Astronomically-themed art does not always show up where you might expect. You might visit a large art museum and find almost no astronomical imagery at all, and then you might go to a market and find astronomical imagery in abundance. And then, you might drive through a small town in Indiana, and find there, in the middle of a town park, a forty-foot tall stone monument to astronomy—or more specifically, to the exploration of space.
The town is Mitchell, Indiana, and the monument is a representation of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom’s Gemini spacecraft, standing atop a cluster of large stone panels that relay Grissom’s professional accomplishments.* Grissom was one of the original Mercury 7 U.S. astronauts. He was the first human being to return to space: he went into space on the Liberty Bell 7 mission on July 21, 1961, and then again on the Gemini 3 mission on March 23, 1965. He was also one of the three astronauts to die in the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967. And, he was from Mitchell.
A block away from the monument is the Grissom Boyhood Home museum. A few miles away is the Grissom Memorial, in Indiana’s Spring Mill State Park. The Grissom Memorial is as surprising as the monument: one simply does not expect to come upon a space craft when hiking the trails in a state park, but that is exactly what might happen if you go for a hike in Spring Mill and decide to stop by the park office to use the restroom!
Enjoy the pictures below. And, click here for all Astronomy in Art & Architecture posts. And if you want still more photos related to Grissom, Mitchell, and Spring Mill State Park, click here for more (from the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal).
*The stone panels read as follows:
Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom, Lt. Col., USAF, was chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in April, 1959, after many months of screening and testing the nation’s best military test pilots, to be one of the original seven astronauts.
Born in Mitchell, Indiana, April 3, 1926, he attended the Riley Elementary School, formerly located on this site. Gus enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in November, 1943. He was not inducted into the service until August, 1944, after his graduation from Mitchell High School. With the end of World War II, he was discharged, November, 1945, with the rank of Corporal.
In September, 1946, Gus entered Purdue University, where he earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He promptly re-enlisted in the Air Force and received his wings in March, 1951. Gus was assigned to the 75th fighter interceptor squadron at Presque Isle, Maine as an F-86 fighter pilot. After transfer to Korea, Gus flew the wing position in combat on 100 missions in less than six months, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Cluster. Gus requested an additional 25 missions; the request was denied. He returned to the states for instructor training at Selma, Alabama.
From Alabama, Gus next went to Bryan, Texas, where he became a jet instructor. In the summer of 1955, he enrolled in the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
At Wright Patterson, Gus studied Aeronautical Engineering. Then in 1956, he was assigned to test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, California, where he specialized in advanced-design fighter planes. He emerged as one of the nation’s most highly regarded test pilots.
He returned to Wright Patterson in May, 1957. As a test pilot assigned to the fighter branch, he logged 4600 hours flying time.
On July 21, 1961, Gus piloted the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft -- the second and final suborbital Mercury test flight. This flight lasted 15 minutes and 37 seconds, gained an altitude of 118 miles, travelled at the rate of 5,310 mph and landed in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles downrange from launch site at Cape Kennedy.
The capsule’s hatch blew open prematurely. Sea water began to flood the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft. Lt. Col. Grissom was rescued by Marine helicopter seconds before the capsule sank.
He was transported to the USS Randolph. NASA later declared the flight a complete success.
On July 21, 1961, Gus Grissom was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. It reads “His flight, as one of the first by a United States astronaut, was an outstanding contribution to the advancement of human knowledge of technology and a demonstration of Man’s capabilities in sub-orbital space flight.”
Subsequently, Gus became the 4th person in history to receive this state’s highest military award when Governor Matthew E. Welsh presented him with Indiana’s Distinguished Service Cross. It cites his “exceptional courage, ability, and his dedication to the service of others than himself.”
On March 23, 1965, Gus Grissom served as command pilot on the first manned Gemini flight. It was the first time two men had gone into space together. Thus, Gus became the first person to venture into space twice.
Lt. Col. Grissom piloted his capsule, which he named, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” for a 3 orbit mission. It travelled at the rate of 17,000 mph on a flight which lasted 4 hours and 53 minutes. It was during this flight that Gus took over the controls, which he had helped design, and performed the first manual maneuver of a spacecraft, thus making possible a rendezvous in space.
Following the flight of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Gus with his second NASA Distinguished Service Award and with NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal.
On March 21, 1966, Gus was selected as Command Pilot of the first 3 man Apollo flight, Apollo 1, the first of 11 missions in the moon landing program.
On January 27, 1967, he and his two crew members were conducting countdown tests in the Apollo module when fire broke out. All three astronauts died in the flash fire which swept through the spacecraft.
Lt. Col. Grissom is buried in Virginia at Arlington National Cemetery.
Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom was awarded posthumously Indiana’s Distinguished Service Cross, making him the only Hoosier to be so honored twice.
On October 1, 1978, Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom received posthumously the nation’s Congressional Space Medal of Honor. The medal reads, “To any astronaut who in the performance of his duties has distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the nation and of Mankind.”
“The conquest of space is worth the risk of human life.” --- Gus Grissom
Katherine Johnson died last month, at the age of 101. If her name does not ring a bell then you probably never read the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and you probably never saw the movie Hidden Figures. Both book and movie are about a group of mathematicians who worked at NASA Langley during the “Space Race”, when the United States was in competition with the Soviet Union over prowess in space. The mathematicians in Hidden Figures were all women, and all African American. They worked at Langley, in Virginia in the U.S.A., at a time when the state of Virginia was fiercely devoted to racial segregation.
All the Langley women were talented, but Katherine Johnson seems to have been particularly brilliant, and she has been particularly honored over time. NASA has a Katherine Johnson computing facility. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Katherine Johnson was also a woman of faith. She was a Christian, a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (The headquarters and a seminary of the PC-USA are in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.) The PC-USA seems to be quite proud of her.
Indeed, all of the central characters in Hidden Figures were women of faith: Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden (who does not appear in the movie, since it focuses on the flight of John Glenn, which occurred prior to Darden’s arrival at Langley). Darden, like Johnson, was and is Presbyterian—an ordained elder in the church. Vaughn and Jackson were members of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. Margot Lee Shetterly does not neglect this aspect of their lives: church life appears regularly in the Hidden Figures book; it also makes a significant appearance in the movie.
There exists among many a certain persistent belief that religion and science do not mix, and are in some sort of conflict, and that scientists are not “church people”. My students at Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville all believe this. It seems that every last one of them believes it. Both those who are not religious and those who are believe it.
As I have discussed often in this blog, this is a real problem for science: science cannot afford to have a sizable chunk of humankind (and a chunk that is only going to grow) believing that in some way science is not for people like them. A lot of smart people have written a lot of very thorough philosophical and historical arguments refuting that persistent belief. Quite a few folks associated with the Vatican Observatory have written such work (Fr. George Coyne among them). And still the belief persists, and persists strongly.
Perhaps the “religion and science do not mix” belief is better addressed, not by arguments, but simply by the existence of religious scientists. Isaac Newton was religious. That itself should end the whole “religion and science do not mix” belief, as Newton is arguably the most prominent scientist of all. But if for some reason Isaac Newton does not persuade (perhaps because he lived a long time ago), well, there are many other examples, such as Katherine Johnson—and Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden.
Brilliant people like Katherine Johnson go to church. No doubt the folks at her church will miss her now. No doubt they will also celebrate her life and scientific accomplishments.
Here is more material related to Katherine Johnson and the women of Hidden Figures:
Click here for the Hidden Figures entry in the VO Faith and Science pages.
Click here for a recent (March 3) NPR interview with Christine Darden and Margot Lee Shetterly.
Click here for articles from the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. on Katherine Johnson (from the VO Faith and Science pages).
Click here for an article from the A.M.E. Church on Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson (also from the VO Faith and Science pages).
This post is part of a series of posts on Pi, infinity, and other things mathematical. Click here for the series.
It is time for another guest post from Fernando Comerón. Fernando is an astronomer with the European Southern Observatory. His previous guest postings have been about using one of the world’s best telescopes at ESO in Chile (click here for that post) and about discovering the source of illumination of the North America Nebula (click here for that one) .
