“The Lady of Shalott” is a poem about isolation and mental illness caused by addiction to “screens”. The author of the poem is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was born in 1809 and died in 1892.*
The central character of the poem is a woman who has completely isolated herself. She never looks beyond the walls of her castle, which is itself isolated, located out in a river on an island called Shalott. Rather, she only views the outside world through her phone’s screen, via her web connection. Indeed, she has become so obsessed with viewing the world only through a screen that she has come to believe she will bring down a curse upon herself if she ever looks outside.
But then, one early winter’s day, as she watches through some web cam the river road that passes near her castle, she sees the knight Lancelot passing right by her place, on his way to Camelot. She is so smitten by Lancelot’s stunning appearance that she leaps up from her screen to go look out and see him directly. She sees him, but then she realizes that in her haste to rush to see outside she somehow unwittingly broke her phone and severed her web connection. Overwhelmed both by seeing the intense beauty of the real world, and by the loss of her technology, she decides she is indeed doomed. So she gets in a boat, casts off into the river’s current, and lies down to die. She floats down the river toward Camelot, perishing of hypothermia and despair before she arrives there. Lancelot sees her, marvels sadly at her beauty, and prays for her—and thus the poem ends.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Major Authors Edition (1962) says that Tennyson completed the poem in 1842. How could he have written at that time about such things as are described here? I do not know, but read the poem if you doubt my words.
What does this poem have to do with astronomy? The verses on Lancelot are laden with astronomical imagery. The sun, stars, our galaxy, star clusters, meteors—all are involved in Tennyson’s description of Lancelot as seen by the Lady of Shalott. Thus this poem is an example of astronomy in a work of art. Here are those verses:
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash'd into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.
According to the Anthology, Tennyson did “his own extensive study of writings by geologists, astronomers, and biologists” and had a “fascination with technological developments”—so this poem about “screen” addiction, abounding in astronomical imagery, makes perfect sense. He must have had a time machine, or at least a time portal for viewing the future—on a screen.
*Yes, the tongue is in the cheek here, but read the poem (click here for it) and tell me I am wrong! Comments section is below.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds is on TV this fall. It is great to see a popular show about science and scientists—a popular show that is educational. I am a big Cosmos fan. But of course, the show could always be better! Maybe a lot better.
Episodes 4 (“The Cosmic Connectome”) and 5 (“Vavilov”) were about the brain, and about genetics and agricultural science, respectively. On these topics I have little expertise. Nevertheless, I found troublingly narrow the discussion in Episode 5 of Soviet scientists who during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War preserved the seed bank at Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov’s plant industry institute. The show praised how these scientists preserved “several tons of edible material” even as 800,000 people starved to death in Leningrad—including the scientists themselves. Tyson ends the episode with the following:
So why didn’t the botanists at the Institute eat a single grain of rice? Why didn’t they distribute the seeds and nuts and potatoes to the people of Leningrad who were dying of starvation every day for more than two years?
Did you eat today? If the answer is yes, then you probably ate something that descended from the seeds that the botanists died to protect. They gave their lives for us. If only our future was as real and precious to us as it was to them.
There was something not right, something kind of “creepy” (to borrow a favorite term of my students) about how the show breezed through that. Hey, those botanists didn’t just give their lives—they gave other people’s lives, too. To be sure, even several tons of seeds, nuts, and potatoes would not have prevented the starvation of 800,000 people; ten tons divided among 800,000 comes to a fraction of an ounce per person. Nevertheless, those scientists preserved foodstuffs amid starvation. I suspect that not everyone who was in Leningrad during the siege would have shared Cosmos’s generous view of these scientists.
This story brought to my mind a recent book called Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. Miller explores the problematic side of what scientists will do in the name of science alone—what results when the voice of science tells us that people are really no different than ants, and there is no voice to say otherwise. Miller discusses one specific example of such results—eugenics, a prime example of science at its creepiest (and note, Miller is an atheist who essentially accepts that there indeed is no difference between ants and people, and so the book can be very dark and is not family fare). Cosmos might have benefited from having a voice like Miller’s to counterbalance that certain tone of science boosterism that appears in the telling of the Leningrad story. That might help keep the show out of the “creepy” zone.
Episode 6, “The Man of a Trillion Worlds”, does not have a “creepy” factor, but it does have other problems. Tyson tells the story of Gerard Kuiper, and how, in Kuiper’s youth, a century ago,
astronomers thought that the cosmos consisted of only a handful of planets, those of our own solar system. The great multitude of other stars were just barren points of light that had never given birth to worlds. We on Earth could still feel special. Our star system, the scientists told us, was the rarest of all, one blessed by worlds and moons.
