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Icon of the month: TrES-2b

Simon Jenkins


There was something to make the blood run slightly colder in the recent news that a planet orbiting a distant sun is the darkest world ever discovered.
The planet, which has the catchy (and French-sounding) name of TrES-2b, only reflects a miserly one per cent of the light that falls on it from its nearby sun. Which means it's as dark as coal. Close up, it must be hard to see against the blackness of space, and you would only know it was there by the stars it would blot out - which would be rather a lot, given that TrES-2b is the size of Jupiter.

It's not like the planet lacks for light, either. While the Earth maintains a sensible distance of 93 million miles from our Sun, TrES-2b is a mere three million miles from its star, which heats it to 980 degrees Celsius, the melting point of lava. These discoveries were made by the Kepler space observatory, whose remit is to find Earthlike planets circling faraway suns.

David Spiegel, one of the astronomers to make the discovery, says: 'It's not clear what is responsible for making this planet so extraordinarily dark. However, it's not completely pitch black. It's so hot that it emits a faint red glow, much like a burning ember or the coils on an electric stove.'

TrES-2b immediately reminded me of one of the stay-with-you episodes in CS Lewis's Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In it, the Dawn Treader, under the command of Prince Caspian, sails into a darkness in the middle of the open, sunlit sea and finds it a place of terror and madness, where escape again into the light seems impossible.

But the dark planet also made me reflect on the opening words of Psalm 19...

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

'Glory' is a first cousin to the words we use for light, so if the stars of the universe speak of the shining glory of God, then what do the dark objects say about him? The writer of Psalm 19 couldn't have imagined that the night sky above him contained not just brilliant stars, but also black holes, occult planets and dark matter.

I'm interested in this because Christian theology doesn't seem to have made much adjustment to the huge amount of new information about the universe that has accumulated in the past century. In the 1920s and 30s, Edwin Hubble and others discovered that the universe doesn't consist of just our galaxy (as was argued at the time) but countless galaxies - at least 100 billion, according to the Institute of Physics, each containing anything from millions to trillions of stars.

So while it was credible back in the days of Psalm 19 to see the stars as a kind of celestial wallpaper, put there solely for humans to admire and praise the Lord who made them, the vast scale of what is actually out there makes that model look like over-engineering on a cosmic scale.

For me, the impossible size of it all and the discovery of objects such as TrES-2b are a severe challenge to the New Testament's assertion that the human story is critical to the story of the universe as a whole. Our size in the mind-boggling scheme of things is surely too microscopically tiny.

So what does TrES-2b tell us about God? Maybe it speaks of the hidden side of God, the God who ultimately cannot be known, the darkness of God. These themes have been explored by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and other offbeat theologians, and in the apophatic tradition they fed which describes God in terms of negatives.

But it also has its roots back in the Old Testament, where 'Moses approached the thick darkness where God was' on Mt Sinai, and Elijah encountered God in the 'still, small voice' on the same mountain. 'Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,' says Pseudo-Dionysius, 'where the mysteries of God's Word lie... in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.'

So here's to TrES-2b. A dark and unknowable world reflecting nothing but the darkness and mystery of God.

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