Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Cosmic Perspective: Part 2

I was always fascinated by the stars. The extreme dimensions of the velvet black void they inhabited first came to me as a child when I learnt that those delicately twinkling points of light were in fact suns in their own right; huge balls of nuclear fire dwarfing the Earth and even, in many cases, our own sun. It was obvious to me even then that it must take a very, very great distance to diminish the light of something as bright as the Sun to such an extent that it became a barely discernible shimmering fairy light. The vast distances of the heavens thus dawned on me for the first time.

My cigarette card collection of the planets also fascinated me. These showed the planets as perfectly spherical objects with surfaces as smooth as a billiard ball, but marked with the diffuse and patchy details discernible in Earth based telescopes. One of those cards even illustrated Mars with the mysterious Schiaparelli canals, now thought to be an illusion. But my pre-space vehicle collection was soon obsolete: As the transmissions of robotic probes came back across millions of miles of vacuum, high resolution scans displayed one feature which removed any remaining mystique that the planets may have: They showed each planet to have texture. Texture! That great destroyer of mystery! As the filmmakers well know, anyone or anything can look beautiful and ethereal under blurred and misty focus! Remove that inadequate focus and the object is seen for what it is. And so it was with the planets; gone was the veil of the Earth’s atmosphere and the attenuating effects of countless miles of intervening distance to reveal, in some cases, a wrinkly and gritty earthy texture. We saw pictures of mountainous landscapes, tumbled and complex fields of dust and rock, and the long defunct riverscapes and flood plains on Mars. Grab a handful of beach sand at Gt. Yarmouth and I don't suppose it feels much different to a handful of dust from one of the rocky planets. The gas giants, like Jupiter, showed chaotic weather systems, and high speed winds that evidenced violent change on an enormous scale. These entities were as changeable as anything on Earth.

None of these revelations, I suppose, were really unexpected or upset any fundamental ideas, but any vestigial feeling that there might exist out there something really mysterious, like those ineffably sublime crystal spheres of the middle ages or the little green and gray men of more recent years, was finally dispelled by the compellingly down to earth reality (so to speak) of those pictures from space. Yes it was marvelous, but perhaps only because objects that had been out of reach for the entire history of man were now shown to be so earthy. To ancient people for whom the reaches beyond the atmosphere were utterly unreachable the heavens were the location of sacredness, the domain of unearthly principles, perhaps even the dwelling place of ineffable beings. But they cannot be so for us and, in fact, in a post enlightenment milieu we never really expected them to be anything radically different: There might be the occasional exotic object like a black hole or a neutron star but even these are just an extreme application of a physical paradigm hammered out in near Earth vicinity. When it comes down to fundamentals there is nothing out there, it seems, that is of a radically different quality to what is found on Earth.

The empyrean looses its mystique:The planets are not sublime and ineffable.

Mystery is provocative and when something loses its mystery it may also lose its fascination. As one ponders the data that has come back from outer space giving proof positive that the planets are little more than tiny textured pieces of rock or gravitationally concentrated balls of gas embedded in billions of cubic light years of emptiness, one might plausibly claim that this loss of fascination is precisely what has happened to the heavens. In fact one might even feel that there is a touch of banality about what it has taken multi-million dollar hi-tech projects to reveal; just more of the same - gas, dust, rocks, magnetic and gravitational fields and above all plenty of space; nothing out there to really excite the casual observer for long, unless (s)he is perhaps an astrophysicist trained to be excited by theoretical nuances. For the average observer it might all feel, well, rather boring.

But whilst the postmodern atheist may dismiss any substantial existential interest in the heavens, the irony is that for the theist, particularly the theist who believes in a deeply personal God, the demystification of the heavens has cleared the ground of superstition to reveal an overwhelming mystery, a mystery that has simply taken on a new form. For whatever the demystification of outer space has cost in terms of a public interest deficit, there remains that one really mind blowing feature that we all appreciate, namely, the sheer scale on which those physical parochialities are fashioned. Lots has been written about the dimensions of outer space, but illustrations of those dimensions never fail to leave an impact: It is a place where something the size the solar system (a structure traversed by a beam of light in as much as 10 hours) which if scaled to the dimensions of a pin head still leaves the Galaxy, on the same scale, as an object with a colossal 1000 mile diameter. These immense distances are only rivaled by the depths of time: Distance and time are intimately related in space by the travel time of light and some of those distant Galaxies are seen as they were billions of years ago. For the theist, given that these grand dimensions are the work of a Deity, the questions start crowding in and the mystery of the heavens is raised to new and provocative heights of subtlety. It all seems a rather uneconomical creation for what one might expect to be a parsimonious God, a God who could surely be more selective. What's it all about? What's He up to? In fact as most of what we see in the heavens is the distant past, perhaps we should ask what has He been up to? Why fashion so much time and space, when, if as some seem to think, God need only utter the right word of magic for something to almost instantaneously to jump into sight? Does He really require so much space and time? Doesn't it all seem rather of a waste?

Deep Space: A waste of space?

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