Tyson goes on to tell about Kuiper’s study of binary stars—two stars orbiting one another, something that astronomers had observed many times—and how this study led Kuiper to consider how the solar system formed:
Kuiper asked himself, was our world, our Moon and all the planets of our solar system nothing more than a failed binary star system? And if that’s how our solar system was created, had the same thing happened around other stars throughout the cosmos?... He was the first to envision the universe we now live in. Not a barren vastness meagerly dotted by childless stars, but one overflowing with possible worlds, countless planets and moons. In 1949, Kuiper astonished the world by declaring that our solar system was not so special after all, that every other star had its own family of worlds.... But science wasn’t ready for that universe....
But the fact is, by Kuiper’s time astronomers had been speculating about a “plurality of worlds” for centuries. There are oodles of examples of illustrations from past centuries of the sun and its planets being but one among countless stellar systems.It is true that in the early 20th century the “plurality” idea was challenged. At that time the formation of Jupiter seemed to be a problem—Jupiter carries the bulk of the angular momentum in the solar system and no one could figure out a way to explain that momentum, if the solar system all formed together. So, in 1906 Forest Moulton, an astronomer, and Thomas Chamberlin, a geologist, theorized that the planets were the result of a near-collision between the sun and another star. The near-collision pulled out a stream of matter from the sun that eventually formed into the planets. Since stars are so far apart, that sort of near-collision would be incredibly rare. Therefore, our solar system would be incredibly rare. I have a book called Useful Science for High School (by Weed, Rexford, and Carroll), published in 1935, and on page 667 it says, “Astronomers have shown that it is probable that very, very few of the stars have planets”.
But the idea in common circulation was that stars have lots of planets. Consider Mark Twain’s Captain Stormfield’s visit to Heaven, published right about the time the “near-collision” theory was being proposed. In it the Captain discovers a universe so busy with other worlds that almost no one in it knows anything about Earth. Earth turns out to be considered an utter backwater of a world. And Twain wrote in a letter of 1909 about the inconsistency of the Genesis account, given that it describes God as taking several days to create the Earth, whereas “it took him only one day to make twenty million suns and eighty million planets!” Alfred Russell Wallace, who along with Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution of life forms based on natural selection, published a work in 1904 against the idea of intelligent life on other worlds (owing to the improbability of evolution producing another version of human beings, he said) in which he groused about those who—
cannot accept my view that the unknown planets that may exist around other suns are also without intelligent inhabitants. They give no reason for this view other than the enormous number of suns that appear to be as favourably situated as our own, and the probability that many of them have planets as suitable as our earth for the development of human life.
Wallace goes on to mention how these people think it ludicrous to suppose that intelligent life “has not been developed many times over in many of the worlds which they assume may exist”.
The idea of a plurality of worlds even was adopted by religious groups. Ellen G. White, a leader in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, wrote in 1913 of Earth as being the only planet to experience a Fall, and about how—
It was the marvel of all the universe that Christ should humble himself to save fallen man. That he who had passed from star to star, from world to world, superintending all, by his providence supplying the needs of every order of being in his vast creation,—that he should consent to leave his glory and take upon himself human nature, was a mystery which the sinless intelligences of other worlds desired to understand.
And the idea of very, very few planets never broadly caught on. Consider Superman, the “strange visitor from another planet [Krypton]”. He appeared just about the time my 1935 textbook was saying that very, very few of the stars have planets. And just a decade after Kuiper supposedly astonished the world, the whole SETI enterprise got started. In 1959 Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published a paper in the journal Nature, “Searching for Interstellar Communications”, about using radio telescopes to listen for transmissions from planets orbiting other stars—and in 1960 Frank Drake made the first attempt to do just that.
In light of all this, does the idea in Cosmos—that Kuiper was the “first to envision the universe we now live in”, and that in 1949 he “astonished the world” by putting forth the idea that every other star had its own family of worlds, and that somehow science was not ready for this—make any sense? I was surprised to see this stuff, so contrary to the historical record, featured so prominently in an episode. I was struck by this in the same way as I was struck by Mario Livio’s recent Galileo book that was so problematic. Do these guys who invoke the history of astronomy in speaking to large popular audiences ever actually study the history? Or do they just run with tried and true old tropes?
Much in Episode 6 is good—about Carl Sagan and the benefits that result when scientists talk across disciplines and talk to the public—but there is a lot of trope, mostly regarding the idea that life on other worlds may be common. The show features lots of computer-animated footage based on Sagan’s knack for speculatively envisioning life in places that are not like Earth, like the atmosphere of Jupiter (where, in his mind, there might be city-sized cloud-floating jellyfish creatures). There could be life in those Jovian clouds, you know!