About this new post, he writes “it is not about professional astronomy and large telescopes, but the subject has a much closer connection with the Vatican Observatory and I thought that readers of the blog may like to read the story”. Muchas gracias, Dr. Comerón. ¡Que los cielos sobre Chile estén despejados siempre que observes!
Fernando Comerón, 25 Nov 2019
This story is not about observing with large professional telescopes on remote mountaintops, but about an observation done with one of the telescopes that some of the readers of Sacred Space Astronomy, perhaps yourself, support through the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
I was honored to be appointed as faculty at the 11th Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS), in 2007. One of the many things that make the VOSS an unforgettable experience for everyone participating is the possibility of visiting and using some of the Observatory’s historical telescopes located on the roof of the Papal palace in Castel Gandolfo. For sure most students of the early Summer Schools remember standing inside one of the domes on some evenings, ready to watch the Moon, some planets or some globular clusters together with Fr. Emmanuel Carreira, who at the time was taking good care of, and using, those telescopes.
Nine days into VOSS’07 (which had started on the 9th of June with no less than a trip of the whole group to Rome to be received in private audience by Pope Benedict XVI), a beautiful astronomical event was going to take place: the Moon would pass in front of Venus, hiding it from view for a little over one hour. Having learned about it shortly in advance, I was prepared with the inexpensive webcam that I used at home with my small amateur telescope for lunar and planetary imaging, with the purpose of adapting it to one of the venerable telescopes at the Papal palace and recording the whole duration of the event. I explained my plans to Fr. Carreira, who was well aware of the upcoming event and was also planning to watch it, together with any VOSS students interested in joining him. Fr. Carreira suggested me to use the Zeiss double astrograph, which was the main telescope at the Observatory when it moved from Rome to Castelgandolfo in the 1930s. As it turns out, the double astrograph is equipped with a guiding telescope where my camera could be easily attached, using the massive mount of the telescope to provide reliable tracking of the Moon and Venus as they moved across the sky.
The occultation was predicted to take place on the 18th June starting at 16:38 local time. This was in the middle of the summer afternoon in full daylight. It was a pleasant, hot afternoon in the hills around Lake Albano, where Castel Gandolfo is located, with the sun shining bright in a cloudless sky. The lunar thin crescent, just four days after New Moon, was clearly seen, and next to it a very bright dot, planet Venus, slowly getting closer to the dark side of the Moon. It is always surprising to notice how easily Venus can be seen in full daylight, once you know where to look for it!
After Fr. Carreira helped me to set up the telescope, I attached my webcam to it, connected the webcam to my laptop computer, and made sure that everything was ready, with Venus centered in the field of view of the camera. Fr. Carreira went to another telescope to watch the occultation through the eyepiece. Not many students were around, which is normal when you take into account that any activity planned during the Summer School in the afternoon has to face fierce competition with the temptation of spending the time on the shores of the lake below. I patiently waited, while the telescope tracked Venus, until a few minutes before the due time for the occultation, and then I started recording with the webcam.
At 16:38, exactly as predicted, the bright crescent of Venus began to disappear as the dark edge of the lunar disk moved in front of it. It took 80 seconds for Venus to be fully hidden behind the Moon, where it would spend the next hour as the Moon followed its path in front of it. During this time I left the camera recording, trusting that the reliable mechanics of the mount of the telescope would keep tracking the motion of Venus across the sky, even when it could not be seen.
And indeed, 65 minutes later, precisely on schedule, a bright dot suddenly appeared, this time projected against the edge of the lunar disk illuminated by the Sun. In the next seconds the dot turned into a crescent, and half a minute later Venus was fully uncovered, the disk of the Moon having moved past it.
Astronomers do not always use telescopes for scientific research, and sometimes we take pleasure in using them just for the beauty of the things being observed. On that hot afternoon of the summer of 2007, the natural beauty of the view of the hills around Lake Albano seen from the roof of the Papal palace was enhanced, in a uniquely inspirational way, as Venus and the Moon briefly met and danced in the bright sky above.
Today is “Pi Day”! This post is part of a series of posts on Pi, infinity, and other things mathematical. Click here for the series.
What is Pi (π)? We celebrate “Pi Day” on March 14 (3/14). That is because Pi is (roughly) 3.14. Indeed, I scheduled this post to appear at 1:59 AM, because Pi is (a little less roughly) 3.14159! How nerdy can a guy get?
So Pi is a mathematical idea that has its own day. That is good, because astronomy involves a lot of mathematical ideas. But still, what is Pi, and how do we know what it is?
This question started bugging me after I bought my previous laptop. For some reason the calculator “app” on this laptop was striking in a way that older calculator apps were not. Perhaps this is because the new app was large and bold. But at any rate, note how the button for π (that is, Pi) on the calculator app, when pressed, returned quite a long string of digits—3.1415926535897932384626433832795. That is thirty-two digits of Pi! Wow! (The app on my current laptop does the same.)
This bold string of digits raises the question: How do we know Pi to that many digits? Despite being a physicist, astronomer, and historian of science; despite using Pi all the time; despite teaching many students to use it regularly; I had only a vague idea how the value 3.1415926535897932384626433832795 might be obtained. So, I decided to figure this out, both because I should know, and because I thought a write-up on this would make a good hallway poster for the Science Building at Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky, where I am a professor. Math is a big stumbling block for JCTC students. At the college we are always looking for ways to advise students toward truly engaging the subject of mathematics, rather than viewing it as an onerous and pointless hoop (placed before them by the Authorities of Education) that they must simply jump through on the way to their degrees. But Pi is something everyone has heard about; it has its own Day, after all. This post then is based on that little JCTC poster project about what Pi is and how to determine its value for yourself.
Now you, O Reader, may view math no more positively than does the typical JCTC student. Maybe you do; you are reading an astronomy blog, after all. But plenty of people who like astronomy still care little for math, and think it to be beyond them. Indeed math is often portrayed as beyond the understanding of even the best-educated. But hang in there with this post, despite the counter-cultural implications implicit in reading stuff about math. Pi is cool. Mathematical reasoning is cool. And moving beyond just liking astronomy, and toward understanding how it works and how people over time have been able to figure out so much about the universe, is very cool.
So, if you wanted to figure out the value of Pi for yourself—if you wanted to make Homemade Pi, so to speak—you might just measure a round thing and calculate the value. Suppose you go find a nice sphere: a basketball. The ball’s Circumference C you could measure by wrapping a tape measure around the ball; its Diameter D you could measure by putting the ball between a couple of blocks. Since the Diameter D is twice the Radius R, the formula C=2πR that relates Circumference to Radius is also C=πD. You can calculate Pi by dividing the ball’s Circumference C by its Diameter D: π=C/D.
Of course, that basketball might not be truly round. So suppose you could borrow one of the 1 kg silicon spheres made by the Australian Centre for Precision Optics. If you measured one of those you would be using something that qualifies as “the roundest object in the world.”
You use your tape measure and other paraphernalia to measure the Circumference and Diameter of the ACPO sphere. The smallest division on a tape measure is usually 1/16 inch (or 1/16”). Let’s imagine that you can determine Circumference and Diameter to half of one of those divisions, or 1/32”. With the tape measure you might find the Diameter of the sphere to be D=3 & 22/32”, which is 3.6875” in decimal form. You measure the Circumference to be C=11 & 18/32”, or 11.5625”. And now you proceed to calculate Pi from your measurements:
Obviously this only gets you a few digits of Pi!
So, you upgrade the equipment, getting some precision measurement tools from a machine shop. These let you measure to the nearest thousandth of an inch. Using these, you might find D=3.685”, C=11.577”. Again you proceed to calculate Pi from your measurements:
Still not great!
Finally, suppose you could actually measure the ACPO sphere by counting individual atoms. According to ACPO, the spacing of individual atoms in the sphere is 0.9 nanometers, or a few hundred-millionths of an inch. This is the highest precision possible in measuring this roundest object in the world, because the object is made up of individual atoms; you will not find a half or a tenth or a hundredth of an atom in the sphere. At the single-atom level of precision you might get D=3.68503937”, C=11.57689261”, and
So, even if you could count individual atoms in the roundest object in the world, you could not determine Pi to even half the thirty-two digits given by the calculator app. And any achievable measurement of a normal round object, even at machine-shop-level precision, will only give Pi to a handful of digits.
