Category Archives: Astronomy

Posts that address how the celestial realm and religion mingle

Of Gears and Gods

We develop pictures in our minds of the kinds of things that belong together in different eras. Dinosaurs, for example, don’t belong with our own species, no matter how much we may occasionally wish it were so. Horseless carriages don’t populate the seventeenth century and complex machines, we tend to think, didn’t really come about until medieval Europe (and then they were often used for torture). Our view of the world is, of course, one of comfort with the certainties of history. That’s why the Antikythera Mechanism is such a fascinating artifact. A very sophisticated device with gear trains and cranks and dials, it astonishes those who first encounter it in that it was made before the Common Era somewhere in the sway of ancient Greece. It is, in essence, a kind of computer. Long before Joseph met Mary.

Alexander Jones’ A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World is a pretty thorough introduction to the device, including the mechanics of how it works as well as how astronomy works. You see, the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to demonstrate the relative motion of the planets, including the sun and moon. For a device in the geocentric world of ancient Greece, that’s pretty remarkable. It predicted eclipses and showed the phases of the moon. It also makes me ponder the fact that most ancient people considered the planets deities. Long before Newton, then, some were recognizing that even the gods could be made to work according to a crank and gears.

Science and religion coexisted peacefully in those days. Although only one such device has been discovered, it’s virtually certain that more existed. Gods and gears both had a place in such a world. Along the centuries, however, the idea grew that if gears worked, we no longer required a deity. Occam’s razor has its uses, to be sure, but it can shave a little too closely from time to time, nicking delicate flesh. The idea that one side only can be right—and since we can see with our eyes that science works—tends to favor the mechanistic universe. There’s no disputing that science makes our lives easier and that its method is self-correcting and generally effective. The hands that cranked that ancient geared device, however, likely belonged to a believer in gods. Such belief didn’t prevent progress, but then some kind of Fundamentalists killed Socrates for his own form of heresy. Perhaps the true answer lies in balance. It may also be the most difficult of principles, scientific or otherwise, to achieve.

Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.

Emulating Icarus

According to a story by Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has been before. If you’re like me, this might conjure those childhood fascinations of being blasted by impossible heat—maybe in a science fiction story of a colony on Venus, or a crew hurtling out of control in a capsule being pulled inexorably toward the inferno of the heavens—on a hot summer’s day. The Post story makes an inevitable reference to Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The tale has long been a parable for human overreach, but this time it seems that scientists are taking it literally. The technology used to shield the craft from Old Sol is incredibly impenetrable, and it may have applications as we try to figure out how to escape this planet we seem bent on ruining completely.

Earth flies around its personal star in what’s become known as the Goldilocks Zone—that place where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life. But don’t wander outside in the northern hemisphere in February without a coat. The weather down here can be fatal. We live on that teeter-totter of the extremes in which our frail bodies can survive. Temperatures range from -88 degrees at Oymyakon, Siberia (at this point whether Celsius or Fahrenheit hardly matters, but for the record, it’s -126 F) to 136 in the Libyan Desert. In this incredible range of 262 degrees people can be found at all shades between. Stepping out my front door one January in Nashotah, Wisconsin the thermometer read -42. That was without wind chill. It was the kind of cold you could feel immediately through all the layers. Humans can’t survive it without artificial means of heat. And yet we have a star overhead where temperatures reach 27 million degrees in its core. Out beyond Pluto our universe reaches near absolute zero, at -459 and change, on the Fahrenheit scale.

It’s a universe of extremes. That friendly sun in the sky was recognized as a deity from earliest times. Even the Bible retains hints of clandestine solar worship. Icarus, however, lost his fear of extremism. There was nothing too outrageous to try. As long as wings of wax can hold you aloft, why not attempt to reach all those zeroes? Millions sound great until they’re exceeded by billions. At that point even the sun isn’t hot enough for some.

