Archive for the ‘Astronomy & Space’ Category
Today we are going to have a Copernican Gallop. We are going to see how Astronomy has made us absolutely irrelevant. What have Astronomers done to us, in fact? Some say that Astronomy must be the important of all Sciences. Perhaps we wouldn’t even have Modern Science without Astronomy. But think also that…were it not for the extraordinary progress of 400 hundred years of astronomy, we would still believe to be the center of the cosmos…instead. we’re now sure we’re not. Not at all. Not by a long shot. And nothing we do is any special (physically speaking), and we actually are in a nondescript part of the Universe. Worse, the Universe itself might be just one of many.
Less than zilch, that’s what we are. And thanks to whom? Well, thanks to the..Astronomers!! None of the major philosophers and religious leaders in the history of humanity has remotely approached the ruthless efficiency with which the scholars of the cosmos have demonstrated again, and again and again what little piece of nothingness we actually are. Only to be replaced by another generation of astronomers, busying themselves in demonstrating that the previous notion of us being nothing, was actually a gross overstatement.
Who started this descent, or maybe you can call it ascent, an ascent to humility? Why, somebody called Niclas Koppernigk, known to us as Nicolaus Copernicus.
Imagine yourself then at his times. It’s around 1500, it’s the Renaissance, and Man is the center of everything. People are defining themselves as the middle point, like the Earth, the center between the perfection of Heaven and the imperfection of Hell. Everything is theirs for the taking, and now that the ancient philosophers of Greece are being rediscovered, it surely won’t take much before the whole world is understood. There comes Nicolaus, instead, no Santa Claus, him…he toppled Earth from the center, in his posthumous book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”. And if the center is not here, we’re not the center either. Bye bye Renaissance men!
Worse, Copernicus played like the first ever giant Angry Birds game. He managed to start an incredible chain reaction that might (or might not) have just ended. First stop in the chain reaction, of course, Galileo Galilei with his observations of Venus in the year 1610 demonstrating that planets orbit the Sun, not the Earth. Then Newton, extraordinarily linking in 1687 the force that pushes us down with the force that keeps planets and satellites in their orbit.
Can you imagine? By this time, the revolutionary idea was taking hold, that Earth and the heavens obey the same laws. Let’s continue: Herschel’s map of the Galaxy in 1785, with the Sun located not exactly at the center. Kirchhoff and Bunsen developing spectroscopy in 1859, thereby helping us understand what the stars are made of, the same stuff as the Sun: in other words, determining that the Sun is just another ordinary star, made of more or less the same elements as any other and with billions of almost identical twins out there.
Move now to Harlow Shapley working on Globular Clusters, clusters of stars that is, showing in 1921 how they are distributed around a point some 15kpc from us, the center of the Galaxy therefore being quite away from our Solar System. Even our modern value of 8kpc between us and the galactic center still means we’re somewhere at the periphery.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1755 and then the scientist Alexander von Humboldt in 1845 already made the point that as the Sun is in no special place in the Galaxy, our Galaxy is itself just one of many. And that’s exactly what a guy called Edwin Hubble demonstrated, in 1924.
But wait…isn’t that the same Hubble that came up with the idea of an expanding universe? Is that not supporting a birth for everything in what we call the “Big Bang”? Doesn’t that make us special, as we’re only 13 billion years away from it, that is next to nothing compared to quadrillions of quadrillions of years until the last photon is emitted?
Not so fast. One of the most popular ideas in contemporary cosmology is in fact the existence of a multiverse, a collection of universes just like ours, a concept that elucidates several issues including why our universe exists at all. Some say the number of universes is in the region of 10 to the 500, a number that is totally alien from all our levels of comprehension. Obviously, even if a minute fraction of that number is the true value for a count of all existing universes, our own universe is just, simply, merely one of several many. End of the story?
No. This humility extravaganza doesn’t only work at giant scales. Consider the consequence of finding as many extrasolar planets as we’ve actually discovered as yet…our own doesn’t appear to be either the strangest, or the most interesting (more or less the only thing keeping Earth apart is the existence of liquid water on its surface:
but I would expect a dramatic announcement about that too, sometimes in the near future).
Everywhere we look, at all times we look, we’re one of many.
Let me speak for the rest – we live on just another planet orbiting just another star in just another orbit around just another galaxy weakly attracted to just another supercluster that is anywhere and nowhere really in one universe out of quadrillions of pentillions of them.
And this is the end of the Copernican Gallop. Or is it? An atom in the whole Jupiter is relatively more important than us in the whole of the Cosmos. To what level of nothingness will next generation of astronomers elevate us?
