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Encounters: Supernovae and Revival with Rev. Robert Evans, June 2019

August 7, 2019 by

When I first read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything I was not thinking of Australia. Nor did I ever dream of meeting the supernovae hunter described in the chapter, “The Reverend Evans’s Universe.” But when a conference in Sydney last month took me within sight of the Blue Mountains, I had my chance.

Bob Evans with supernovae pictures

In keeping with his understated demeanor, the Reverend Robert Evans prefers to be called Bob. And although a recent stroke has restricted his mobility, it certainly has not impacted Bob’s mental capabilities. His memory was flawless as our conversation ranged from distant galaxies to spiritual awakening during Christian revivals in the US and Australia.

I have three of Bob’s many titles on my desk: Fire from Heaven: Revivals in Upstate New York 1800–1840, The Kentucky Revival, and Early Evangelical Revivals in New South Wales and Queensland, and you may encounter them in a future blog post. But for now I’ll stick with supernovae.

Without doubt, supernovae and revivals share some characteristics. Both evidence the majesty, power, and sheer surprise that God loves to spring on his children; both must be sought after in a spirit of hope, expectation, and excitement. Of course the difference between a supernova and a revival is that the former has to do with the death of a star and the catastrophic explosion of matter, while the latter relates to newness of spiritual life transforming spiritual deadness.

The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains of AustraliaThe Three Sisters – an iconic Blue Mountain vista just twenty minutes’ drive from the Evans’ residence

For a star with a mass significantly larger than our sun, death by explosion is a high probability. “Nova” is Latin for “new” and refers to a star that “wasn’t there” before. Actually, it was; it was simply not very visible. In a supernova the explosion is so cataclysmic that the star ejects most of its mass into space, leaving a dense and relatively invisible star in its place.

The amount of energy produced during a supernova explosion is beyond comprehension; in fact, more energy is discharged as a result than the combined energy of all the other stars in a galaxy. That is why it is possible to spot a supernova in another galaxy, even if the galaxy is millions of light years1 away. And that is precisely what captured Bob’s imagination when, in the mid-1960s, he built his own telescope and pointed it to the heavens.

I was introduced to the night sky by my father who had been a Scout leader and had a working knowledge of the constellations. Then I worked at a bookshop for four years and read a book called Galactic Novae written in 1955. That book contained pretty much all the accumulated knowledge on the fifty supernovae recorded to date. Photo verification was in its infancy and I figured that if I could get hold of a ten- to twelve-inch telescope [refers to the diameter of its primary mirror] I could discover some myself!
It took me a number of years to put it together as things were much more expensive then and less easy to get hold of. But by the mid-70’s I had a workable ten-inch scope, and some good sky to work with.
It was not until the early 1980s that the first accurate charts and photo surveys were available; my first discovery was Supernova 1981A – the first such discovery for the year 1981. All told, I discovered forty-two supernovae by visually viewing the star fields in and around hundreds of galaxies. I also discovered a few additional supernovae with the aid of photographic comparison.

Let’s just pause a minute to take in what Bob is saying. He has memorized the general pattern of stars adjacent to some five hundred galaxies as seen through a homemade telescope. And for those who have not recently looked at a galaxy through a ten-inch telescope, we are talking about small fuzzy blobs of varying shapes, sizes, and brightness.

When Bob encountered a star that didn’t seem to “belong,” he got out charts to confirm that what he was seeing truly was something new – that is, a supernova exploding in a distant galaxy. As Bob put it to Bill Bryson, “I just seem to have a knack for memorizing star fields.” Some knack!

Throughout our conversation, and in spite of his walking disability, Bob made numerous trips to the garage to retrieve another of his books or to get another collection of photos showing his discoveries. Then we went to see his first two telescopes, carefully preserved and wrapped in plastic. “You can move them with your little finger,” Bob said with evident love and pride. His larger sixteen-inch telescope is now part of a nearby observatory.

As we chatted we found much we hold in common, though I am the first to admit that Bob excels in every category. Both of us are pastors and writers, students of revival, and men who have derived immense pleasure from studying the stars. Our faith informs our science and our science informs our faith.

We marvel at the age and immensity of the universe as at the wonder of creation, so beautifully described in Genesis, when the God of life brought everything out of nothing. We pity those who feel they have no choice but to yield their faith to the “superiority” of science, as we do those who, feeling superior in their science, cast disdain on people of faith. What a great gulf there is between wisdom and the mere accumulation of knowledge!

Robert and Elaine Evans

Before our pilgrimage into the garage, Bob’s wife, Elaine, served up traditional afternoon “tea and bikkies.” The two have been married for sixty years and had just received word of their first great-grandchild.

As I said good-bye to this dear couple, still clearly in love with one another and with life, it was not difficult to imagine God taking delight in a pastor spending countless hours under the night sky poking around for “new stars.”

“New?” God chuckles. “Just a few million years since that one exploded!” Then, “Good on ya, mate!”

1A light year is the distance that light travels in a year, at 186,000 miles/sec. To get some sense of distance, our sun is 8 light minutes away; it takes light 8 minutes to reach us from the sun. The nearest star to the sun is just over 4 light years distant; the nearest galaxy of comparable size to ours is 2 million light years away.



About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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