Peter and the Red Giant

Now that my book has been sent off to the publisher, I’m working on the next project. This one has me delving back into the Greek of the New Testament. It may be, some would say, that I’m no longer an expert in such things. Coming to Koiné Greek, however, after lingering among languages like Ugaritic and Akkadian, feels like coming home. It’s Indo-European, after all. One of the books I’ve come back to is 2 Peter. This is a curiosity among the canonical books. All but the most conservatively predisposed of scholars note that this little letter didn’t actually come from the Peter. The idea of using someone famous as a literary pseudonym was a well known and widely accepted practice in ancient times. In fact, the prefix “Pseudo-“ on classical writers is so common that I feel just a little self-conscious. Nevertheless, 2 Peter contains fascinating ideas.

The Bible was influenced, of course, by many outside sources. One of those sources was Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. This came to mind because 2 Peter is the only book in the Bible that describes the end of the world as burning and melting. These ideas are tied to the purifying fire of Zoroastrianism. In that religion an evil deity, Angra Mainyu, corrupted this world. Fire, in Zoroastrian thought, is holy. At the end of time, when the blessed ascend to a heavenly mountain, a river of fire will pour down, burning and purifying the polluted earth left behind. The idea is powerful and evocative, and obviously some early Christian writers cottoned onto it. Including 2 Peter.

The idea, in the Bible, stands isolated in this one single book. The real concern of the epistle is false prophets, though. Still, the worldly should take note. The universe in biblical times consisted only of this relatively flat planet—which wasn’t even a planet then—with a starry dome overhead and a fiery Hell beneath. Ironically, 2 Peter’s end is similar to that predicted by modern astronomers. A star the size our sun will likely bloom out into a red giant, parboiling the earth in its death throes. Seems the Zoroastrians, and Peter, may have been correct after all. The thing is they both had an escape hatch that will only come with interplanetary migration, according to science. But then, all of this assumes there will be a world left after the Trump administration. And speaking of false prophets, I wonder what 2 Peter would’ve had to say about that?

Moon Base

Late last year scientists announced that a tunnel they’d found on the moon (remotely, of course) would make an ideal location for a human colony. The moon, you see, is quite cold and, lacking an atmosphere, constantly exposed to naked solar radiation. It’s a tough sell, even for first-time buyers. Still, with a little hole to crawl into, and some homey touches, this might be the future of humanity. Of course, offshore relocation has been a staple of science fiction from the beginning. Technically encumbered by the whole speed of light thing, we’re left with neighboring planets and moons that are either too hot or too cold, our species having evolved on the Goldilocks of solar system real estate. Moving to the moon might sound like a good idea right about now, but it’s going to take more than Two Guys and a Truck to get us there.

Fantasies of moving abroad come in two varieties—those of optimism and those of pessimism. Either things are going so well that we want to spread the evangel of our soaring success to the universe or things are looking so terribly Republican that even the dark side of the moon seems enlightened. There’s no question which phase we’re in at the moment. The moon is relatively close after all. It has been a fairly quiet neighbor over the millennia. We’ll want some good insulation, however, and despite the Weir version of Martians, we’ll depend on those back earth-side to send us some grub every now and again.

In ancient times the moon was frequently a goddess. Some ancient cultures pegged our satellite as masculine, but many saw her gentle light as more befitting a powerful female. Heading outside in the predawn hours with a full moon overhead is a pleasant, if chilly, reminder of just how bright our constant companion can be. Light without heat. Ancient desert-dwellers found the moon more benevolent than the sun, for night was relief from the fierce heat of day. Still, moving to the moon would meaning making a new world in our own image. Nothing, I suspect, would defile a goddess quicker. Our costly detritus already litters the once untouched face of Luna, and our size-nine-and-a-half prints are permanently left behind there. Heaven has always been that undiscovered country somewhere over our heads. The discovery of tunnels on the moon where we might snuggle down and be free may sound great. But we need to get things settled out on the ground first, otherwise our one and only satellite will merely become our next victim to exploit.

