Saturday, June 29, 2013

Differing Views of our Place in the Cosmos

By Gary Berg-Cross

One of the ironies of modern life is to live simultaneously in a rich culture alive with scientific advance while also stewing in a conservative, religious culture denying much of that science and limiting its sights to old visions.

It seems like every month, if not every week there is a major new discovery of our place in the cosmos. Just in early June there was an update measurements by Astronomers of the Hubble parameter, the rate at which the Universe expands.  And  Voyager 1 traveling at at 38,000 mph &  11 billion miles from the sun, is the remote outpost on human exploration of space as it still beams back data to Earth. Voyager 1 will be the first manmade object to travel beyond the outer edge of our Solar System.  There are always discoveries on such scientific advents and Voyager I sends evidence that there isn’t a sharp boundary to the solar system aka the heliopause.

What a contrasting vision of complexity to an old, faith-based view of the cosmos such as seen in the ornamental engraving called the Flammarion woodcut. This has an simple world view illustrated by a Pilgrim (carrying a pilgrim's staff ) peering through a sky curtain at the edge of the mundane world of things.  There is little effort to represent physical reality. The pilgrim’s search is for the ethereal world beyond the curtain. And what to do we know of that?  All we see are some vaguely hidden, absolute Aristotelian metaphysical entities that one supposed underlie the workings of universe.

“engraving bears a strong resemblance to traditional pictorial representations of the "wheel in the middle of a wheel" described in the visions of the prophet Ezekiel….The caption in Flammarion's book translates as "A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touched..."

The image accompanies a text which reads, in part:

 "What, then, is this blue sky, which certainly does exist, and which veils from us the stars during the day?" The print is often described as being medieval due to its visual style, its fanciful vision of the world, and to what appears to be a depiction of a flat Earth.

What a contrast to the nuanced and complex view of what people like Robert Ingersoll had at the end of the 19th century. A good summary is in his " Suicide N Sanity" 
 where he states what he believes in and what he doesn't which ends this way:

 I believe in the uniformity of nature; that matter will forever attract 
matter in proportion to mass and distance; that, under the same circumstances, falling bodies will attain the same speed, increasing in exact proportion to distance; that light will always,under the same circumstances. be reflected at the same angle; that
it will always travel with the same velocity that air will forever
be lighter than water, and gold heavier than iron; that all
substances will be true to their natures; that a certain degree of
heat will always expand the metals and change water into steam;
that a certain degree of cold will cause the metals to shrink and
change water into ice; that all atoms will forever be in motion;
that like causes will forever produce like effects, that force will
be overcome only by force; that no atom of matter will ever he
created or destroyed; that the energy in the universe will forever
remain the same, nothing lost, nothing gained; that all that has
been possible has happened, and that all that will be possible will
happen; that the seeds and causes of all thoughts, dreams, fancies
and actions, of all virtues and all vices, of all successes and all
failures, are in nature; that there is in the universe no power
superior to nature; that man is under no obligation to the
imaginary gods; that all his obligations and duties are to be
discharged and done in this world; that right and wrong do not
depend on the will of an infinite Being, but on the consequences of
actions, and that these consequences necessarily flow from the
nature of things. I believe that the universe is natural.

We now have an even richer view of the Universe coming from a n inflationaryBig Bang. This is a realexpanding universe beyond our real sky curtain made up of remarkable structrures like Black Holes, galaxies and neurtron starts. A very nice, (zoomable) modern  modern map of the Universe with 600,000 scientific items is called “Mapping the Universe: Space. Time. Discovery!” A zoomed up version of it, with some labels is shown below.  Like the woodcut it is a geo-centric view, starting with earth at the center of Space &Time, but this is a much, much more detailed view of them along with the Humanist view of when and who made discoveries about cosmic phenomena.  

The Map is from  the 3rd Places & Spaces Mapping Science exhibit and has too many wonderful multi-dimensional elements to cover here, but note that it uses a geo-centric orientation to focus us on the familiar We are Here and then we can zoom through space and time to see discoveries unfold. It has legends and a log-scale, info boxes and charts supplement our visual journey. There is spiral showing science candidate areas for growth. In the distance at the edges of the map in blue we see filaments of galaxies and beyond that early universe quasars in red.

Below is a more detailed View of a section of the Collaborative product created by scientists Chen et all.  You can zoom to this on the Map Exhibit site. 
As we zoon in for details we see the time scale of discovery & their type as legended items. Besides asteroids (grey circles) and exo planets (yellow circles) we have items like The Great Attractor.”  This is something our pilgrim didn’t know. Turns out that the Milky Way is being pulled  towards a concentration of mass now called the Shapley Supercluster which lies ~ 500 million light-years away.  That’s a long way for a pilgrim’s voyage, but science reports on these frontiers.  At the edge we see the Sloan Great Wall,  a structure approximately 1/60 of the diameter of observable universe which is located approximately one billion light-years from Earth. 

Finally this astro science map also uses science citations to note (red star markers) discovery work that is “bursting” that is, where our scientific knowledge is advancing rapidly. You may see them just below the caption. What a better view of the cosmos and our place in it than that old woodcut-pilgrim image. How good it is to continue the human search for our place in the cosmos.  An how strange, it seems to me, to be surrounded by slumbering fellow citizens who care little for such maps telling of cosmic explorations and who little value the accompanying contextual voyages of self-discovery they allow.


Mapping the Universe: Space. Time. Discovery!:

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