On Pluto, Ribosomes, and the Mystery of God

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

From the terribly distant to the wonderfully close, science is teaching us a lot about God’s created world these days. From the vast distances of the solar system to the tiniest of cellular structures, God’s genius continues to be revealed by the incredible capacity of the human mind to discover, invent and explore.

To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One.
Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars?
He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name.

Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing.
-Isaiah 40:25-26 (NLT)

Most everyone has seen the amazing images from NASA’s close encounter with Pluto this week. The New Horizons spacecraft traveled nearly 3 billion miles to reach its intended destination, and it did so with remarkable precision.

To quote NASA, “New Horizons' almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space -- the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.”

Or as Neil deGrasse Tyson summarized on Twitter, New Horizons’ successful rendezvous with Pluto was like teeing up a golf ball and hitting a two mile hole in one.

Now New Horizons will transition from exploration mode to data transmitting mode. We’ve already learned a lot about what was once considered our solar system’s most distant planet, but it will take 16 months for all of the data to be transmitted back to earth. That’s not bad courier service for a 3 billion mile trip.

                                       New detail of Pluto

                                       New detail of Pluto


“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.”

-Psalm 139:13-14 (NLT)

I also happened this week to stumble across a New York Review of Books article titled, “How You Consist of Trillions of Tiny Machines” by Tim Flannery.

It’s a fascinating summary of two recently published books, each detailing discoveries made possible by improved microscope technology that allows scientists to observe and analyze increasingly small things like ribosomes.

Ribosomes exist inside every living cell. If you were paying attention in high school biology, ribosomes might be at least vaguely familiar to you. They are tiny machines that produce amino acids, the building blocks of protein. That makes ribosomes one of the foundational pieces of life, and we are just now beginning to understand how ribosomes work.

One of the great mysteries of science is how the ribosome came into being. The tiny ribosome represents both the mystery and the miracle of life itself. To the faith inclined, the tiny ribosome is perhaps God’s fingerprint on every living thing, from the smallest bacteria to the greatest redwood to you and me.



“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, 
All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”
-Cecil Frances Alexander

The aforementioned astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, kept America informed as New Horizons approached Pluto by regularly tweeting Pluto factoids. I learned, for instance, that Pluto is smaller than our moon and would fit comfortably between New York City and Dallas, TX. For comparison’s sake, 400 million ribosomes could fit comfortably on the period at the end of this sentence. Pluto is 3 billion miles—or 3.5 light hours—away from here. Ribosomes are the stuff our insides are made of—or more aptly the stuff that makes our insides.

Here’s what I find so fascinating about these stories. In both stories God is wonderfully, majestically present. In both we find the intersection of the amazing capacity and creativity of the human mind and the amazing capacity and creativity of the God who created us. Our creator has invested us with an awesome capacity to uncover and celebrate the awesome work of our creator.

In these stories we see God-created people improving the microscope, uncovering the mysteries of the ribosome, imagining a machine that could intersect with Pluto, and then creating it and sending it successfully—perfectly even—on a 3 billion mile trip.

As New Horizons sends back pictures of Pluto we are reminded that 3 billion miles is just a hair’s breadth in the vast scale of God’s universe. As we learn more about the building blocks of life we are invited to marvel that something as small as a ribosome could reside so perfectly and essentially—miraculously even—within every cell of every living thing in that great big universe.

And we are not the only ones to marvel at the intricate simplicity and awe-inspiring creativity of God. It was a favorite past-time of the authors of scripture, too. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Job, Paul, the Psalmist—it’s hard to find Biblical authors who don’t share our wonder. But no one captures the intersection of the universe, God and the special place of humankind better than the author of Psalm 8:

O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!
    Your glory is higher than the heavens.
You have taught children and infants
    to tell of your strength,
silencing your enemies
    and all who oppose you.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—
 what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
    human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
    and crowned them with glory and honor…

…O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!