Category Archives: Astronomy

Posts that address how the celestial realm and religion mingle

Goblins out There

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.

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

Moving Plans

I’m moving. I’m seriously considering Enceladus. Oh, you haven’t been? One of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus was discovered to have the basic elements of life as Cassini plunged to its death in Saturn’s shroud. But why Enceladus? I want to make space great again. You see, in my native country all sense of fair play has fled one of the political parties, of which there are unfortunately only two. There haven’t within my lifetime and many decades before, been any contested wins by Democratic candidates. There have been two by Republicans, among the last two elected, and yet they keep changing the rules about who can appoint Supreme Court justices. When I was a kid stacking the deck got you kicked out of the game. What’s fair’s fair.

I hear that on Enceladus they are open to actual intelligent life. You see, they’re evolving and they know it. Unlike my native planet, they believe representative government should be, well, representative. There should be some account taken of the majority. There are no Fundamentalists on Enceladus. See, there they realize that an outgoing president has the legal authority to appoint a judge, bypassing the senate. They believe, I hear, that the senate is controlled by a being called “the adversary.” One of their recruiters told me that the phrase translates, in Hebrew, to “the Satan.” They believe the adversary should not be able to change the rules every time. They’re not Fundamentalists, but they believe in Hell. They say it’s three planets from the sun, make a left at Lisbon.

Of course, they don’t see the sun much on Enceladus. They orbit Saturn, which doesn’t emit any light of its own, although it has the coolest set of rings in the solar system. It’s icy there for a reason. But the employment situation favors the workers. They believe in rationality there. They don’t put children in cages. Their scientists have studied the primates on our planet and have found that all species of them, except one, will reject leadership by individuals who bully the group. They have documented studies—for they believe in science there—that show chimpanzees will drive out an abuser of power because even they have a sense of fair play. Of course, chimpanzees don’t have a senate, but on Enceladus, some joke that it’s hard to tell the difference some times. They have a sense of humor there which, I think, goes a long way toward balancing out the chill. I’m moving, and Enceladus is firmly in the running.

My Heavens

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.

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.