In Joseph Smith’s Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (hereafter GAEL), there’s an interesting little tidbit about Kolob. After we learn that Kolob is the beginning of the bodies in this creation, and the eldest star, it says that Kolob “signifies the first great grand governing fixed star which is the fartherest that ever has been discovered by the fathers which was discovered by Methusela and also by Abraham”.
“Fartherest,” I’m sure, is meant to be “farthest”–the most distant. So, if you can overlook the typo, then Kolob is the farthest star that any of the fathers had ever discovered. You can imagine Methusela or Abraham, looking into the Urim and Thummim (a seer stone), and seeing the stars zoom past their view, going back and back, ever farther, until finally they see the last star on their visual journey because there are no more stars to see. The last star in their vision is Kolob, and it is the farthest away.
In addition to its extreme distance, remember that we’re also told that Kolob is the first body made in this creation and the “eldest of all the Stars” (see The First Creation). Taking this into account with our new knowledge that Kolob is the “fartherest” star ever discovered, we see that Joseph is telling us the first star made in this universe is also the farthest object anybody has ever seen. That’s kind of a weird claim. Was he correct?
Yes, he’s exactly right—if Kolob really was the very first star born in the cosmos, then it should be the most distant object we could ever hope to see in outer space.
If you have any interest in astronomy, this stuff should sound familiar to you. Indeed, the farther back you look into space, the farther back in time you are observing. The most distant objects are also the oldest. This is because light takes time to travel, and it travels at a constant speed. When you look up into the night sky at the stars, you are peering into the past.
For some examples: The star Betelgeuse is 640 light-years away, so it takes 640 years for its light to reach us (see Betelgeuse, Please Explode). Look at Betelgeuse tonight, and you’re seeing the red supergiant as it looked 640 years ago. Astronomers use light-years as a unit of distance, but it also describes the age of the light that we’re seeing–how long it’s been travelling through space to get to our eyeballs. Seeing something very far away means that you are seeing something in the very distant past.
In astronomy, the bigger the distance, the older the light, the deeper back in time you’re seeing. You can see the ancient past from your backyard. So, when Abraham is looking at Kolob (as if through a very powerful telescope), and it’s the farthest object he sees, then it is also the farthest back in time that he sees too. He’s seeing the first creations in a much-younger universe. That’s pretty rad.
Although Abraham was able to see the first star through the Urim and Thummim, astronomers today have yet to see the first generation of stars in a telescope (and it’s likely impossible to make out individual Population III stars if we do). They’re just too far away, being at around 13.6 billion light-years (or just 200 million years after the Big Bang). But they’re trying, and word on the street is that with the new James Webb Telescope we may be allowed to see the light from some Population III stars for the first time. So be excited for that! Right now, the most ancient things we can see are small, early galaxies, some 13.26 billion years ago. But here’s the question I’m trying to get to:
Could Joseph Smith have known this astronomical principle about the relationship between extreme distance and age? According to the Joseph Smith Papers, The GAEL was most likely written between July and November of 1835. Would he have been aware in 1835 that the more distant a celestial object, the deeper back in time you’re looking?
Any historians of astronomy in the house? Please let me know.
The truth is that I don’t know if this passage in the GAEL can really be seen as evidence of Joseph’s seership. I’ve researched what I could from the internet, but for the life of me I haven’t been able to nail down a concrete time when the scientific principle in question was discovered or widely known, or when a farm boy from upstate New York would have learned about it. However, I have assembled an amateur timeline at the end of this post to give us some helpful data points. I’ll mention some interesting things I’ve found so far:
Joseph likely wrote or dictated this “fartherest” stuff in 1835. It wasn’t until about 3 years later that a scientist named Friedrich Bessel was the first to successfully measure the distance from Earth to a star other than the sun. A year later, Bessel wrote that the light from the star he measured would take 10.3 years to get to Earth. Decades later, we learned that other galaxies existed and the universe was way bigger than we thought. And a few years after that, we found out that the universe was expanding and had been a lot smaller in the past. It’s in part because of the expansion of space that we can see snapshots of what very far-away galaxies looked like a very long time ago.
I don’t know if Joseph Smith wrote this distance and age stuff on purpose, but I do think it’s something we need to investigate further. Maybe there’s more to this GAEL document than just apparent nonsense and imagination, as the critics insist on claiming. See the timeline below:
- 385-323 BC: Aristotle was the first scientist to bring up the topic of the speed of light, where he says the light from the sun must take some time to get to the Earth, because of its extreme distance away.
- 1676: Danish physicist Olaus Roemer makes first estimate for the speed of light—140,000 miles/second
- 1728: English astronomer James Bradley measures light at 185,000 miles per second.