But the science that Tyson discusses at one moment goes against these tropes he uses at another. For example, Tyson tells how Sagan’s mentor Harold Urey—
wanted to know how life could have originated from lifeless matter. Working with another student of his, Stanley Miller, Urey designed an experiment to simulate the chemical conditions of the atmosphere on the early Earth. They wanted to see whether those basic chemicals could have led to amino acids, the building blocks of life. Could lightning have provided the spark that awakened matter into life?
Since ancient times people have believed in “spontaneous generation” of life from lifeless matter. But science has shown all spontaneous generation theories to be wrong. The Urey-Miller experiment did not show how to awaken matter into life, and neither has any other experiment since. Getting life from non-life has so far been impossible, even on Earth where we know life happens. What scientific reason do we have for thinking life occurs in the inhospitable clouds of Jupiter?
Another example of the science Tyson discusses going against the tropes the show uses is his reporting on how—
We’ve only been hunting for new worlds for a few decades, but we’ve already discovered many thousands of them. We think some of them are hospitable to life and at least a dozen of them are earth-like.
If we take “many thousands” to be at least four thousand, that is roughly one earth-like planet for every 300 planets discovered. Now, what does Tyson mean by “earth-like”? We can’t see these planets to know details about them; what we can do is determine their sizes and their distances from their stars. Tyson does not define “earth-like”, but he probably means “at the right distance from a star to possibly have liquid water, and of similar size to Earth”. By these criteria our solar system has at least one “earth-like” planet, of course (Earth itself), but it may have as many as three (Venus, Earth, Mars). Thus, our solar system certainly has one earth-like planet for every 8 planets, and perhaps one for every 3 planets. Earth-like planets in our solar system are far more common than they are among the extra-solar systems we have discovered. And as Mars and Venus show, a planet can be a lot like Earth, and still be nothing like Earth. Those dozen “earth-like” planets could be incredibly hostile to life.
Thus we are discovering a universe in which our solar system, and our planet, seem to be atypical places. After all, we are finding that even our sun is not so typical as we might once have thought, given that, as Tyson reports, “as many as 80% of all the stars in the cosmos may be red dwarfs”—stars much smaller, cooler, dimmer, and longer-lasting than our sun.
So the trope in Episode 6 is that of the bold scientist who is the first to envision the universe we now live in, who astonishes the world by putting forth an idea that others are not ready for, an idea that shows that we are not special, and so on and so forth. But that trope is not what science is telling us. Maybe some day we will find that the universe really is filled with a plurality of worlds like ours, but right now there is no evidence for the thousands upon thousands of “solar systems” featured at the conclusion of Episode 6:
1,000 solar systems may be forming every single second.
That’s 1,000 new solar systems right there.
1,000 new solar systems.
1,000 new solar systems.
1,000 new solar systems.
1,000 new solar systems....
New planetary systems, maybe, but new solar systems, that is, places like ours? Unlikely. Besides, the formation of a planetary system takes longer than all of human history multiplied many times over. The idea that in some given second, a new planetary system forms, or a thousand form, makes no sense. Why must Cosmos do this stuff? Is not the science we know, and its history, cool enough as they are? Come on, Cosmos!
And so, O Reader of Sacred Space Astronomy, you have my comments on the latest episodes of Cosmos: Possible Worlds. Keep in mind all my gripes are like the commentary of the die-hard fan who is up in the bleachers, screaming at the coach and the players of his favorite team for turning the ball over three times in a row, but who will be back for the next game, win or lose, probably screaming at the team again, rooting for them to actually play up to their potential.
Click here for all posts on “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”.
This week I am re-posting an article by Glenn Walsh that I learned about through the
HASTRO (History of Astronomy) mailing list. This is a fascinating story of lost equipment,
stuff in barns, and the Adler Planetarium. Enjoy the read. You can see the original at
Mystery Solved! Oldest U.S. Planetarium Projector Found & Recovered (September 18, 2020).
Thanks to Mr. Walsh for permission to re-post it here.
A 50-year mystery has been solved! America's oldest planetarium projector, the Zeiss II / III Planetarium Projector, operated at Chicago's Adler Planetarium from 1930 to 1969, has been found and recovered.
The author of this blog-post, Glenn A. Walsh, is proud to have assisted in the resolution of this mystery.
