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20th November, 2006

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William Tell move over

Whether William Tell truly was forced by the nasty bailiff Gessler to shoot an apple off his son's head arouses controversy to this day. Indeed, his very existence is doubted by some. Whether true or not, the apple-off-head feat pales into insignificance against a recently-discovered true story of ballistic pinpoint accuracy. Infrared photos from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have recently revealed that, at the time dinosaurs were roaming earth, our nearest neighboring galaxy of any respectable size, Andromeda, was the victim of a massive hit-and-run “accident”, perpetrated by a pipsqueak upstart of a neighbor, dwarf galaxy M32, that pierced its very heart.

Forensic evidence that such a crime was committed comes from the wounds sustained by Andromeda — Spitzer revealed a hitherto-unseen ring of dust cradled deep within the galaxy. Astronomers had been aware for many years of another ring much further out. So now astronomers are presented with a fascinating fact — Andromeda's centre is surrounded by two concentric dust rings. Astronomers believe that such concentric rings prove that something big had smashed through Andromeda's centre, the violent gravitational interaction setting up a series of expanding rings of dust analogous to the expanding ripples or waves that spread out on a pond when a stone is dropped into the water. Study of movements of nearby galaxies fingers M32 as the most likely villain. Not that M32 got off unscathed from the collision — computer modeling suggests that it lost about fifty percent of its mass in the process.

Was the smashup a genuine accident, or might it have been contrived? Huh? Repeat visitors to this site will guess where I'm coming from. Dawn to Dusk stresses the witness to God's glory found throughout the creation, from the brilliant design of sponge collar cells to the inconceivable forces and energies found in gamma ray bursts. The heavens declare God's glory, and the whole earth reeks with evidence of His infinite wisdom. We also emphasize that even “accidental phenomena” such as meteorite collisions with the earth were built into the long-term scheme of things as further testimony to the power and genius of the Creator. So too with galactic collisions. For these, you see, are a common phenomenon throughout the universe — a fact I find impossible, intuitively, to reconcile with an unplanned explosion as the origin of galaxies

and hens' eggs. If an outward momentum was imparted to space itself in the beginning, how could “things” crash into each other? Every “bit” of expanding space, together with all its denizens, would be moving further and further away from every other bit. I haven't seen any understandable, convincing explanation of how and why it would be otherwise, of how "peculiar motion" can be explained by an unplanned explosion. Further, the chances that a random potshot could hit the bullseye seem vanishingly small; yet our nearest big neighbor has suffered a direct hit.

Incontrovertible evidence tells us that many collisions and near-misses between galaxies have occurred. The variations on the theme seem endless — exactly what you would expect when you attribute them to the genius of the biblically-revealed God. For instance, when Art Hoag discovered a faint yet perfect ring in 1950, unlike anything seen before, he dubbed it a “pathological galaxy”. A Hubble photo of the same ring in 2002 showed a normal elliptical galaxy lying at the centre of the gorgeous ring of young blue stars. Experts deduced it was formed by the effects of enormous gravitational forces set up by another huge galaxy gliding close by two or three billion years ago. Numerous “rat-tail galaxies”, about as far removed from Hoag's perfect ring as you can imagine, provide even plainer evidence of such near misses. Don't bow before the Big Bang; the true God choreographed the staggering Dance of the Galaxies eternities ago.

Interacting galaxies underscore a marvelous paradox of creation. Gravity is a pathetically weak force. This simple fact is easily demonstrated. Take a small magnet and move it near a nail lying on the ground. The nail defies the force of gravity and jumps up to the magnet. It takes an object the size of the earth to keep the nail nailed to the ground; it takes a magnet the size of a matchbox to overcome the power of earth's gravity! Yet this hopelessly weak force is sufficient at galactic scales to tear galaxies apart, contorting them into all kinds of weird and wonderful configurations.

By the way, we had better not get smug about our own freedom from collision. In about 5 billion years, our own Milky Way galaxy will collide with M31, now a little over 2 million light-years away but heading our way. I for one can't wait. I hope to be there to witness the drama.

Click here for a great Hubble shot of the results of a head-on collision between the Cartwheel galaxy and a smaller one.

To read more about colliding galaxies, we invite you to preview a chapter (in pdf format — 1.37 Mg) on this topic from the upcoming Dawn to Dusk book "How Great Thou Art". Click here to access this chapter.


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