One final word…please. Don’t feel depressed. It doesn’t count, anyway. And this is just another podcast by Omnologos. Thank you for listening.
My first ever podcast, entitled “Moon Colonies”, is now available at “365 Days of Astronomy” for January 23, 2011. The 10-min MP3 audio recording is at this link (including the shortest guitar solo in history, but hey, it’s my first musical recording too!).
Transcript will follow soon.
Far-fetched as it might seem (and be!), we might be literally surrounded by information about the Earth’s, Sun’s, Galaxy’s past. By looking in the right direction with the right instruments, we could even be able to see how things were at different times, even billions of years ago.
By looking where? This idea is based on a little-known characteristics of black holes, namely the large amount of incoming light that is back-scattered, i.e. sent back more or less in the direction it came from. This phenomenon is visible as a halo around the black hole (see picture to the left).
Think then: by looking at a black hole 20 million light years away, we will be getting some light first emitted by our galaxy 40 million years ago, as the photons will have had to travel to the black hole and back. Correcting for the optical properties of the region around the black hole that we see as a halo, we would even be able to get a picture of our galactic surroundings.
Analogously for black holes nearer to us, eg 20,000 light years away, the halo will literally contain pictures of our neighborhood as of 40,000 years ago.
All of the above is unlikely to be easy, still any information in the back-scattered photons will be extremely valuable.
The events at the British Interplanetary Society headquarters in London are often very interesting, at times packed and seldom soporous: but I cannot recall of any, where the speakers would more or less consciously risk to stir a hostile crowd.
That’s what happened on the evening of Sep 8, when sociologists Peter Dickens and James Ormrod’s presentation “How Should we Humanise Outer Space?” turned into an open confrontation with shall I say quite sceptical people in attendance (one of them, myself). It might have been the unwise choice of mixing descriptive (“how things are”) and applied (“how things ought to be”) sociology, in front of an audience unfamiliar with that science. Or it might have been their obvious and declared socialistic worldview, with everything seen as a zero-sum game based on exploitation (opportunity gains? not even remotely considered; asteroid mining? no, thanks, otherwise people will not stop consuming; and don’t even think of going to orbit, your moment of fun will be based on the work of thousands of people none of whom will ever get the chance of going to orbit).
Or it might have been the speakers’ unrelenting pessimism about technology advances, associating for example plutonium for space-based RTGs to lung cancers on Earth and in general declaring that science and technology create more problems than they solve.
Another hypothesis: underlying it all, we have just witnessed that supreme act of courage, people in a BIS room speaking of manned spaceflight as “escapism”.
At the end it was like hearing the Pope tell teenagers that sex is the problem so let’s have less of it for a change. Is capitalism bad, and should social equality be our objective? Shall we try make that happen in space, and through the use of space-based resources? Those questions sound, and are, much more political than scientific. Perhaps the real questions should be, is sociology victim of its own hubris…is it creating more problems than it solves?
It is called “Mars to Stay” and I hope it will involve a 85-year-yound Italian in 2052 going to Heaven but first stopping for around 30 years on the Red Planet. For the final resting place I select this:
So it’s been confirmed: President Obama is keen on ending all American efforts to go back to the Moon. This doesn’t sound like a particularly inspired or forward-thinking move. I know that Buzz Aldrin as weighed in saying “this program will allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth“; the Planetary Society has said “We’ll develop the technology to explore Deep Space, reaching new milestones in space and accomplishing new things here on Earth“; and the Bad Astronomer has commented “this may very well save NASA and our future manned exploration capabilities, if this is all done correctly“.
Still, the end result would be NASA canceling yet another major launch system initiative; no hope to go back to the Moon in the foreseeable future; vague promises of “future heavy-lift rocket systems…potentially taking us farther and faster into space” that sound quite empty as missing of any clear destination in time and space.
Phil Plait admitted as much in a tweet: “I think we sorta agree there, @unclebobmartin. There’s no real plan now. I’m hoping that by doing this, NASA can concentrate on big plans”
Now, if you add on top of that some other facts about the USA:
- still shipping weapons to Taiwan, as always
- sending troops to Afghanistan, as usual
- have no plans to leave Iraq for good in the foreseeable future, as always
- are still no way near a non-confrontational approach to Iran, as usual
- have shown no idea of any sort to bring the Israelo-Palestinian conflict anywhere, as always
- have tried to score low-level political points with a populist approach to banking management, as usual….
…isn’t that enough to label Obama’s as the least imaginative administration ever?