On 1930 May 12, Adler Planetarium opened in Chicago as the first major planetarium in the Western Hemisphere, with a Zeiss Mark II from the Carl Zeiss Optical Works in Jena, Germany. Before World War II, four more Zeiss II Planetarium Projectors would find their way to America: Philadelphia: Fels Planetarium, Franklin Institute (1933); Los Angeles: Griffith Observatory (1935); New York City: Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History (1935); Pittsburgh: Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (1939).
The modern mechanical, projection planetarium was developed in Germany, with the first public showing on 1923 October 21 at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. This was the Zeiss Mark I, designed by the Carl Zeiss Optical Works. Adler Planetarium operated their Zeiss II Planetarium Projector from 1930 until 1961. Then, this projector was upgraded from a Zeiss II to a Zeiss III.
According to Mike Smail, Director of Theaters and Digital Experience at Adler Planetarium, “In 1961, Adler upgraded their projector, adding the two collars or ruffs at the base of each starball that held individual projectors for the 42 brightest stars, an upgraded Moon projector, and new chromium-coated, photo-engraved star plates (replacing the original hand-punched copper plates).” Mr. Smail's statement was made during his presentation, “There and Back Again: 90 Years of Adler's Zeiss Mark II” (click here to see the presentation), during the “History of Planetaria – What to Preserve and How” webinar, sponsored by the International Planetarium Society (IPS) History of the Planetarium Working Group on Thursday Morning, 2020 September 3.
It should be noted that all Zeiss III projectors are upgraded Zeiss II projectors. The Zeiss IV Planetarium Projector was the first all-new projector produced by Carl Zeiss, following World War II. The Zeiss II / III last operated at Adler Planetarium on 1969 December 31. It then took two weeks to dismantle the Zeiss II / III, to prepare it to be sent to Jackson, Mississippi. It took a couple more weeks to install the new Zeiss VI Planetarium Projector before it began presenting shows to the general public.
The Zeiss II / III was sent to Jackson, Mississippi for a yet-to-be built new planetarium theater. So, it appeared that this historic projector would get a new life educating the citizens of Mississippi, as the citizens of nearby Baton Rouge, Louisiana were being educated by another historic Zeiss II / III projector used originally by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
However, the Russell C. Davis Planetarium in Downtown Jackson opened in 1978, but with a different projector: the Minolta S-IV Planetarium Projector. This was the beginning of what would be a 50-year mystery regarding the fate of Adler Planetarium's historic Zeiss II / III Planetarium Projector.
The Russell C. Davis Planetarium had determined that the cost of rehabilitating Adler's 1930 projector was significantly more than the cost of a brand new projector from a different vendor. So, once Adler's historic Zeiss II / III Planetarium Projector left Mississippi, it took a convoluted route ending-up in a barn in central Ohio some years later. But for most of the 50 years, most people had no idea where the projector was located; the Ohio purchaser kept a low-profile and did very little with the projector.
About 20 years ago, planetarium historians Glenn A. Walsh and Brent Sullivan, with assistance from Gary Lazich, started looking for Adler's historic Zeiss II / III Planetarium Projector. Through research, including telephone and electronic mail interviews with people who had involvement with the Adler Zeiss Projector, a narrative started to be assembled showing what may have happened to the projector, although there were conflicting stories that were difficult to reconcile. Mr. Walsh compiled all of the stories on his History of Adler Planetarium Internet web-site, and he asked web-site readers to contact him if they had additional information. After April of 2008, no further information was received.
Mike Smail, during his September 3 presentation, announced that the Adler Planetarium had found and recovered the historic Zeiss II / III Planetarium Projector. He then, provided a summary of what had happened to the projector over these 50 years (1970 to 2020).
Mr. Smail explained:
As previously mentioned, the Davis Planetarium opened in 1978, but with a Minolta S-IV projector at its core. Why not the Zeiss? When the team in Jackson investigated the actual costs of re-constructing and updating the Zeiss, they found it would be upwards of $230,000. And when they reached out to planetarium manufacturers for bid quotes, they received an offer from Viewlex (then Minolta’s US Distributor) that was about $100,000 less than Zeiss repair costs. Viewlex also offered Jackson $30,000 in trade-in for the Adler’s Zeiss. I can’t say I blame them for that choice, and they got 35 good years out of that new projector. Adler’s Zeiss then found itself shipped to Viewlex’s Long Island warehouse space, where it sat for the next year or two.
