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The Mysterium Tremendum... and You

by Alexander Green

Thursday, October 23, 2008



Last night I listened to a lecture by physicist Lawrence Krauss and was dismayed to hear his comments on scientific literacy in this country.


For example, when asked a straightforward true/false question about whether the earth revolves around the sun and takes one year to do so, half of respondents polled consistently get it wrong.


As an amateur astronomer (10-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain, for kindred spirits), I find this distressing. Too many of us know next to nothing about the universe we live in.


If your neighbor doesn't know the earth revolves around the sun, he probably isn't aware that our planet is spinning on its axis at over 1,000 miles per hour and traveling through space at 67,000 miles per hour, covering over a million and a half miles a day.


He's even less likely to know that the sun itself - and its retinue of planets - is orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy at a hair-raising 558,000 miles per hour.


We're just hitchhikers on for a brief ride. Even at this speed, the sun takes approximately 225 million years to complete a single revolution.


Why so long? Because the Milky Way is bigger than our brains can imagine. Light, traveling 186,000 miles per second, takes 100,000 years to cross our galaxy.


Moreover, the Milky Way itself is traveling at roughly 660,000 miles per hour (and you wonder why you always feel rushed), gravitationally attracted to the Virgo cluster of galaxies. The Virgo Supercluster, in turn, is attracted to an even larger assembly of galaxies, the Great Attractor.


(Just so we're on the same page, the Great Attractor is a gravitation anomaly in intergalactic space, not Angelina Jolie.)


Like most galaxies, the Milky Way is mostly empty space. But it is home to over 200 billion stars. These stars, of course, are simply other suns. Every galaxy has billions of suns. And a recent Hubble Space Telescope image indicates there are over 240 billion galaxies in the visible universe.


The next time you go outside and look up at the twinkling lights - assuming you don't live near Broadway and 52nd - consider that there are more stars in the known universe than grains of sand on all the beaches on earth. (Billions and billions, indeed.)


Earth itself is orbiting a fairly ordinary star, a medium-size yellow dwarf. Beginning in October 1995, however, astronomers began discovering planets outside our solar system orbiting other stars. So far 313 of these "extrasolar" planets have been discovered, leading scientists to conclude that there are probably hundreds of billions - if not trillions - of planets out there.


Do any of them contain life? No one knows. But if extraterrestrial life exists, it is almost certainly weirder than anything having a drink at the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars.


(As the English Astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington famously said, "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.")


Cosmologists estimate the universe is 156 billion light-years wide and 13.7 billion years old. How do they know these things? Through reason, evidence, and experimentation. Or, more specifically, by observing and measuring the redshifts of galaxies, the abundance of light elements, and the cosmic background radiation in the heavens.


Much about the universe remains beyond human comprehension, however. As H.L. Mencken said, "Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops."


When asked what happened before the Big Bang, for example, physicist Stephen Hawking replies that the question is tantamount to asking "what lies north of the north pole?"


Some things we just don't know - and likely never will.


Yet it's worth remembering that everyone who lived and died before the 20th century never had good answers to these big questions about the universe. They looked up at night and wondered. They speculated. They told each other myths. But they didn't know.


Yet now that science has finally got it right, millions haven't bothered to learn.


Richard Dawkins, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford , writes that, "After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?"


The men and women who have visited space certainly have strong opinions on the subject. Many describe it as a near-mystical experience.


Astronaut James Irwin said, "The earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man..."


After returning from the moon, Neil Armstrong said, "I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don't intend to waste any of mine."


Space exploration has much to offer us, the earthbound majority. It inspires us. It teaches us brotherhood and humility. It reveals the connection between us and everything else that exists, reminding us of our place in the tapestry of creation. It provides us with a sense of wonder, a feeling of awe.


In fact, much of what we understand about the cosmos dovetails with Rudolph Otto's characteristics of religious experience: the holy; the sacred; gratitude and oblation; thanksgiving; awe before the mysterium tremendum; the sense of the divine; the ineffable; the quality of exaltedness and sublimity; powerlessness; the impulse to surrender and to kneel; a sense of the eternal; fusion with the universe as a whole.


These experiences are open to anyone who looks up at night, believers and non-believers alike.


In "Pale Blue Dot," astronomer Carl Sagan writes:


"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and, I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."


Carpe Diem,




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