Recently we published HST images of a Seyfert galaxy which showed spectacular strands of emission-line gas forming a figure eight on one side. I was quite pleased with the results and the pictures looked really neat, but while writing this article I started to think about it: a ``figure eight'' -- this sounds like Sesame Street on children's TV (``this Galaxy was brought to you by NASA and the Number 8''). Yes, we love to describe astronomical objects in simple, figurative terms (``Pistol'', ``Sickle'', ``Tornado'', ``Sombrero'', just to name a few galactic and extragalactic names). We publish and discuss nice, little pictures of objects which in reality are larger than anything we can imagine. In my mind the huge emission-line region of a distant galaxy is probably not very different from a little lady-bug. In this respect we are not different from the first astronomers (or better astrologers?) who projected funny drawings onto the sky. Moreover, many astronomers have their ``pet-objects'' (mine is Sgr A* of course) which they love and cherish. This all allows us to relate to the objects we talk about, it makes us believe we understand and know these gigantic structures, just like we know our pets. It makes us feel that they belong to us, that we control them like the objects that surround us and form our world. How arrogant of us! What we consider our little toys, are objects so large and so far away, that we are nothing more than an infinitesimally small perturbation. We cannot look at these objects as an engineer looks at an engine he designed, because we will never touch them, we will never change them, we will never conquer them. We can only watch and wonder. Sure, we know that, but do we really know that?
History, and the history of science in particular has taught us that the human spirit will eventually overcome every problem and we will boldly go where no one has gone before. We have learned to fly, we have landed on the moon, we have (very quickly) ignited the solar fire, and we have commanded elementary particles and captured single protons. Do we understand that we never will fill the vastness of the universe? Do we understand that there are places where we never will and never should be the masters? God gave us the earth, the universe belongs to him. I believe the understanding of this basic limitation makes astronomy different from any other science and once in a while we should make sure that we still have the right attitude towards the objects of our research. It is probably necessary to reduce the universe to a few numbers and instructive sketches to do our work, but what drives astronomy is the fascination of the nightly promenader who looks into the sky and wonders and asks questions we can never fully answer. If we take away that simple fascination we would also take away one of the foundations astronomy is based upon.
In this ultimate motivation that drives astronomy, religion and science start to touch each other. As a child I spent sleepless nights thinking about some old questions which we probably all had: Is the universe infinite? If not, what is beyond the universe? How did it start and who started it? Is there a God and what am I compared to all this? As it used to be for many centuries, in my childish mind the questions about God and about the world that surrounded me were not separated. Those questions were not fighting against each other, instead, they were stimulating each other and producing a burning desire for answers. This fire cannot burn forever and these questions will stop eventually. The fire will get almost extinguished by every-days duties, by disappointment, disillusion, fear of the future, and the desire to be more successful. But I am convinced a few sparks of this fire are still glowing in the darkness of any soul, even in those of scientists, and in a few special moments it can light up again. Maybe that is even what we are living and striving for --- to feel the fascination and the wonder for the creation that surrounds us in its full power, just one more time.
I still do find this fascination in looking up to the stars, I find it when I make a scientific discovery I was seeking for a long time, and I found this fascination when I discovered for the first time that God is real. Whether I discover the Creator or his creation does not make such a big difference in the way I experience it.
Am I a fool, talking about astronomy in such an emotional way? Perhaps, but then I am not the only fool. I meet quite a few astronomers -- many more than I first thought -- who feel religious in one way or another. There are some like me, who believe that the Bible is God's word, where real people describe their real experiences with God, and who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the ultimate love, hope, and purpose in this world. However, I also meet others, who have spent quite some time thinking about God, developing their own religious beliefs. They do not want to identify themselves with traditional religions, and are afraid of the possibly harmful reactions of fellow scientists to their ideas. Others are still asking. Apparently knowing that they are missing something, they were just curious. They keep a ``friendly contact'' with religion and once in while think about theological questions but have never found a chance to dig deeper. Of course I also meet those who apparently are not interested, and those who outrightly oppose any religious thoughts, those who give young astronomers the impression that the scientific honor code requires one to abstain from having faith in anything.
I do not object that someone objects to me, my ideas, and my faith, but I strongly object when anyone tries to impose an ideological straitjacket on science and scientists. Of course, the presentation and discussion of any finding should follow commonly accepted scientific rules, but just because a scientific paper should be free of feelings, emotions, and beliefs, this does not mean that science, should dictate my personal feelings, emotions, and beliefs. Not every question in life can be answered scientifically. Science has to recognize and accept this limitation, otherwise, science itself turns into a scientific religion -- this would not only be an oxymoron, it would also be dangerous.