Yet Pi has been determined to far more than thirty-two digits. If you want to make that Homemade Pi, you will have to use pure reason, not measurement. Reason can take you further than experimentation and measurement can go—as much further as a trillion is beyond thirty-two.
Only recently have I learned how to reason out Pi, as the knowledge seemed potentially useful in helping students at my college to view mathematics more positively. And you, O Reader, may not view mathematics so positively yourself. Further down in this post you will find some serious high-school math—hexagons, triangles, and the Pythagorean Theorem, and a lot of repetition. The result obtained from bearing with the math and using reason to determine the value of Pi is pretty darned cool, and I encourage you to read this post to the end. But, for those who would rather not make Homemade Pi—who are perfectly happy if someone else does the baking—I will now cut to the bottom line, and save The Homemade Pi Recipe for the end (for those who want their Homemade Pi to be truly homemade, entirely from scratch)!
The bottom line is that we determine Pi to be 3.1415926535897932384626433832795 not through measurement but through reasoning, either as demonstrated in The Recipe below, or through one of the other methods mathematicians have devised for reasoning out the value of Pi. According to Scientific American and the University of Chicago Research Computing Center, Christoph Grienberger calculated Pi out to forty digits—3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197—by the method described in The Recipe, and these are the most digits to ever be worked out by hand. He published this value in his Elementa Trigonometrica of 1630. And, pertinent to this Vatican Observatory blog, Grienberger was a Jesuit astronomer at the Collegio Romano (the V.O. is home to many Jesuit astronomers), and he is also the astronomer who invented the equatorial telescope mount.
Indeed human beings can reason Pi out to far more digits than even Fr. Grienberger did, especially if they do not have to do all the calculations by hand. The Pi Day web page gives one million digits of Pi. Moreover, it states that Pi has been determined to “over one trillion digits.”
A million digits of Pi is a lot. If printed out in a normal font, a million digits would fill a substantial book. A trillion digits is incredible. A trillion digits printed would fill a million books—as many as are in a university library. Yet that same mathematical reasoning that gives us a trillion digits of Pi also tells us that there is no end to the digits of Pi. Pi is what is known as an irrational number—its digits extend on infinitely. A trillion is as nothing compared to infinity.
Thus in the case of Pi we have reasoned our way to the infinite. We know it is there. We can learn more and more about it. For example, within the infinite digits of Pi must be contained any string of digits you care to think up. There is even a web page that will let you search for strings of digits within the first two billion digits of Pi. According to the web page, Grienberger’s birthday, 7-2-1561, occurs at the 182,220th decimal digit of Pi, while the speed of light in miles per second, 186,000, occurs at the 2,352,935th decimal digit of Pi (if you prefer that in kilometers per second, 300,000, look to the 215,286th decimal digit).
But, as much as we learn about Pi, we will never know even the smallest fraction of the infinity that is there. And Pi is just one number—the Circumference of a circle divided by the Diameter of that same circle. And you cannot go out and prove this, or the trillion digits, or the speed of light occurring at the 2,352,935th decimal, by measurement. Measurement gets you only a handful of digits of Pi.
Now consider astronomy. What can we prove by measurement about, for example, the Andromeda Galaxy? Can we roll out a tape measure and use it to check our estimations of that galaxy’s diameter? Can we use a balance to check our estimations of its mass? Do we have a calendar and baby pictures by which we can make sure we got its age right? In every case, we cannot. We know what we know about Andromeda through reasoning. Yes, our reasoning is based on measurements made from Earth, but we will never be able to measure the mass of the Andromeda Galaxy the way biologists measure the mass of lab rats fed on one diet versus another.
So take a look at The Recipe below. Take a gamble on trying to understand how you might determine the value of Pi for yourself, through reason, even if you don’t like math. This simple number says much about how we come to know what we know.
The Homemade Pi Recipe
(courtesy of Archimedes, tested by Fr. Grienberger)
First, start with the circle shown here. Its Radius R (purple) is 1. Its Diameter D (green) is 2.
Next, inscribe a hexagon in the circle, like this:
Now, divide that hexagon into equilateral triangles, like this:
Because these are equilateral triangles, each side of each triangle is equal to the Radius R of the circle, or 1. Therefore the perimeter of the hexagon (blue), which is composed of six triangle sides, is 6.
Now, the hexagon perimeter (blue) and the circle circumference (black) are approximately the same length, or at least in the same ball-park. So, the circle Circumference C is approximately 6. Pi is the ratio between the Circumference C and the Diameter D: π=C/D. Since C is approximately 6 and D is 2, then Pi is approximately
But that is a poor approximation! So now draw another radius R (purple, below) on the circle, perpendicularly dividing one of the sides of the hexagon (green) into two equal parts.
Next, draw lines (red, below) from the end of that radius to the vertices of the old hexagon.
In this way you can start to construct a twelve-sided figure, a dodecagon. The dodecagon is a closer approximation to the circle.
But what is the length of a side of the dodecagon? To reason this out, think about a triangle ABC that has two equal sides, AC and AB, each of length 1 (because AC and AB are also radii of the circle).
Then think about dividing side CB perpendicularly into two equal parts, eC and eB, using a new line AD (also of length 1, in purple below), and forming new triangles AeC and CeD. These are both Right Triangles. This means you can use the Pythagorean Theorem on them.
CB is a side of the hexagon, so its length is 1. The length of side eC is half that, or 0.5. The Pythagorean Theorem applied to triangle AeC says
AC2 = eA2 + eC2
12 = eA2 + (0.5)2
12 – (0.5)2 = eA2 = 0.75
eA2 = 0.75
eA = 0.86603
Now, the line AD is divided up into Ae and eD.
AD = eD + eA
AD – eA = eD
eD = 1 – 0.86603 = 0.13397
Again, back to the Pythagorean Theorem, this time applied to triangle CeD:
eC2 + eD2 = CD2
(0.5)2 + (0.13397)2 = CD2
0.26795 = CD2
0.51764 = CD
You have now reasoned out that the length of one side of the dodecagon is 0.517638. Therefore the perimeter of that 12-sided dodecagon is 12x0.517638=6.21166. Supposing once again this perimeter to be approximately the Circumference C of the circle, you can calculate that Pi is approximately
You repeat the Right Triangles and Pythagorean Theorem process. Again AC=1. But now eC is half of the length of the dodecagon side (half of .517368): eC=.258819. Following the process gives eA=0.965926 and eD=0.034074. The side length CD in the 24-sided figure is CD=0.26105238. This value multiplied by 24 gives an approximate Circumference of C=6.265257. Then
This approximation is better still. Repeat the process a third time (for a 48-sided figure), a fourth time (96-sided figure), a fifth (192-sided), and so on. At the thirteenth repetition of the process you are doing calculations for a 49,152-sided figure and your value for Pi is
Note that by means of this process you have through reason already determined Pi to as many digits as might be possible through measurement, even if you could measure at the atomic level in the roundest object in the world (which you can’t)! And, whereas measuring at the atomic level would be the best you could do with measurement, you can keep going with reason, as shown in the table below, and as Grienberger did.
Through repeating this process, you can, with patience, make Homemade Pi to as many digits as you want. We know what Pi is through reasoning! And mathematicians have come up with many other, more manageable methods of calculating Pi than this, all based on pure reason.
This post is based on two posts that originally appeared here in April of 2016.
Science. Religion. The Humanities. Which has the upper hand regarding claims about what is true? Many would say Science. It is based on evidence and reason. It is reproducible. It is self-correcting. It has produced the modern world, and it is what the modern world values most. Regarding Science and the Humanities, just think of the rising support for STEM subjects in education, and the declining support for the Humanities. Regarding Science and Religion, well, just think of the Galileo story.
But a few weeks ago we saw a bad side of Science (click here for that post). We saw Science declaring that evidence and reason and the like showed that All Men Are Not Created Equal—declaring that some are “true men” (to use the language of the time), while others are not; indeed, they might even be a different species from the “true men”. This was part of what is now often termed “scientific racism”. It is no longer considered to be valid science, but in the nineteenth century (much more recently than Galileo), it was. We also saw how certain religiously-inclined people, particularly people who clung to the Biblical idea that all people are descended from Adam and Eve, and thus are of one family, opposed that science.