In 1980, Viewlex Audio-Visual Inc. went bankrupt. The freight and storage company that owned their warehouse began calling up Zeiss planetariums around the country, looking for someone willing to pay $10,000 to purchase Adler’s Zeiss. One of their calls was to Sam Mims, one of the two Planetarium Curators at the Louisiana Arts and Science Center in Baton Rouge. Realizing the danger of this historic artifact being scrapped, Sam got a few investors together including his father and his co-curator Wayne Coskrey, and agreed to purchase the projector. Sam visited New York, inspected the projector, and that, coupled with freight company records, confirmed that this was the Adler’s Zeiss. After finalizing the sales contract, the projector was then shipped to a warehouse in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
At this time, the Louisiana Arts and Science Center's planetarium was also a Zeiss Model III, having originally been installed as a Model II in Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory. But Sam and Wayne didn’t have plans to use the Adler Zeiss for spare parts, they wanted to get it in the hands of someone who could put it to immediate use, or preserve its historical value. The Baton Rouge group ran ads in Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, and even the Planetarian (IPS quarterly journal) magazines looking for a buyer.
By 1987, they found a buyer. Don Greider, a solar engineer from Mechanicsburg, Ohio arranged to purchase Adler’s Zeiss with the goal of re-assembling it in his workshop. That was the last time anybody saw, or heard about the Adler Zeiss for over 20 years.
When Adler Planetarium inadvertently made national headlines in 2008, when a Presidential candidate confused funding a new planetarium projector for an overhead projector, Don Greider heard about the controversy on National Public Radio (NPR). He called Adler Planetarium, offering to help provide replacement parts for Adler's Zeiss VI projector, which was nearly 40 years old. He also mentioned that he had, in storage, Adler's original Zeiss II / III projector.
Mr. Smail continued:
This led to a series of phone calls, and even an in-person visit over the next few years, but by the end of 2012, Don had dropped out of communication.
On February 17 of this year (2020), I received a voicemail, forwarded from the museum’s main line. It was Don Greider’s son, Ken. He was making arrangements to clear out the barn, and wanted to know if we were interested in purchasing our Zeiss. On February 29, a small group from Adler drove out to the Greider farm, southwest of Mechanicsburg, Ohio in an attempt to verify that it was Adler’s Zeiss, and to inspect the condition of the parts. So what did we find?
We discovered a number of sealed crates containing portions of a Zeiss Model III Planetarium Projector, as well as a wide range of ancillary components that were part of a Zeiss Planetarium projection system. We also identified a series of shipping labels that traced out the projector's journey from Chicago to Mechanicsburg. In the packing material surrounding the North planet cage were pieces of the December 21, 1969 (coincidentally, date of the Winter Solstice) Chicago Tribune, further confirming that this was the Adler's long-lost Zeiss.
After a bit of back and forth, we settled on a price, and purchased our Zeiss back from the Greider family. We made a second trip to the farm in mid-June, to pack up as many of the small pieces as we could fit in our Adler van. The third and final trip was at the end of June; it was to oversee the removal of the final four crates.
All of the crates were then shipped, by truck, to Adler’s off-site storage warehouse in Chicago. Mr. Smail concluded his presentation saying, “We’ll soon be starting the process of determining how we approach restoration and public awareness of the projector, with the eventual goal to restore and reassemble the projector for display at the Adler Planetarium.”
During his prepared remarks, Mr. Smail also said, “If you’re one of the folks like me who try to stay up on planetarium history, you may know much of what I’ve already said, thanks to the incredible research compiled by Glenn Walsh, Brent Sullivan, and Gary Lazich and stored on Glenn's planetarium history website.”
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Walsh had been a lecturer in The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center, Pittsburgh's science and technology museum from 1939 to 1991), using Buhl's historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector. He was also Astronomical Observatory Coordinator, in charge of Buhl's astronomical observatory using the historic 10-inch Siderostat-type Refractor Telescope. Brent Sullivan is a planetarium collector and restorer. He has also been Director of Acquisitions and Restorations of the private Planetarium Projector & Space Museum in Big Bear Lake, California. Gary Lazich was Manager of the Russell C. Davis Planetarium in Jackson, Mississippi.
In 1994, Mr. Walsh started a grass-roots effort to prevent an Adler-type mystery from happening to another historic Zeiss Projector: the Zeiss II Planetarium Projector which had operated in Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium from 1939 to 1994. This is the only Zeiss II Planetarium Projector which had never had any major modifications from its 1939 installation. Shortly after Adler Planetarium opened in 1930, several members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh (AAAP – which had been established the previous year) visited Chicago to see this new way of explaining astronomy to the general public. As soon as they returned home, they immediately started lobbying to build a planetarium in Pittsburgh. In 1935, the Buhl Foundation (then, the nation's 13th largest philanthropic foundation) announced that they would build a planetarium in memory of Henry Buhl, Jr., who had owned one of Pittsburgh's major department stores, Boggs and Buhl. The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science opened in 1939. AAAP co-founder Leo Scanlon (who, in November of 1930, had constructed the world's first all-aluminum astronomical observatory dome) was one of the first two Buhl Planetarium lecturers.
