The Trouble with Hydrogen

Originally published in Disciple, June 14, 2010.

The trouble with hydrogen is that space is "filled" with it-not filled as we conceive of "filled," as we fill a glass with water, but too "filled" to fit into most astronomers' theories about the universe and how it began.

You see, hydrogen is the fundamental building block in the cosmos. The astrophysicists and astrochemical theorists believe that literally everything began with hydrogen-from water (H2O) to the densest substances we know (think of armor plating, for instance) to the giant stars which populate the Milky Way, our "local neighborhood" in space.

And given the number of island galaxies, each with uncountable millions of stars, which our super-telescopes are finding by tens of thousands and possibly millions as they probe for the edges of space, they argue for a truly enormous amount of elemental hydrogen. According to any rational theory our experts have come up with to account for how it all began, free hydrogen atoms should by now be almost non-existent.

But it isn't. Loose hydrogen atoms are scattered very far apart, but space is so unimaginably vast-so large it reaches beyond a billion light-years out from Earth-that our telescopes have detected a gossamer-thin but perceptible stellar haze, composed of hydrogen atoms.

The problem with hydrogen is that it has been calculated that the atoms composing this nebulous curtain collectively amount to far more total mass than all the stars in the heavens. That's a lot of hydrogen!

And this bulk has to be accounted for in any theory of how the universe began. Most astronomers think the universe began with a small but extremely compressed mass which exploded billions of years ago. That's the so-called "Big Bang Theory." According to this theory, all the matter in the universe was present from the outset.

A less-popular conception of the great beginning of it all is the "Steady State Theory," which holds that the universe evolved in a more even, regular fashion, from the simple to the complex, and from the tiny to the tremendous. But according to this theory also, all the matter there ever will be was present in elemental form at the birth of the universe.

Both theories have two tremendous drawbacks: Neither can even venture a guess as to where all this matter came from (they simply take it as a "given"), and neither can explain why the available hydrogen building blocks have not been used up.

The problem of the unconsumed hydrogen atoms led steady-state theorist Prof. Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University to a startling chain of conjecture. "Hydrogen," he reasoned, "is being steadily converted into helium (the next level up the ladder of atomic complexity) throughout the universe, and this conversion is a one-way process. How comes it then that the universe consists almost entirely of hydrogen? If matter were infinitely old, this would be quite impossible."

Professor Hoyle then drew a logical, if amazing, conclusion: "We see that the universe being what it is, the creation issue simply cannot be dodged. And I think that of all the various possibilities that have been suggested, continuous creation is easily the most satisfactory." What Hoyle suggested is that somehow new hydrogen is steadily being created-coming into existence moment by moment out of nothingness, to replace the hydrogen which is being transmuted into other substances.

This, of course, merely lends immediacy to the age-old unanswered question: If it is true that the entire material universe ultimately traces back to hydrogen, where did the hydrogen come from? The world's scientists, including Prof. Hoyle, have no answer at all to this puzzle-unless they believe in God.

But if we believe in God, there is no need to imagine something coming out of nothing by itself. Nor is there any need to try to insert billions of years between the beginning of all things and today. Unrepentant men have always sought to make God as remote as possible, if they cannot do away with Him altogether.

God's written legacy, the Bible, does not tell us when and how He made the universe. It simply tells us that He did so. The Word of God sums up all of creation in one short chapter, beginning with the words: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1).

The Bible also explains where hydrogen, along with everything else, came from, but it is an explanation which requires faith: "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear" (Heb. 11:3). In other words, the visible was made from the invisible; the material from the immaterial; the physical from the spiritual. God, who is Spirit, created the universe from what we would term "nothingness."

True enough, that takes faith to accept. But which takes more faith: to believe that God created the universe as the Bible states or to believe that somehow, without a creator, a vast universe-spanning cloud of hydrogen came into being from nothingness; and out of this chaos came organization and life in all its glorious complexity?

Personally, I find it much easier to take God at His Word!

The Old Scot (Ted Kyle) served as managing editor for Pulpit Helps magazine (Disciple's predecessor publication) from 1993-2008. He was always fascinated by the natural world, and readily saw God's hand in every detail. Ted went to be with His Creator and Savior in April 2013.

Source:The Origin of the Solar System, John C. Whitcomb, Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., Philadelphia, 1964 (quote from p. 23).

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