Given this, why is Galileo the standard story of Science and Religion? Why is scientific racism not at least as well known? Is it worse to have claimed, based on the evidence of Scripture, that the Earth is immobile? Or, is it worse to have claimed, based on the evidence of science (as then understood), that those people over there are not truly people, but are a different species? Obstinate resistance by reason of Scripture to the idea of Earth’s motion is nothing to be proud of, but scientific racism is far more shameful. After all, as we saw a few weeks ago, plenty of writers, artists, and others from the Humanities, outside of Religion, long recognized what it means to be human—Shakespeare being but one example:
I think the king is but a man, as I
am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me
But Science judged otherwise.
It is not sufficient for Science to say “hey, I’m self-correcting; I changed in the light of new evidence”, because Religion and the Humanities already knew the evidence was flawed and the science needed to be corrected. Getting it right eventually—coming around eventually to what playwrights and theologians already knew—is not sufficient. Consider this another way. Suppose Science were once again to conclude (based on such-and-such new evidence) that those people over there are not true people. Were that the case, should we accept Science’s conclusion? Or should we regard Science as again having gotten it wrong, and again being in need of correction?
Human beings are (to borrow the words of a nineteenth century anthropologist who scoffed at the idea) a sacred subject. Knowledge other than Science tells us this. Science does not have the last word on the subject of what it means to be a human being.
This is a complex subject, and I sketch things out only roughly here. For example, opposition to Earth’s motion was far more complicated than obstinate resistance on the basis of Scripture. But such resistance is part of the standard Galileo story, and I grant it here for the sake of brevity (the topic has been covered in a variety of previous posts on Sacred Space Astronomy). Likewise, the roles of science and religion in people’s attitudes toward other human beings were more complicated than what is outlined here. Science was also invoked by those who argued that all people are of one family, while those who believed that all people are descended from Adam and Eve could have views that were difficult to distinguish from racism.
Nevertheless, the story of scientific racism should prompt we scientists to have a greater appreciation for the Humanities, and perhaps even for those who are drawn to a literal interpretation of the Bible, such as Young Earth Creationists. This does not mean that we should agree that the universe is thousands of years old rather than billions. Nor does it mean that we should all take up art and poetry and reject Science as fundamentally inhumane. But we must recognize not only that Science does not always hold the upper hand regarding claims about what is true, but also that Science can be monstrously wrong in claims about what is true. Perhaps those who are drawn to a Humanities-centered outlook, or to a Creationist outlook, grasp this, at a gut level, in some important and powerful way. Science has to acknowledge with humility, even with penitence, the people who were right when Science was very wrong about something fundamental.
Were Science again to tell us that certain people are not people, we should reject that. Perhaps Young Earth Creationists (for example) feel this way about a broader range of scientific topics. The story of scientific racism can help us scientists to understand why some people feel that at times Science must yield to other forms of knowledge. Scientists are not going to agree with Biblical literalists about the age of the universe (a trivial subject versus the subject of who is a human being), but perhaps scientists should try harder to respect their outlook. And to also respect and support the Humanities. After all, Science does not always hold the upper hand. Galileo is not always the story.
Today I am happy to introduce another guest blogger here at Sacred Space Astronomy: Karen Shadle, Director of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville Kentucky. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a post about Msgr. Bouchet’s telescope and Tim Tomes. Tomes is now the archivist and historian for the Archdiocese. He encouraged Shadle to contact me after reading an article on moveable feasts that she had written for her column in The Record, the Archdiocesan newspaper. This post is adapted from that article. Karen Shadle is a musicologist with a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in the history of sacred music in the United States and is an accomplished organist, pianist, and choir director. She lives in Louisville with her husband and two children.
Karen Shadle, 23 Jan 2020
“Alexa, when is Easter?” I asked, pre-stressing for what will be a very busy spring in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
“Easter is Sunday, April 12,” the digital assistant chirped back.
Unlike Christmas, which we know happens on December 25th every year, Easter in the Roman Church moves around from year to year. It occurs on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox, which is the official beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, is the date on which the center of the sun is directly above the earth’s equator, when day and night are of equal length.
“Equinox” combines the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night). I don’t know about you, but the long stretches of winter darkness seem to weigh me down. On many days, it is dark when I leave for work and dark when I come home! The vernal equinox is an exciting turning point where we can all look forward to long days that culminate in sunlit summer evenings.
The vernal equinox always occurs somewhere in the range of March 19-21, but it can vary a bit depending on where you live in your specific time zones, leap year calculus, the slight tilt of the earth, and some other astronomical math that I don’t understand. (I am a liturgist and definitely NOT an astronomer!) At the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Church declared that March 21 would be fixed as the “ecclesiastical approximation” of the vernal equinox in order to simplify things somewhat. Therefore, Easter in the Roman church can be as early as March 22 or as late as April 25.
Why is Easter’s date tied to the moon and the sun to begin with? We know from scripture that Jesus rose from the tomb early on the first Sunday following the feast of Passover. The Jewish calendar is partly lunar and partly solar. Its months are either 29 or 30 days, corresponding to a roughly 29.5-day lunar cycle. Its years are either 12 or 13 months, corresponding to a roughly 12.4-month solar cycle. Passover should ordinarily correspond with a full moon on the 15th of the month of Nisan. However, because we are not dealing with whole numbers, the month-moon cycles often get slightly out of sync before lining back up again. Because of this, the Jewish rabbis would sometimes have to announce when Passover would be celebrated in a given year. This is how we derive the tradition of calculating Easter.
None of this matters much in the age of Alexa, Google, Siri, and the others. Calendars are ubiquitous, and we trust their calculations without thinking. However, there was a time when the announcement of the date of Easter was of great practical and spiritual importance to the Christian people.
There is a very beautiful and very optional liturgical rite of the Proclamation of the Date of Easter, which can be inserted into Mass at the Solemnity of the Epiphany. This feast is traditionally celebrated on the 12th day after Christmas (January 6) and marks the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the newborn King. In the United States, Epiphany is moved to a Sunday (between January 2-8) so that it can be more readily celebrated by the faithful.
At the Epiphany Mass after the homily or after the communion rite, a deacon or cantor chants the proclamation:
|Noveritis, fratres carissimi, quod annuente Dei misericordia, sicut de Nativitate Domini nostri iesu Christi gavisi sumus, ita et de Resurrectione eiusdem salvatoris nostri gaudium vobis annuntiamus.||Know, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by leave of God's mercy we announce to you also the joy of his Resurrection, who is our Savior.|
|Die sexta et vigesima februarii erit dies Cinerum, et initium ieiunii sacratissimæ Quadragesimæ.||On the twenty-sixth day of February will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the fast of the most sacred Lenten season.|
|Die duodecima aprilis sanctum Pascha Domini nostri Iesu Christi cum gaudio celebrabitis.||On the twelfth day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Paschal feast of our Lord Jesus Christ.|
|Die una et vigesima maii erit Ascensio Domini nostri Iesu Christi.||On the twenty-first day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.|
|Die una et trigesima maii festum Pentecostes.||On the thirty-first day of May, the feast of Pentecost.|
|Die undecima iunii festum sanctissimi Corporis et sanguinis Christi.||On the fourteenth day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.|
|Die undetrigesima novembris dominica prima Adventus Domini nostri Iesu Christi, cui sit honor et gloria, in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.||On the twenty-ninth day of November, the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.|
(The dates here are the dates for 2020.) Through the rhythms of times and seasons we celebrate the mysteries of salvation. We are a pilgrim Church, and Jesus Christ is the Lord of all time and history. Like the sun in the sky, God illuminates all that is known.
The Proclamation of the Date of Easter on Epiphany is an ancient tradition that is somewhat obscure and rarely used in modern liturgy, perhaps for good reason. On a practical level, Christians no longer need to wait for an announcement or scribble down a list of the important moveable feasts of the year. Nevertheless, I’m glad the Proclamation persists as an option. I might even encourage a renaissance. It’s a beautiful reminder of the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus in the rhythm of our lives. Most everything that the church does revolves around Easter, and so should our lives of faith.
