From Wikimedia Commons
You step away from the telescope for a few months and see what happens. That may sound like a recipe for some kind of cosmic soup, but as we find ourselves so busy with earthly matters it’s hard to keep up with the heavenly. I’ve just been reading about the discovery of “The Goblin”—appropriate as we tiptoe into October. The Goblin is officially a dwarf planet named 2015TG387, which falls trippingly off the tongue. For those of us who never even saw Pluto before it was demoted as a planet, the distance of this planetoid boggles the mind. It also makes space feel somehow less empty. In fact, our solar system’s much more crowded than it was when I took astronomy class in college.
The universe—space—is close kin to our ideas of religion. “God,” however defined, is “up there.” As Galileo encouraged telescopes turned outward we began to discover mundane, if complicated, ways of explaining the universe. Nobody looked through the eyepiece and saw the deity waving back. Space was cold, dark, and largely empty. Then the idea eventually grew that it was full of dark matter which, like spiritual entities, can’t be seen. Unlike spiritual entities, however, it can be hypothesized. Calculated, even if not measured. And since it isn’t supernatural, it’s just fine to keep in our cosmic soup. The problem with any recipe, however, is that it seems that each time you make it the results are slightly different.
It’s somehow appropriate that our new space neighbor is called the Goblin. The idea of a cosmos devoid of any intelligent life—supernatural or no—is somewhat scary. Looking at the headlines of what we’re doing to one another down here, and nobody willing to take the reins of reason, we increasingly hope for something beyond mere nature in the cold, dark reaches above. And that we’ve found such a thing as a goblin—a supernatural entity if there ever was one—is telling. In fact, all our planets are named after gods. We can blame the Greeks and Romans (and even the Mesopotamians) for that. Still, the tradition continued onto the worlds they couldn’t see: Neptune and Uranus and, for a while, Pluto. We can’t escape the idea that what’s up there is more powerful than our minuscule human troubles. Our slowly eroding atmosphere is all that keeps us alive down here. And now there’s a goblin circling all around us, so far away that few will ever even catch a glimpse.
Posted in Astronomy, Current Events, Deities, Monsters, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged ancient gods, science and religion, outer space, 2015TG387, The Goblin
The details escape me. I was a student at Grove City College, working on a paper. In the library I ran across an article about a rain of fish. Always interested in the unusual, I was surprised to see such a piece in a reputable journal, and up until that time I’d never heard of Charles Fort or his gathering of such accounts from around the world. That paper was in my mind when I picked up It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes by Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff at a used bookstore. Subtitled Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, it was published by the mainstream Harper, so I figured it wasn’t too far afield from reality. It turned out to be more the subtitle than the title, but an engaging read nevertheless.
There is a small section on rains of fish and other strange objects, but the book is really a tribute to the sky. Although I’m not an anthropologist, I have long been intrigued by the fact that people everywhere associate the sky with the divine. From the human perspective, it’s massive and all-encompassing. No matter where you stand on this planet, the sky extended over you, engulfing the horizon and implying even more beyond. It is responsible for our weather, and without the buffering of our atmosphere no life would’ve evolved on the earth at all (and that would be a pity because I enjoy writing this blog). Perhaps even before there were humans proper, our ancestors thought there was something divine about the sky.
While the firmament can’t be contained in a book, this one tries to consider just about everything you might find in the celestial realm. From extremes of weather to meteors to strange things falling from the sky, it tells of rain and snow and sunshine, insects, bats, and birds. The four seasons don’t really function as the best conceit for the book, since the sky is eternal and many of the aspects discussed are present all year long—the moon is with us always and the sun rises and sets even in winter. Nevertheless, this strange and alluring book demonstrates how the sky makes us what we are. Even though it was written in the last century it warns of global warming—then merely an idea—and shows how humans are capable of destroying that which gives them life. That article back in college suggested that the impossible happens, and that, given how the world is going, causes me to look upward with wonder.
Posted in Astronomy, Books, Current Events, Environment, Posts, Religious Origins, Weather
Tagged Charles Fort, Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, Glenn Wolff, global warming, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, Jerry Dennis
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.
Posted in Astronomy, Books, Classical Mythology, Deities, Posts, Science
Tagged A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Alexander Jones, Ancient Greece, Antikythera Device, science and religion, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World