, mixed in with the light.
“You were right that darkness is nothing, and that you can’t make matter out of darkness, but you need darkness anyway. You need to separate light from darkness or else you can’t get started with your creation. ... (Pause) ... I think I will tell that to Moses.”

Ariel (puzzled): “Who is Moses?”


1 Abraham Pais, Inward Bound, Oxford, 1986, p.165.

2 Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord, Oxford, 1982.

3 Partially taken from IBRI RR 42, 1995: God’s Law, Creation Law. by David C. Bossard.

4 For a discussion, see Gerard ‘t Hooft, In Search of the Ultimate Building Blocks, Cambridge 1997. See p51, 117.

5 Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of LIght and Matter, Princeton, 1985, p13.

6 Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin, The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity, Free Press, 1999, p22. One of the long-standing mysteries in physics was Olber's paradox posed in 1823: “Why is the sky dark at night?” The answer came with the realization that the universe has a definite, finite size and began with the Big Bang—and that it developed rips very early on.

7 See http://astro.uchicago.edu/classes/physci/120/spring-1999/lec20.html for a similar table of the major epochs of creation (Link no longer available).

8 See ‘t Hooft, p149, “Everything we now think we know about Nature will be invalid at the Planck scale.”

9 More accurately: energy cannot be created or destroyed except for times and distances less than the Planck times and distances. For such short intervals the law can be violated, provided the violation is reversed in the same short time. See Feynman, op.cit. Ch. 3 and t'Hooft, Op.cit. pp50ff.

10 Wolfgang Pauli predicted the existence of neutrinos in 1932. They were first observed in the 1950’s. See Jonathan Allday, Quarks, Leptons and the Big Bang, Inst. of Phys. Phila, 1999, p77.

11 One dramatic example of neutrino detection is in the discovery of the 1987 supernova (see below). The first observable event was a simultaneous detection of neutrino emissions at two neutrino detectors in the U.S. and Japan. A few hours after this the supernova was visible. See Malcolm S. Longair, Our Evolving Universe, Cambridge, 1996, p76ff.

12 Adams & Laughlin, p3.

13 From Galaxy survey at "http://www.ast.cam.ac.uk/~twodfgg/2dF_survey.html." This link is no longer active.

14 For an excellent layman’s discussion of quarks, see Allday, op cit.

15 The unit of charge is the charge of a proton, usually denoted "e", omitted here for convenience.

16 This account follows Adams & Laughlin. Other accounts place antimatter annhilation in Day Three.

17 Adams and Laughlin, p4. I believe the number "30 million" cited there is a typographic error which should read "300 million." See for example, the table cited above, or Allday. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford, 1986 p370 cites the survival of 1 quark in 10 billion.

18 I do not know exactly when electrons arise: here or in day 3 (a byproduct of neutron disintegration).

19 Both free quarks and electrons appear to be point particles, or at least the size is too small to measure. One theory of physics, called superstring theory, assigns a size to them, but it is far smaller than could be measured by any means conceivable at present. See Allday.

20 See, for example ‘t Hooft, Table 1, p24.

21 Actually the “iron group” which includes nickel and cobalt.

22 See, for example, Kenneth R. Lang, Astrophysical Formulae, Springer-Verlag, 1980, p423ff for many such stellar reactions.

23 Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, Modern Library, 1994 , p. 117. This is a transcript of lectures given in 1965.

24 See Malcom S. Longair, Our Evolving Universe, Cambridge, 1996, p25. Supernova remnant in the Cassiopeia constellation. The supernova exploded about 250 years ago (earth time).

25 Anton C. Pegis, Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinis, Vol. 1, Random House, 1945, Question LXVI, 618ff.

26 cf. Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle, Random House, 1945. The concept did not originate with Aristotle (he cites Plato and others). See, for example, de Caelo. He distinguishes: fire and air whose natural motion is upward, and water and earth whose natural motion is downward. In de Caelo Bk. IV, Ch. 5: "The kinds of matter, then, must be…four, but though they are four there must be a common matter of all—particularly if they pass into one another." [McKeon, p.463]

27 Pegis, Reply to Objection 1, p.620.

28 Pegis, p. 618ff. Aquinis argues that actual matter has not yet been created in verse 2, but only its potentiality, and that is what is meant by formless and void. He quotes Augustine (Objection 1) who translates void and empty as invisible and shapeless and "Therefore matter was formless until it received its form."

Updated hyperlinks 01-Oct-2002