There are many ways to mark time in a year. Farmers use the seasons, accountants use fiscal quarters, sports fans use the team schedule, and teachers use semesters. Christians mark time by Easter. From Easter’s placement, the rest of the liturgical year falls into place. As we turn the page to a new year, let us all reorient ourselves to the cross.
Entirely by coincidence, another person from the Diocese of Louisville has been writing on the proclamation of the date of Easter: Fr. Steven Reeves, associate pastor at Saint Boniface and Saint Patrick churches in Louisville. Click here to see his take on the subject.
The 1990s TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9 for short) is a favorite of the Graney family. DS9 featured lots of those extraterrestrial non-human intelligent life forms so common to Science Fiction: Cardassians, Klingons, Bajorans. But these extraterrestrials were just humans in make-up. By this I don’t just mean that the Klingon or Bajoran characters were played by human actors wearing rubber “ears” or “brow ridges”; I mean that these characters were essentially human. Their cultures might have been different, but they acted like human beings.
DS9 did attempt to develop extraterrestrials that were less “human” and more “alien”. They did this via “The Dominion”, the overwhelmingly powerful kingdom of a race of fluid creatures called “Founders”. The Founders manufactured two races to serve them: the “Vorta”, who were managers and diplomats; and the “Jem’Hadar”, who were soldiers. The Jem’Hadar were “hatched out of a vat”, fed intravenously, grew to maturity within days, and lived only a few years. They were fighters by instinct. They neither ate, nor drank, nor begat children. By genetically programmed instinct they obeyed the Vorta, and venerated the Founders as gods. The Jem’Hadar were the soulless minions of the Founders—manufactured, instinct-driven, utterly disposable killers. They were perhaps DS9’s most convincing effort at inventing truly non-human extraterrestrials.
And yet, that effort was not so convincing. Once DS9 began to feature episodes with one-on-one interactions with the Jem’Hadar, they started to seem less soulless. They understood the world around them. They were aware, for example, about what their Vorta superiors were up to, even though the Vorta dismissed them as non-persons. They could control their instinct to fight, and could even work with adversaries, if their mission required them to do so. They accepted their role in “the order of things”, and did the jobs they were created to do. The lead character in DS9, Captain Benjamin Sisko, ended up describing them as “professionals”. When he had a platoon of Jem’Hadar surrounded, he called for a truce and tried to negotiate a surrender so as to avoid massacring them. The Jem’Hadar leader respectfully declined—it was not in the “order of things” for them to surrender—and, when the truce was over, led a final, hopeless charge against Sisko’s forces. And so DS9’s Jem’Hadar ended up being rather human; not soulless minions after all.
This focus on being human is a theme in the long-lived Star Trek franchise. One of its most famous characters, Mr. Spock, was a Vulcan who often disdained human emotions and ideas. In the movie Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, he gives his life to save the starship Enterprise, because “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”. His Captain, Kirk, eulogies him by saying, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”
Likewise, consider the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy, and the character of Groot. Groot is truly a non-human alien, a walking plant who can say little more than “I am Groot”. But Groot, like Spock, sacrifices himself to save his Guardians teammates because, as he so eloquently puts it, “We are Groot”. In the world of Science Fiction, even a plant seems to have a human soul.
Then consider all the Science Fiction replicants, droids, artificial intelligences, clones, and whatnot who all manage to have souls, or appearances thereof. We humans have been most willing to grant, through Science Fiction, souls or humanity to non-humans. Thus it may surprise readers of Sacred Space Astronomy to learn that we humans have been very willing to deny, through Science itself, souls or humanity to actual human beings.
The story of Science’s role in denying humanity to human beings is told in the book Adam’s Ancestors, by David N. Livingstone (an entry on the V.O. Faith and Science pages—click here for it). The book is about the idea of “pre-Adamites”: “people” postulated to have existed prior to Adam. I use quotation marks here because usually the pre-Adamites were assumed to be not truly human—not “true men”, to use the language of the time. The true men were the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve (to borrow the phrasing of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). The others were sort of like Vulcans, or even the Jem’Hadar—aliens who might have no souls.
The idea of the pre-Adamite is an old one. Livingstone describes it as having been fed through two principle roots. One of those roots is the diversity and wide distribution of people in the world. Originally that diversity was the stuff of legend. The ancient author Pliny the Elder had written about all sorts of strange “people”—people with one leg and a giant foot, people with a single eye, people with dog heads, people with no heads at all and faces in their chests, and so forth. Scholars for centuries took Pliny at his word.
Pliny’s strange people even appear in Shakespeare:
It was my hint to speak—such was my process—
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
[Othello, Act I, scene iii]
Scholars wondered whether creatures such as these, who were certainly as weird as any Klingon, could be Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.
Then, as the world was more widely explored, people were found living in lands that were far separated from the world of Europe-Asia-Africa by vast spans of water. How could such widely dispersed peoples, speaking widely differing languages, all have come from the one family line of Adam? And what of people who claimed long histories, like the Egyptians or the Chinese? Surely all this could be explained more easily by having some other beginning to at least some of humanity than just Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The second root feeding the pre-Adamite idea was a discomfort with difficult passages in Genesis. Consider Genesis 4, for example. Cain, upon being sent away to the land of Nod by God for the murder of Abel, expresses fear that anyone who saw him would kill him:
Cain said to the Lord: “My punishment is too great to bear. Look, you have now banished me from the ground. I must avoid you and be a constant wanderer on the earth. Anyone may kill me at sight.”
Since only Adam, Eve, Cain, and the now-dead Abel had been mentioned thus far, whom did Cain fear? And then Genesis mentions Cain’s wife. Where did she come from? Surely all this could be explained more easily by having some other beginning to at least some of humanity than just Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
But when it is assumed that there is some other beginning to at least some of humanity, the idea that all people are Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve—all of one family—is lost. And when that is lost, then we can start making the claim that this group of people are “true men”, while that group of people are just soulless animals—just sorts of apes who happen to have a more human-like shape—like Jem’Hadar (as DS9 originally envisioned them).
Usually the groups being labelled as soulless have been those with darker skins; usually, but not always. The Irish, for example, were often included as being among the “lesser races”. As Thomas Cahill pointed out in his How the Irish Saved Civilization, they were the “white chimpanzees”, “incapable of civilization”.
Adam’s Ancestors documents lots of comparisons of people to apes, and lots of scientific efforts to quantify to what extent different groups of people differed from “true men”. Social scientists went about quantifying humans with measurements of differing cranial capacities, differing language structures, and the differing distributions of people and of apes. They insisted that these different groups that they saw were different species. This was illustrated by the supposed infertility of (at least over a number of generations), and weakness of, “hybrid” offspring of “mixed race” couples. These scientists experienced resistance from those who insisted for religious reasons that all peoples were brothers and sisters in the family of Adam—all Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.
An article from the May 1865 issue of The Anthropological Review provides an illustration of all this (as there is a “faith versus science” element in this, Sacred Space Astronomy readers will not be surprised to find a Galileo reference here):
Everywhere the supremacy of facts is now recognised, and the only loyalty even professed by the more advanced minds is not a faithful adherence to tradition, but unswerving fealty to the truth. The battle fought and won by astronomy in the days of Galileo, was in truth but the beginning of the war, and alone would have proved utterly inadequate to teach men of science their strength, or theologians their weakness. This was shown in the reception accorded to geology, whose stupendous revelations from the page of nature were long expected to bend to a written record. It is still shown in the criticisms provoked in certain quarters by anthropological investigations. We are free to speculate on the age of rocks, and even to inquire into the succession of plants and animals; but man is a sacred, and, therefore, a forbidden subject. His origin, antiquity, and special relationships have all been settled by a tribunal that laughs at induction, and treats opposing facts with derision.... Till very recently, even the greatest minds bowed in submissive silence to this unreasoning despotism. However free and untrammeled in other provinces of investigation, they paused upon the threshold of man. He was an exceptional instance in the grand scheme of creation, an isolated phenomenon in the great plan of nature, to make free with whom, after the ordinary fashion of inductive inquiry, was little other than an act of open and scandalous impiety.... On special difference as attaching to brown and white bears, and of organic diversity in relation to African and Asiatic elephants, it was quite lawful to dilate, but an Esquimaux and a European, a Negro and a Persian, were to be invariably treated as of one species. Freedom of inquiry ceased with man....