In 1995, Mr. Walsh petitioned Pittsburgh City Council for a special public hearing on the proposed sale of the historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector, which is legally owned by the City of Pittsburgh. At the conclusion of the 1995 May 18 public hearing, City Council decided the historic instrument should remain in Pittsburgh. Today, Buhl Planetarium's historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector is on public display in the first-floor Atrium Gallery of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Science Center (located one mile southwest of the original Buhl Planetarium building, on the North Shore of the Ohio River).
Special Thanks: Mike Smail, Director of Theaters & Digital Experience, Adler Planetarium, Chicago.
(ⓜ = members only!)
Research is done at the Vatican Observatory. Some of that research is done by yours truly. In this post, I share some of the nuts and bolts of that research with Sacred Space Astronomy readers, and especially with subscribers, as those readers who are also subscribers actually help fund the operation of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, or VATT, on Mt. Graham in Arizona, and its associated programs.
My main area of research these days is the history of astronomy; that’s been my main area for roughly 15 years now. Currently I am working on a paper about three astronomers from the 17th century. These are Galileo Galilei, who of course you know, and the Jesuit astronomers Andreas Tacquet and Christoph Scheiner. Scheiner you might know from his battle with Galileo over sunspots. Tacquet you probably have never heard of.
I heard of Tacquet thanks to the English scientist Robert Hooke, who worked in the late 17th century. You may know Hooke from “Hooke’s Law” regarding forces in springs, or from his early work with microscopes, or from Isaac Newton’s famous dislike of him. In 1674 Hooke published a book in which he mentioned Tacquet and Giovanni Battista Riccioli, S.J., as being two of the greatest opponents of the Copernican theory. Riccioli’s science-based opposition to Copernicus has been one of my main areas of research over the years, so of course I had to check out Tacquet, given that Hooke mentions him and Riccioli together.
I dug up some of Tacquet’s work and translated it (it’s all in Latin, of course) to see what he has to say. Tacquet makes an interesting and elegant scientific argument about the problematic nature of stars and of the starry universe in the Copernican theory—an argument I had not heard before. And, in just a single sentence, Tacquet makes an interesting comment about how Galileo talks at length about the problems that stars create for Copernicus, but that all Galileo’s talk was of no use—that despite how much Galileo said, he did not address those problems (these being problems that arose given the understanding of stars that existed at the time; the problems were eventually solved, but long after Galileo, Scheiner, and Tacquet had died). This prompted me to take another long look at Galileo’s work.
Galileo’s stars discussion is in his Dialogue of 1632—the book that got Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition into an uproar. This stars discussion itself is focused on the writings of Scheiner, and specifically on Scheiner’s 1614 book Mathematical Disquisitions. Well, I’m the guy who translated Disquisitions into English, so of course this is all just right down my alley, so to speak.
The result is that I am working on a paper about the work of these three men. There is a back-and-forth going on between Galileo and these Jesuits over the nature of stars in a Copernican universe: Tacquet is criticizing Galileo who is criticizing Scheiner... sort of. Why “sort of”? Because Galileo seems unclear on where he stands. The Dialogue is written as a dialogue (duh) between three characters: Salviati, who is pro-Copernican; Simplicio, who is anti-Copernican (and references Scheiner a lot); and Sagredo, who is a “neutral party”. Usually Salviati is the smart guy in the dialogue, and Simplicio is the dumb guy.* However, in this stars discussion it is Simplicio who becomes the smart guy, while Salviati speaks astronomical nonsense. It’s all very interesting. We see here a debate taking place in which the usual certainties that we today imagine to exist in “The Copernican Revolution” are not so certain.
I have completed a working draft of the paper and submitted it to a journal. The draft has made it past the editor—although I had to make some changes first, as the editor thought I had too much technical jargon in the paper for the journal’s audience. (Hey, whether Salviati is making scientific sense, for example, is a technical matter, but the Galileo story is a historical matter; I find it difficult to both provide the technical information needed to explain concepts and be not so technical as to lose the more history-oriented members of my audience; indeed, you may have noticed that even in my posts.) The paper is now out for peer review.
But if you are gung-ho enough to be interested in this research, you can read the working draft by clicking on the link below... but only if you are a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such (if you are not, the link will not be visible). The paper is not short—36 pages with 9 figures! Enjoy a look at the very cutting edge of knowledge! 🙂
*One hypothesis that has been offered for why Galileo got in so much trouble over the Dialogue, and especially for why the pope got so mad at him personally, when they previously had been friends (in a 17th-century way), is that Galileo put some of the pope’s own words in the mouth of Simplicio, the “simpleton”, and the pope took that as an insult and a betrayal.
