It is an honor to be the newest contributor to “The Catholic Astronomer.” As a non-scientist, hobby astronomer, Catholic Priest, I have been asked to provide you, the reader, with reflective questions to spark discussion. My interpretation of this request: dream a little and have fun! In that spirit, I invite all of you to respond to and critique the reflections I post. Do not be afraid to be critical or refine my comments. I see myself as both contributor and student on this page, sitting at the feet of each one of you to learn as I openly share my thoughts on faith and science (particularly astronomy). Therefore, do not treat my posts as stand alone articles, but thoughts that are intentionally incomplete, in need of your voice to flesh out the full idea (especially if they are in error). In that spirit, lets get started!
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This composite image of the bullet cluster from Magellan and HST shows galaxies in orange and white. Hot gas in the cluster, which contains the bulk of the normal matter in the cluster, is shown by the Chandra X-ray Observatory image in pink. Most of the mass in the cluster is shown in blue, as measured by gravitational lensing, the distortion of background images by mass in the cluster. This mass is dominated by dark matter. The clear separation between normal matter and dark matter has not been seen before and gives the strongest evidence yet that most of the matter in the Universe is dark.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/M.Markevitch et al.;
Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.;
Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.)
Question: How does science understand the “death” of matter? In a conversation I had with a professional astronomer about dark matter, she explained that, even though we don’t know what dark matter is, we know that something is there because of phenomena such as gravitational telescoping. What I heard in this was, “We can’t see the stuff, but we can see its effects.” This reflection made me think of another aspect of dark matter that it doesn’t seem to have any interaction with light, neither absorbing it nor reflecting it. This made me think, just as we know when a human person dies because an essential aspect of who they are is gone, could dark matter somehow be stuff that “died,” meaning that it has gone through a substantial change (to borrow the language of Thomistic philosophy/theology) in which something is still there, but an essential part of what we understand to be “healthy” matter is gone.
This thought drew me to a more basic question that has nothing to do with dark matter: Can matter “die?” Put another way, can things like atoms go through a change that is not a coming together to create new elements or the splitting of atoms to release energy, but can an atom “substantially change” on its own into something fundamentally different, similar to when a person dies we know that a fundamental part of who they are is gone? In the realm of theology and philosophy, we speak of the soul in basic terms as the animating principle of life. This term, however, is exclusively used to define biological life as we distinguish a vegetable soul, animal soul, and human soul. How, then, do we understand the “animating principle” for things that do no fit these categories? Life in the classic sense, no, but it seems foolish to not affirm that the universe is “alive” in some sense. And if it is quite alive, could it also undergo a change we would see as analogous to our understanding of death?
I invite you to critique, correct, affirm, or reject!