It is in relation to this most important question, freedom of inquiry, and we may add, liberty of speech, on the part of men of science, that the anthropological societies now rising in various parts of Europe are doing such good service to the cause of truth. Composed of the most advanced minds in the countries where they are respectively organised, these bodies present a barrier to fanaticism, and ensure freedom of inquiry and discussion, at least within the limits of their own meetings, and in the pages of their own publications.... For let us not deceive ourselves; the public, even the educated public, are still unprepared for the full reception of the truth as it is in nature, on the subject of man. They want our statements to be toned down, and our conclusions to be modified into accordance with their limited ideas, ere they will give us a favourable or even an unprejudiced hearing. They have not yet given up their idols. They are still under the dominion of traditional ideas, and in plain language, are too much the slaves of authority to listen without fear to the echoes of a freeman's voice.... Hence, then, the necessity for effective organisation on the part of anthropological inquirers, not merely for the purpose of ensuring freedom of discussion among themselves, but also with the equally important object of supporting a literature devoted to the statement of facts, and the utterance of conclusions too far in advance of existing opinion for their easy reception by the general public, and yet eminently calculated to promote the cause of anthropological inquiry....
[The theory of development of man is] purely a question of science, and as such its decision must be left to those who are prepared to investigate the subject through the evidence of fact rather than the authority of dogma. Once for all, then, let us clearly understand that theologians as such, have nothing to do with this great controversy; their attempted meddling with which is an impertinence that the dignity of science can afford to treat with the silent contempt it so richly deserves.
The same article includes references to the superiority of Caucasians, such as—
man, even in his highest existent form, the Caucasian, is still but an initial type, only in the process of emergence... while the inferior races, more especially the negroid, are still absolutely embryonic.
—as well as this reference to—
the true man, by which we mean the large-brained and small-mouthed Caucasian.
And there is this, on “hybrids”—
When we consider that in this way every healthy and rightly-constituted organism, when of pure type and on its own site, is in perfect harmony with itself, that all its powers and functions are perfectly balanced, and that the whole is in due relationship to the atmospheric and telluric forces by which it is surrounded, we shall cease to wonder at the unhealthiness and ultimate infertility of most hybrids, in whom this fine balance is lost, and who are in a sense the product of a generative chaos, that is, of conflicting forces, not constituted by Nature for harmonious conjunction.
In the October issue of this journal for that same year we find a writer declaring that Egypt was not an “African” civilization, on the basis of certain people being supposedly incapable of civilization—
And let it also be fearlessly announced by anthropologists, that a purely Negroid type, though they had possessed twenty Egypts for twice ten thousand years, would never have raised the magnificent piles of Luxor and Carnac.... The time has now assuredly come, when the accepted fallacies of a learned barbarism should succumb to the clear demonstrations of inductive science, and racial facts be championed to their appropriate place, as among the most important and reliable data upon which history, more especially that of the earlier ages, can be based.
Meanwhile, in the February issue we find a description of the “true Celt”, noting that—
it has been generally assumed that one well defined form of head is recognisable as characteristic of the true Celt. Dr. Morton, in defining the Celtic family, says: “They have the head rather elongated, and the forehead narrow and but slightly arched. The brow is low, straight and bushy; the eyes and hair are light, the nose and mouth large, and the cheek-bones high. The general contour of the face is angular and the expression harsh.” Dr. J. Aitken Meigs... remarks: “No. 1356—a cast of the skull of one of the ancient Celtic race of Ireland—appears to me the most typical in the Irish group. This head, the largest in the group, is very long, clumsy, and massive in its general appearance. The forehead is low, broad, and ponderous; the occiput heavy and very protuberant.”
Of course, today’s science has completely overthrown this nineteenth-century science and the idea of pre-Adamites, much as today’s science has completely overthrown the Aristotelian theory that said that the Earth lies at rest in the center of the universe because gravity is the tendency of certain materials toward the center of the universe. Indeed, the material quoted above is today viewed as utterly disgraceful. Today science tells us that all human beings appear to be descended from one common origin. Scientists now speak, for example, of DNA evidence pointing to the existence of a “mitochondrial Eve” for all humanity. The idea that there are different species of human beings—some of which are “true men”, and others of which are distinctly not—and that “hybrids” of these differing “species” are unhealthy and ultimately infertile—is now scientifically unsupportable, to put it mildly. Science tells us now that there is one human race; we are all one family. But that is not what science said in 1865.
Science of course changes. But wrongness about the nature of gravity is a much different thing from wrongness about person X and person Y being of two species, one superior, one inferior—one perhaps with a soul, the other perhaps not—the marital union of which will yield unhealthy and ultimately infertile offspring. And science was not just wrong here, but obstinately wrong. People have long recognized what it means to be human. The writers of Star Trek or Guardians of the Galaxy were hardly the first to be unable to envision any sort of true gradations of humanity:
I think the king is but a man, as I
am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me: the
element shows to him as it doth to me; all his
senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies
laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and
though his affections are higher mounted than ours,
yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like
wing. Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we
do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish
as ours are.
[Henry V, Act IV, scene i]
And let us not forget those theologians whose impertinent meddling science supposedly could afford to treat with silent contempt. Nor let us forget those people who might not have been “theologians”, but who adhered to the traditional reading of Genesis, rejected the idea of pre-Adamites, and thus maintained that all people were of one family: Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. They may have kept in mind Revelation 7—
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands…. Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
In other words, some people knew, on faith, and perhaps on the same common sense that Shakespeare and Star Trek seem to share, what “the most advanced minds of science” failed to grasp via the “evidence of fact” and “demonstrations of inductive science”: that people who looked different were still “men and brothers”. These people knew that man is indeed a sacred subject, and that to forget that is to head toward very dark places. It does not require the most advanced mind to know this. No doubt that is why even Groot and the Jem’Hadar seem to be simply human souls in heavy make-up.
(ⓜ = members only!)
This is a “nerdy” story about some of the real minutia of writing and publishing in the academic world. I am only going to subject subscribers to Sacred Space Astronomy to it.
Writers need editors. A weakness of blogs like this one is that we writers can just dump on you readers whatever we want. We do not have an editor who makes sure that what we write makes sense, reads well, etc. We can ask each other for help, or we can ask others to edit our writing (I often ask my wife to read over my posts), but we can also just drop something on the blog.
Editors help. Some famous editors have passed away in recent months, and their passing is noticed by the literary world (click here or here for examples). Of course, sometimes editors make changes that writers do not want. But, since editors usually have the final say, the writers usually have to go along with it.
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!...
Drop me a comment, Sacred Space subscribers. Let me know if this is interesting, or booooring!
Among Aesop’s fables are a few with connections to astronomy. The ones featured here are all from the 1916 version of the fables, translated by Vernon Jones with an introduction by G. K. Chesterton.
The Moon and Her Mother
The Moon once begged her Mother to make her a gown.
“How can I?” replied she; “there’s no fitting your figure. At one time you’re a New Moon, and at another you’re a Full Moon; and between whiles you’re neither one nor the other.”
The Frogs’ Complaint Against the Sun
Once upon a time the Sun was about to take to himself a wife. The Frogs in terror all raised their voices to the skies, and Jupiter, disturbed by the noise, asked them what they were croaking about. They replied, “The Sun is bad enough even while he is single, drying up our marshes with his heat as he does. But what will become of us if he marries and begets other Suns?”
There was once an Astronomer whose habit it was to go out at night and observe the stars. One night, as he was walking about outside the town gates, gazing up absorbed into the sky and not looking where he was going, he fell into a dry well. As he lay there groaning, some one passing by heard him, and, coming to the edge of the well, looked down and, on learning what had happened, said, “If you really mean to say that you were looking so hard at the sky that you didn’t even see where your feet were carrying you along the ground, it appears to me that you deserve all you've got.”