Black holes are all in the news, with the Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez, for their work on black holes. The Faith & Science post from this past Wednesday was about Juan Martín Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University; his area of study is black holes. The video below features Maldacena talking about his work.
Roger Penrose was at the Vatican Observatory in 2017 as part of its “Black Holes, Gravitational Waves and Space-Time Singularities” conference. Fr. Gabriele Gionti, S.J., who is a scientist at the V.O., sent me the pictures below of Penrose at that conference.
Since you are reading Sacred Space Astronomy, you have probably heard black holes mentioned many times. But, have you heard a good explanation of what they are? “Cool” things like black holes tend to be talked about a lot, and perhaps explained not so much—indeed, sometimes they seem to be something only wizards can understand. Yet the basic ideas behind black holes are straightforward. They are not beyond the comprehension of the average person.
Consider these three basic ideas:
#1) The laws of physics are the same for everyone, regardless of their “reference frame”.
Imagine you are riding in a bus that is smoothly traveling down a road, and you are holding a golf ball. You drop the ball. As you see it, the ball falls straight down to the floor of the bus and bounces. Your reference frame is that of a bus-rider. A person located on the side of the road, however, would not see the ball fall straight down and bounce straight up, because to that person the bus is moving by, and the ball is moving by with it. That person would see the ball drop and bounce, but also move by with the bus. You and the person on the side of the road would disagree about how you see the ball move. However, you would agree on the laws of physics that govern the ball’s motion. This idea is to some extent a matter of common sense.
#2) The speed of light is the same for everyone.
This is a postulate of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. No matter how you may be moving, you will always see light travel at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 meters per second. No matter where you are, or what you do, or what is happening, you will always find that light travels at this speed, known as c (because it is a constant for everyone). This idea of c arose from studies of electromagnetic waves (light is such a wave) in the 19th century. For example, consider sound waves. They travel through air at a certain speed, and if you also move through the air that motion will influence how you experience those waves. So, what do light waves travel through? Einstein’s idea of c bypassed such questions.
#3) There is no physical difference between gravity and acceleration.
This is another postulate of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Consider a classroom, on Earth, with only one tiny window. In that classroom a professor is teaching about the physics of falling objects. A golf ball dropped in the classroom accelerates downward. The ball gains speed at the rate of 9.8 meters per second every second—so that one second after it is released, it is moving downward at 9.8 m/s; two seconds after it is released, it is moving downward at 19.6 m/s; etc. (A shorthand for “9.8 meters per second every second” is “9.8 m/s2”.)
Everyone in the classroom sees the ball accelerate because the classroom is in Earth’s gravitational field, and Earth’s gravity pulls the ball downward.
However, if the same classroom were in a rocket ship in deep space that was itself accelerating at a constant 9.8 m/s2 thanks to its engines, the students and the professor could not tell the difference between that and the Earth’s gravity. While the professor was holding the ball, it would accelerate with the ship. When the professor released the ball, it would stop accelerating and would move with constant velocity (“an object in motion remains in motion”). However, the ship would continue to accelerate, and so the distance between the ball and the floor would decrease—everyone in the classroom would see the ball “fall” to the floor as though a force was acting on it. This is just like in a car: when you step on the gas and accelerate forward, loose objects on the dashboard “fall” backward as though there were forces on them; when you step on the brake, loose objects “fall” forward.
To make things perfectly clear here, this has nothing to do with which way the ship is heading. We can orient it any way we like; the ball always “falls” to the floor of the classroom in the same way. There is no up and down in space.
Arguably, this Idea #3 has links to studies of electricity and magnetism, too. For example, a magnetic field has a different effect on a clay ball than on an iron ball, even if both balls have the same mass. Why is this not the case for a gravitational field? Well, mass is defined by acceleration; Newton defined mass as force divided by acceleration. Indeed, a way to determine if the clay ball and the iron ball both have the same mass is to attach each to the end of the same horizontal spring, stretch the spring and release, and see how each moves in response to the spring’s force. So if gravity and acceleration are the same thing, that would explain why gravity acts on both balls in the same way.
A number of interesting consequences arise from this idea about acceleration and gravity being equivalent. These include gravitational lensing, gravitational red shift and time dilation, and black holes.
If gravity is physically identical to acceleration, then a gravitational field must act on a light beam. Suppose that, through the small window mentioned previously, a pulse of light enters the “classroom in the rocket ship”.
