Having Searched The Heavens, He Sees God As Nature's Star

He was in fifth grade when he first looked at the night skies through a friend's telescope.

"Smitten? That's right, I was smitten," Dr. Allan Sandage told me over two days in which we talked by phone. "I saw there was something outside of us, the universe."

Since then, he has never stopped trying to figure out what the stars could tell us. In his teen years in the late 1930s in Ohio, Sandage spent four years recording all the sunspots he observed. There was no question what his life's work would be.

Sandage now is 72, retired, but still going every day to his office at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif. For more than four decades, 100 nights a year, he peered at the stars using the telescopes at Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar.

It was solitary work. By himself on those mountaintops, sometimes wearing aviation jumpsuits because of the cold in the cramped observation cages, he had hundreds of hours to be with his thoughts.

Quasars, the stars that emit radio signals? Sandage was the first to spot one. In dozens of papers, he made important contributions to the field of astronomy, receiving major scientific awards.

The honors recognized his life's work on a subject truly ambitious and fundamental and probably eternally elusive: the age of the universe.

This is a 700-word newspaper story, so you'll have to pardon the generalities.

Sandage had worked for, and then assumed the responsibility of carrying on the work of the great astronomer Edwin Hubble. It was Hubble who, looking through a telescope, discovered there was more to the cosmos than the Milky Way, that there were millions of other galaxies.

That led to the Big Bang theory - for Sandage, the point at which faith and science intersected. The theory says that the universe began with a single explosion, and that the universe has been expanding ever since.

I had called Sandage because of a front-page story a few days ago in The New York Times. In the field of astronomy, scientists debating the age of the universe fall into two camps.

Sandage has calculated it to be from 15 billion to 20 billion years old. Another team of astronomers, using measurements by the Hubble Space Telescope, came up with a figure of 12 billion years.

It was not that dispute that I called Sandage about.

It was about a question that the new research didn't ask. Whether it is 12 billion or 15 billion or 20 billion years old, what was there before the universe, before the Big Bang? It was that question I wanted to ask a man who has spent 40 years gazing at the stars, trying to come up with scientific answers.

And that is when Sandage began telling me about how he had dealt with the question. A couple of years ago, there was a national survey of scientists, and 60 percent said they didn't believe in a God.

"That's because it can't be proved, and a scientist lives life by proving things," he said. "We have good evidence that a creation event occurred. But was it created out of nothing, or something? That's why the Big Bang theory, and cosmology, is as close to theology as any hard science can be."

It was when he was 50 that Sandage decided to make a leap of faith. He had been, for all purposes, an atheist.

"Is man nothing more than a machine with flesh? If so, the people doing artificial intelligence will eventually be able to make us," he said. "We are 93 chemical elements that have self-organized to be able to contemplate themselves."

Being a scientist, he began exploring religion much as he did his work. He researched Christianity by attending various churches around his home. He listened to the preachers read from the Bible. "I had a theological conversion, not a formal church conversion," he said.

Sandage likes to quote Albert Einstein, who, when asked if he believed in God, talked of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who believed that nature itself is God.

And that is today's 700-word bit of newspaperized philosophy.

"I believe that nature is caused by God, whatever that God is. I willed myself to live with that mystery," Sandage said. "I could not live a life full of cynicism. I chose to believe, and a peace of mind came over me."

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: elac-new@seatimes.com