Astronomers certainly get no sympathy from Aesop! (Of course, almost no one gets any sympathy from anyone in those fables.)
I picked up a used copy of Aesop and read it in bits and pieces. When I came across the astronomy fables, I thought that they would be something of interest to readers of Sacred Space Astronomy—and that they would be something for this blog that was fun and completely different!
This post is a re-run of a post that originally ran in August, 2018.
This post is part of a series of posts on Pi, infinity, and other things mathematical. Click here for the series.
Why might a person see great intrinsic value in mathematical knowledge? Why might a person be a “math nerd”? Consider this lengthy quotation, from a piece written by Fr. Ron Rolheiser that was published in The Record (the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky) some time ago,* in which Fr. Rolheiser reflects upon the words of a woman who had gone through a profound spiritual experience:
What she remembers most and most wants to share with others is this: “I learned that God is very close. We have no idea how close God is to us. God is closer to us than we ever imagine!” Her experience has left her forever branded with a sense of God’s warmth, love, and welcome, but what’s left the deepest brand of all inside her is the sense of God’s closeness. I was struck by this because, like millions of others, I generally don’t feel that closeness, or at least don’t feel it very affectively or imaginatively. God can seem pretty far away, abstract and impersonal, a Deity with millions of things to worry about without having to worry about the minutiae of my small life. Moreover, as Christians, we believe that God is infinite and ineffable. This means that while we can know God, we can never imagine God. Given that truth, it makes it even harder for us to imagine that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things is intimately and personally present inside us, worrying with, sharing our heartaches, and knowing our most guarded feelings. Compounding this is the fact that whenever we do try to imagine God’s person our imaginations come up against the unimaginable. For example, try to imagine this: There are billions of persons on this earth and billions more have lived on this earth before us. At this very minute, thousands of people are being born, thousands are dying, thousands are sinning, thousands are doing virtuous acts, thousands are making love, thousands are experiencing violence, thousands are feeling their hearts swelling with joy, all of this part of trillions upon trillions of phenomena. How can one heart, one mind, one person be consciously on top of all of this and so fully aware and empathetic that no hair falls from our heads or sparrow from the sky without this person taking notice? It’s impossible to imagine, pure and simple, and that’s part of the very definition of God. How can God be as close to us as we are to ourselves?
The woman had approached Rolheiser spontaneously, wanting to communicate God’s closeness. Rolheiser, in contrast, finds it hard “to imagine that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things is intimately and personally present”.
Infinity is a mathematical concept of sorts. It cannot be directly expressed, but it can be studied by a certain process of imagining a progression of simple calculations. For example, consider simple division, say 100 divided by 2: 100/2 = 50. Now let us divide 100 by a larger number, such as 5: 100/5 = 20. Dividing by a larger number (5 rather than 2) yields a smaller result (20 rather than 50). Now let us extend this to dividing 100 by progressively larger and larger numbers: 100/10 = 10; 100/50 = 2; 100/100 = 1; 100/500 = 0.5; 100/1000 = 0.1; 100/10,000 = 0.01. Dividing by progressively larger and larger numbers yields progressively smaller and smaller results. So while we cannot actually divide 100 by infinity, we can imagine that as we increase the dividing number more and more, the result will be smaller and smaller still; thus we can say that as the dividing number heads up toward infinity, the number resulting from the division heads down toward zero. And thus in some sense, 100 divided by infinity is zero.
Now let us go the other direction, and divide 100 into some other number. Let’s divide 100 into 20: 20/100 = 0.2. Now let’s divide 100 into something larger, like 400: 400/100 = 4. Let’s keep dividing 100 into larger and larger numbers: 1000/100 = 10; 40,000/100 = 400; 10,000,000/100 = 100,000. Dividing 100 into progressively larger and larger numbers yields progressively larger and larger results. Thus while we cannot actually divide 100 into infinity, we can imagine that as we divide 100 into increasingly larger numbers, the result will be larger and larger, so that we can say that as the number being divided heads up toward infinity, the number resulting from the division also heads up toward infinity. And thus in some sense, infinity divided by 100 is infinity. And this does not change if, instead of dividing our various numbers by 100, we instead divide by 200, or by 10,000, or by a billion, or by an umpteen gazillion. Our “math nerd” fact for the day: Infinity divided by any number is infinity.
(This is not something new in mathematics. Johann Georg Locher and his mentor, Fr. Christoph Scheiner, S.J.—both math nerds to some extent—wrote about infinity at some length in their 1614 book Mathematical Disquisitions. It was not new stuff then, either.)
So, if there is an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things, it makes no difference whether there are billions of persons on this earth, with thousands of people being born, dying, sinning, etc. every minute. It makes no difference that there are trillions upon trillions of phenomena (indeed, far more than that). We human beings each have a finite amount of time and attention to divide among the things we have to do or keep track of, so that the more things we have the less we can focus on each. However, an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things has an infinity to divide, and our brief study of mathematics has shown us that infinity divided by any number, is infinity. Therefore that infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things can focus an infinity of attention on a hair that falls from your head, or a sparrow that falls from the sky. Our knowledge of mathematics helps us to understand that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things really will be intimately and personally present. If there is an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things, that infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things knows each of us, has more time for us, and is closer to us, than we know and have time for and are close to ourselves—infinitely more. For the person who believes that an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things exists, a “nerdy” knowledge of mathematics can help him or her to understand how that infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things can know and care about a hair or sparrow.
It is socially acceptable, even among educated people, to be ignorant of mathematics, and even to dismiss it as being beyond explanation and beyond interest—as being the province of the nerds who can wrap their minds around such things. However, knowledge of math is valuable and worthwhile in so many ways, including, as we see here, in ways related to faith. This is important even to those who might not believe that an infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things exists—at least if they care about math and science and related “STEM” areas of knowledge, and about knowledge and education in general. In the U.S., at least, students go into debt for education, and there is increasing pressure within the world of education to engage students and to do everything possible to ensure that students are successful and that they do not accumulate debt yet no degrees. So what in fact will engage people? Some will be engaged by math because they love math; others because they believe knowledge of math will help in getting a good job. But to engage a diverse audience of people means to consider what a diverse audience finds engaging and wants to really know. So often, the subject of knowledge that really engages a broad swath of people—that makes people want to spontaneously come forward to share what they know with others—is faith. As I have discussed in the past, the future is full of people of faith; full of people who have a strong reason to see a great intrinsic value in mathematical knowledge, to be attracted to nerdy mathematical thought because through it they can understand how God can be close.
There were two bald eagles soaring over the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky one Saturday this past October. My wife and I saw them while we were taking a walk on a brisk, fall day. They were wheeling far overhead in a perfect azure sky. It was October 12. The eagles were not soaring over some remote part of the Ohio River—they were on the river where it passes right between the downtowns of Louisville on one side, and Jeffersonville, Indiana on the other. Below the eagles were bridges, boats, cars, buildings, parks, and lots of people out enjoying the day.
The first time I ever saw a bald eagle in the wild was also on the Ohio River. This was in the early 2000s, when my family was exploring a remote area west of Leavenworth, Indiana. Then, a few years later, when my college’s observatory was located in Otter Creek Park, on the river well south-east of Louisville, everyone at the park was thrilled to discover a nesting pair of bald eagles on the river there. The eagles were a big deal. The location of the nest was not widely discussed, for fear that it would draw enough sightseers that the eagles would be disturbed and leave. A few years after that, there were bald eagles hanging around the Farnsley-Moremen Landing, a historic home and park on the river in the south-eastern outskirts of Louisville. My family had come to visit the park, and we noticed a crowd of people with telescopes, binoculars, and cameras. The eagles seemed not to care.
When I was a kid, if Kentuckians wanted to see bald eagles, they went to some place else—like Alaska. I remember hearing one of my relatives talk about seeing bald eagles in Alaska. If you wanted to see an eagle soaring overhead in Kentucky, your best bet was the constellation Aquila. Even hawks were not common in developed areas.
Today you can be right smack in the center of Kentucky’s largest urban area and look up to see a pair of bald eagles while taking a stroll in a park. And the parks of the city are full of hawks and owls. Peregrine falcons rest on bridges over the Ohio River.