Unidentified Angelic Phenomena

Few topics have to be approached as gently as space aliens. Those who’ve seen UFOs are subject to an immediate ridicule response partly generated by the belief that galactic neighbors, if any, are simply too far away to get here. So when the Washington Post runs not one, but two stories in the same week about the subject of UFOs, without a hint of snark, it’s newsworthy. I’m in no position to analyze the journalistic findings, but I do consider the idea that other species might be more advanced than we are not at all unlikely. Look at what’s going on in Washington DC and dare to differ about that. Human beings, now that we’ve rid ourselves of deities, have the tendency to think we’re the hottest stuff in the universe.

I’ve admitted to being a childhood fan of science fiction. Space stories were always among my favorites in that genre. When I learned in physics class that travel faster than the speed of light was impossible, I was sorely disappointed. I also learned about the posited particles known as tachyons that do travel at such speeds. This to me seemed a contradiction. Or at least short-sighted. If our primitive physics suggests that some things can travel faster than light, why limit our ET visitors to our technological limitations? This wasn’t naivety, it seemed to me, but an honest admission that we Homo sapiens don’t know as much as we think we do. The universe, I’m told, is very, very old. Our species has been on this planet for less than half-a-million years. And we only discovered the windshield wiper in 1903.

Around about the holiday season people’s thoughts turn to heavenly visitors. What would the Christmas story be without angels? (For the record, some evangelical groups have historically claimed UFOs were indeed angels, while others have called them demons.) The idea was championed by Erich von Däniken, if I recall correctly from my childhood reading. Where angels might come from in a post-Copernican universe is a bit of a mystery. As is how they’d fly. Those wings aren’t enough to bear a hominid frame aloft, otherwise we’d see flying folks everywhere, without a two-hour wait at the airport. Then again, belief in angels almost certainly will lead to ridicule among the cognoscente of physicalism. The presents have been unwrapped, and angels have been forgotten for another year. And who could know better what’s possible in this infinite yet expanding universe than “man the wise,” Homo sapiens?

Astronomers and Pirates

In an effort not to travel, the internet offers a great resource while it’s still free. If you don’t want to wander from home, it brings movies you might’ve missed right to your domicile. This year has been so busy that we’d missed completely Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I know, as the Pirate movies spin on and on they become more special effects extravaganzas with insipid, if complex, plots. Still, we’ve been watching from the beginning, so last night we decided to see it through. The movies are fun, if less well written than they were at the beginning (and the movie began without a script). There are moments worth attention, however.

The story follows Carina Smyth as she attempts to discover her father through following his diary. This, of course, brings her path across that of Captain Jack Sparrow. Smyth is an astronomer and horologist. Because she’s female and this is the eighteenth century, she’s labeled a witch. Both the proximate and ultimate cause of the accusation is her gender. Although she proves to be the real hero of the film, the men can’t help thinking she’s a witch although she’s using science to find answers. In fact, if a male astronomer did the same things she did, there’d be no story here. This is a post-Galileo world. It’s also post-Salem. We don’t watch these films for history, of course, but it is true that although the witchcraft trials ended at the turn of that century, the accusations continued for some time after. The woman of science is a threat to the male establishment. She alone, however, discerns the truth.

Swashbuckler cinema was a male invention. Still, even in the twenty-first century too much of it comes at the expense of women. Jack Sparrow’s famous compass, for example, is passed on to him aboard a ship called the “Wicked Wench.” Surely this is meant to be funny, but at whose expense? The other women in the movie hardly come off better. Shansa actually is a witch, working for the establishment. Beatrice Kelly, in Jack Sparrow’s noose wedding, is portrayed as an undesirable bride, purely for laughs. Disney is famous for its princesses, but also for its wicked women. Even the strong female characters such as Mulan, Moana, and Anna find themselves being helped to success by male characters. Obviously the genders do interact in real life, and as recent history has shown us, men will demonize women if it helps them get ahead. You might think a movie of anti-heroes, however, would show the most intelligent character receiving a bit more respect. Especially since she’s a woman in a pirate’s world.