- 1800?: Light is established as some kind of wave. If so, it requires an aether in which to wave
- July 1835: Egyptain Papyri obtained by Joseph Smith
- July-circa November 1835: Joseph Smith produces the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language. Kolob is the eldest star and the farthest star ever discovered by the fathers
- 1 Oct 1835: “the system of astronomy” is unfolded to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and W. W. Phelps while studying the papyri
- 1838: Bessel measures first distance to a star
- 1839: Bessel writes that 61 Cygni’s parallax of 0.314 arcseconds, showed the distance to the star to be 660000 astronomical units (9.9×10^13 km), and that light employs 10.3 years to traverse this distance
- 1842: Joseph Smith publishes more on Kolob in the Book of Abraham
- 1849: Fizeau changes speed of light
- 1851: Otto Ule introduces the light-year unit in a German popular astronomical article
- 1862: Foucault changes speed of light again, for the speed of light “was not yet considered to be a fundamental constant of nature, and the propagation of light through the aether or space was still enigmatic.”—Wikipedia, accessed 7/28/2020
- 1865: James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and therefore travelled at the speed c
- 1868: an English journal labelled the light-year as a unit used by the Germans.
- 1879: Albert Michelson puts light speed at 186,355 miles per second.
- ?: Albert Michelson finds no evidence for an aether
- 1905: Albert Einstein postulated that the speed of light c with respect to any inertial frame is a constant and is independent of the motion of the light source.
- 1914: Eddington called the light-year an inconvenient and irrelevant unit, which had sometimes crept from popular use into technical investigations.
- 1920: The Great Debate: Were there other galaxies out there, or was our Milky Way all there was in the universe?
- 1924: Edwin Hubble discovers there are more galaxies than the one we live in. The universe is far bigger than we thought.
- 1927: Georges Lemaître theorizes Big Bang
- 1929: Hubble discovers the universe is expanding
- 1966: Egyptologist I. E. S. Edwards stated that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar was “largely a piece of imagination and lacking in any kind of scientific value.”
- 1975: speed of light known to be 186282.397 mi/s
- 2016: reddit users write about GAEL: “It sure seems like Joseph was just making crap up in a silly way.” And “Its complete non-sense.” And “Or is it just completely pulled out of
thin airhis ass?”
One last note before we end it:
In a previous post entitled “Kolob Might Be Dead”, I rolled out my theory that Kolob was a Population III star, the very first star in the universe, and that it is intimately connected with the formation of our galaxy. Perhaps, I said, it was the very first star in our galaxy and the predecessor star to many other stars including the Sun; or it’s the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. If this is so, then it would be impossible for us to see a young, Population III star Kolob in a telescope. Why? According to an astrophysicist I spoke to on Facebook, we cannot see the young Milky Way galaxy in a telescope because we are in it. We can see some of its contemporaries billions of years ago, but we can’t see us, essentially. We can’t see the atoms that eventually made up ourselves eons later. However, I still think that the “fartherest” statement in the GAEL is significant and supports the Population III Kolob theory, because we’re told Kolob was the farthest star, and those Population III stars are the farthest things from Earth. Remember that Abraham was seeing Kolob in the Urim and Thummim, not a telescope, so it would have been possible for him to see the young Milky Way, and therefore Kolob in its infancy.
Sources and Notes
Text of the GAEL: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Grammar_%26_Alphabet_of_the_Egyptian_Language
First stars formed around 300M years after Big Bang so they are around 13.5 billion light years away, the farthest objects we could hope to see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_the_universe
Principle of greater distance equals farther in the past
James Webb telescope and the quest to see the earliest stars
- https://webbtelescope.org/resource-gallery/articles/pagecontent/filter-articles/what-were-the-first-stars-like?filterUUID=a776e097-0c60-421c-baec-1d8ad049bfb0; https://www.space.com/universe-first-stars-older-than-thought.html; https://webbtelescope.org/resource-gallery/articles/pagecontent/filter-articles/what-did-the-young-universe-look-like?filterUUID=a776e097-0c60-421c-baec-1d8ad049bfb0; https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2019/11/27/2148264/scientists-closer-than-ever-to-seeing-beginning-of-universe; https://phys.org/news/2019-09-stars-universe.html
Expansion of space: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2016/02/24/how-long-has-the-universe-been-accelerating/
- Some timeline items were taken from the First Creation post, and their sources can be found there.
Note on why we can’t see Kolob in a telescope
- Conversation in a Facebook Astronomy and Astrophysics group
- “The universe according to what we can detect through our telescopes. (NASA)”: https://www.sciencealert.com/astronomers-detected-a-giant-galaxy-lighting-up-the-universe-right-after-the-big-bang
- Pic of one of the farthest objects observed, a galaxy from around 540 million years after the Big Bang (or 13.26 billion years ago): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MACS0647-JD
- Siegel, Galaxies over time and distance pic: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2018/12/26/what-was-it-like-when-the-milky-way-took-shape/#4a5a48807375