Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why bother with astronomy?

Astronomy has too broad a definition to put in one line. But basically it is the study of the universe as a whole.
Yes but, what is the universe?
Let me give a very short history lesson so simple and quick that the reader will not get bored too quickly. About 14 billion years ago…okay, maybe that's too far back, more on that later. The view of the world has undoubtedly changed so many times that this subject alone is worth quite the mention. The ancients had simple world views very much connected to each culture's creation story. There's far too many to mention but before mentioning one that a lot of us are familiar with in general history, I find great intrigue in how the Sumerians saw the world.
The Sumerian creation story also takes into account the occurrence of all the continents on one face of the earth. It starts off with two bodies in the solar system; two planets violently crashing into each other. The remnants of the two planets thus created the huge oceanic floor that occupies one side of the earth and the continents on the other side that survived the impact of the crash and the remaining debris is how the moon came to be. Amazingly, this fact about the moon is a recent discovery in conventional astronomy. What's amazing about this story is the time in which it was documented; thousands of years before the planets were found to be other worlds, and worlds orbiting the sun for that matter.
One cannot look down upon the world view of the ancients as one is not surprised at the number of individuals who, today still, have remnants of it embedded in their notion of the world we live in. We know today that the sun does not come up or set, yet this notion still has a strong footing in the English language. We know today that the universe is not perfect the way we thought it was: a series of concentric spheres in which the earth is at the center (geocentric). We know today that the earth is not flat and many other things that seem obvious to our generation that were not so obvious to our ancestors a mere century ago.
Many of the scientific and paradigm advances of mankind dawn from individuals who looked further than the accepted world views of their time and thus pushed ever further the limits of the universe, and so the limits of our psyche, our imagination. The irony is that, for some, what pushed them was the desire to prove the then current world views, and you can imagine just how hazy the results drove them.
Through true dedication and hard work they worked at finding out the truth and in this way, the sun upgraded from a mere orb in the celestial sphere (geocentric view) to being at the center of the universe itself (heliocentric view) to it being just another sun in a myriad of hundreds of billions in our Milky way galaxy in which further observation showed billions of other 'island universes', galaxies that make the fabric of the large scale universe, a cosmic web so beautiful and intricate, its perfect.
This is the universe.
So perfect is the cosmos that it is amazing how the ancients set out to find this perfection: the spheres of geocentrism, the perfectly circular orbits of the planets (Latin for wanderers) and the Euclidian geometry Kepler sought in the pattern of the distances of the planets from the sun.
Plato thought that God made the universe to be perfect, and perfection to Plato must have been the dimensions of a sphere. We cannot, still, brush off these world views as incorrect as we must remember how long they lasted, with geocentrism having lasted over 1200 years, we know that no world view will last as long as this again. We must never forget that we will never know everything but at the same time we must not take this as a deterrent but as motivation to study further. Who knows how many more secrets the universe holds?

(I'm sleepingly blogging this from my not-so-smart-but-reliable mobile and have too much to say for its little cpu to handle, so my blog continues immediately)

Stay hungry, stay curious.

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