When I was young, I read that the presence or absence of “apex predators” like the bald eagle—king of the sky, the biggest, baddest thing on wings—was an indication of the health of an ecosystem. The fact that there were no eagles was a sign of bad ecological health; toxins in the environment worked their way up the food chain, and apex predators, who ate things that ate the toxins, could not survive. I have seen the eagles return over my lifetime. And I have seen the return of hawks and falcons and owls (the park near my house is full of hooting at night). And of impressively antlered bucks, standing alongside roads and bike trails and paths (or along the river in central Louisville) and watching people and cars go by. And of flocks of wild turkey. And of elk and bear in Kentucky’s more mountainous regions. None of these were to be found when I was a kid.
So I understand those in my state who might take a skeptical view toward claims that the Earth is in environmental peril. They might hear a statement like this, which came from NPR’s Rachel Martin on “Morning Edition” one day in October—
The threat from climate change is so massive, so apocalyptic, it can be hard to wrap your head around. [October 16, 2019]
—and they might say, “Really? Tell that to the eagles.” Is it unreasonable for skeptics to react with disbelief to statements like this when it seems like the environment is rapidly regaining ground, right before their eyes? Or consider this statement:
The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.
That is from Pope Francis (Laudato Si, paragraph 21; also June 18, 2015 @Pontifex). Again, might not a skeptic from Kentucky legitimately scoff?—especially one who recalls that, not so long ago, what you saw when you looked up to the sky from downtown Louisville was likely to be a filthy, polluted, yellow sky, and not eagles soaring in an azure sky? ‘More and more like a pile of filth?’ Tell that to the eagles. Perhaps, our skeptic might say, the Vatican is making the same sort of mistake that it made when it opposed the Copernican theory: offering opinions on matters of science in which further information might yet come forth.
Moreover, our skeptic might say, Kentucky is not a wealthy state. Kentucky needs economic growth to improve the lives of Kentuckians—to provide jobs, education, and opportunities, and to have less people hopeless and addicted to opiates. Our skeptic might even think we have already given up too much for those soaring eagles.
But there is another story about October and soaring in Louisville, Kentucky. A week prior to that brisk fall day with the eagles soaring in the perfect sky, something else was soaring: the temperature. The first days of October saw temperatures in the upper 90s (°F) / mid-upper 30s (°C). Temperature records were shattered. Existing high temperature records were topped by 5°F / 3°C. This followed a September that itself shattered high-temperature records, and that was nearly devoid of rain. High 90s is hot in Louisville, even in July. But high 90s in late September and early October? When the days are shorter than the nights? With no rain, the grass brown, and plants wilting? Perhaps the word “apocalyptic” does come to mind. Happily, the rain came, and the temperatures fell, so that by October 12 we had a perfect, brisk fall day to see those eagles.
The theory behind human-caused climate change is not complex: the idea is that human activity is altering the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, and altering it in such a way as to cause it to retain heat more efficiently. The theory is not new. In 1866 Fr. Angelo Secchi, a pioneer in astrophysics who is considered a key figure in the development of the Vatican Observatory, wrote that,
Definitely we are facing a climate change, due to human activity such as deforestation and the introduction of artificial sources of heat [i.e. burning fuels].
Measurements indicate that indeed the composition of the atmosphere is changing in a manner consistent with what would be expected from deforestation and the burning of fuels, both of which release carbon into the air. And various measurements indicate that the Earth is warming, as would be expected from the measured changes in the atmosphere.
The theory makes sense, but I have discussed in previous posts how a resident of Kentucky (click here) or Wisconsin (click here) might have grounds for skepticism about any claimed warming. What is more, science can be a tricky business. When the Vatican rejected the Copernican theory, it could certainly cite powerful scientific arguments, and prominent scientific authority (i.e. Tycho Brahe) against any motion of the Earth. No doubt the Vatican folks from that time who were involved would be rather surprised to see how things turned out. The science of Earth’s motion changed. As Br. Guy often points out in talks, what is in science books changes: a biology textbook from a century ago will not serve you so well today.
And yet, our Kentucky skeptic has seen high 90s in October. Recall the post from last week on Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal, a man of solid faith, is considered a sort of founding figure of decision theory—the science of how to weigh risks and rewards in order to make rational choices. In Pascal’s case, the choice was whether or not to believe that God exists. Our Kentucky skeptic might consider a sort of Pascal’s Wager on whether or not to believe that climate change exists. Pascal argued that to decide to believe that God exists is a low-risk, high-reward proposition. To our skeptic, to choose to believe that climate change exists is probably not such an easy choice.
Suppose our Kentucky skeptic believes authority, believes the climate scientists, and accepts the existence of climate change. Thus, despite those eagles soaring in Kentucky’s own perfect October skies, our Kentucky skeptic accepts the idea of impending environmental apocalypse. Suppose furthermore that our skeptic endorses actions to mitigate climate change, actions that in fact do hurt Kentuckians economically. And suppose the authorities turn out to be wrong. Will the judgment of our skeptic’s children and grandchildren not be that our erstwhile skeptic was a fool for caving in to ‘the hype’ when our skeptic could see eagles soaring overhead in a perfect fall sky?
Now suppose our skeptic staunchly continues to reject the existence of climate change, despite authority, despite the scientists—and despite high 90s in October on our skeptic’s own home turf. Suppose our skeptic cites the economy and the soaring eagles, and dismisses the soaring temperatures as a fluke—another bit of crazy Kentucky weather (they say that if you don’t like the weather in Kentucky, wait five minutes, and it will be something different). But then, suppose that the next freak heat wave and drought hits, not in the fall, but in the heat of the summer. Suppose the mid-summer high temperature records are shattered as thoroughly as the October records were shattered, and the drought is as long, or longer, than it was this fall. If the temperature in the heat of the summer is continually breaking 110°F, and crops are failing, and animals dying, and water is severely rationed, and industry and the economy are severely curtailed, and the lush Kentucky landscape is brown and devastated, will the judgment of our skeptic’s children and grandchildren not be that our skeptic was a fool?—a fool who not only ignored authority, but who also ignored the personal experience of October 2019’s soaring temperatures?
I am not saying that these scenarios are realistic. I am not saying that the economy and the environment are in fact necessarily opposed. I am saying that, when I see those soaring eagles, I can see where a climate skeptic might be coming from. But when I see those soaring temperatures, I think that skeptical outlook involves a lot of risk. Blaise Pascal, where are you?
This pair of eagles is just upriver from downtown Louisville:
Check out Blaise Pascal’s Wager on the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science site (click here for it).
If you like math and science it is likely that you have encountered Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Perhaps you learned about Pascal’s Principle of hydraulics in a physical science class, or in an engineering technology class where you learned about machines that use hydraulics. Or maybe you read about his work with measuring atmospheric pressure, and how he found that as he ascended a mountain the pressure he measured grew less and less. You might have encountered Pascal’s Triangle in a math class.
Pascal’s Wager involves matters of faith—sort of. The Wager is an argument that it is reasonable to seek to believe in God. “Seek”, because the Wager is directed to the person who neither believes nor is inclined to believe. The Wager argues that a person risks little, and gains much, by choosing to seek belief in God. It is all about balancing risk and reward, and apparently Pascal is viewed by some as a sort of founding figure of decision theory—the science of balancing risks and rewards to arrive at good decisions. Surely gamblers beat Pascal to this idea by centuries, if not millennia—and Pascal says as much in the Wager. But apparently Pascal was the first to write about it.
The Wager is not about belief itself. Pascal uses the idea of a wager only to lead an intelligent non-believer, who has no inclination toward belief, to the point of seeing that belief is rational. But Pascal writes that tightly-reasoned proofs are not what leads people to God, and he does not urge the non-believer to pursue them. We know God only by Jesus Christ, Pascal says, and those who have claimed to know God, and to prove God without Jesus Christ, have offered little.
Click here to check out the full text of Pascal’s Wager, from the VO Faith and Science pages. I wager you will find it interesting!
This post is part of a series of posts on Pi, infinity, and other things mathematical. Click here for the series.