Because the ship is accelerating, the light pulse will “fall” towards the floor of the classroom at a rate of 9.8 m/s2, just like the golf ball did. The light moves so rapidly across the room that it will “fall” very, very little as it crosses the room, but nonetheless, it will “fall”. And, were the acceleration of the ship great enough, the “fall” could be significant, as in the figure below.
Now, if a gravitational field is identical to an accelerating reference frame, then a light pulse entering the window of the classroom in the gravitational field should also fall towards the ground. Gravity must act on light. This effect would be quite small in a classroom on Earth. However, the effect of light being deflected by a gravitational field has been well documented. The most dramatic examples of gravity acting on light are the examples of “gravitational lensing” found in astronomy. If a massive object such as a galaxy lies between an observer and a distant object, the galaxy’s gravitational field can bend light from the distant object toward the observer as shown here.
To the observer, light from the distant object seems to be coming from above and below the galaxy.
The result is that the observer sees an image of the distant object appearing above and below the galaxy. Of course, this happens in three dimensions, so images of the distant object can appear to the left and right of the galaxy as well. This is what is known as an “Einstein Cross”.
If the alignment is just right, it is possible for light from the distant object to converge from all directions around the galaxy toward the observer. The result of this sort of unique geometry is an “Einstein Ring”. However, gravitational lensing usually doesn’t produce such neat, clean shapes. The usual result of gravitational lensing is multiple images, often distorted into arc shapes.
Gravity does not exert a force on light; “force” refers to something which causes a mass-having object to change its motion. Light has no mass, so “force” is meaningless in reference to it. Thus we have to think of gravity in other ways than as a “force”. Light follows a straight-line path through space when not in a gravitational field, so we think of gravity not as a “force” but as a “warping” of space. Light wants to travel in a straight line through space, but space itself is curved by the presence of a massive object, so the light travels in a curved path. Think of water flowing through a hose. The water just wants to follow the hose. If the hose is straight, the path of the moving water is a straight line. If the hose is bent, the path the water follows is bent.
Gravitational Red Shift and Time Dilation
Launch a golf ball straight upward from Earth’s surface, and it will lose energy of motion as it rises upward in the planet’s gravitational field, and thus it will slow down. Gravity has an effect on light, just like on the ball, so light emitted straight up from a planet’s surface must also lose energy as it rises upward in the planet’s gravitational field. However, light does not slow down—remember Idea #2 above. The energy of light is related to its frequency, not its speed. High-frequency (short wavelength) blue light carries more energy; low-frequency (long wavelength) red light carries less. Thus blue light is more energetic than red. So light sent straight up in a gravitational field will lose frequency.
Consider a beam of light with frequency f sent up from a planet. When the light gets far from the planet (so far that the planet appears to be but a point by comparison), the frequency of the light will have decreased because the light will have lost energy, and it will have frequency f0. This change in frequency is called gravitational red shift. The name “red shift” is used because the effect tends to make blue light less energetic, longer in wavelength, and therefore redder in color.
Imagine that some astronauts who are in a ship that is far from the planet send a robotic probe down to the planet’s surface. The robot sends back a radio signal saying that it has landed. But suppose that the gravitational field of the planet is sufficiently strong to stretch the radio waves (radio is just a long-wavelength form of light) to twice their original length (so f0 = 2×f). Since the speed of light is always the same, that means the signal that the astronauts receive will be stretched to twice as long as the signal the robot sent—the wave train of the signal will be twice the length it was when sent by the robot, and it will take twice as long to cross the astronauts’ antenna as it took to leave the robot’s antenna.
The astronauts will therefore see all the actions of the probe occurring at half-speed, including the running of the robot’s clock. The astronauts will see time as running at half speed for the robot. Thus the gravitational red shift means that there is also a gravitational time dilation. Gravity is not just a warping of space, time is affected as well. Gravity is a warping of space and time by massive objects.
Now, imagine that the planet’s gravity is so strong that the signal sent by the robotic probe loses all its energy—like an upward-thrown golf ball that comes to a halt and drops back. The wavelength of the robot’s signal is infinitely red-shifted, so that the f0 the astronauts receive is zero; indeed they receive nothing. The gravity is so strong that no signal can escape. That is a black hole. Note that the black hole infinitely stretches the signal the probe sends, so it is warping space infinitely. The black hole infinitely stretches out the signal in time, too, so it is infinitely warping time. This infinite warping of space and time means that space and time, and hence the laws of physics, as we know them, do not exist in a black hole.
Now you understand black holes. And all that, from three pretty simple ideas! The logic of black holes was worked out before there was ever any evidence that such things actually exist. But now we have pretty solid evidence that black holes do, in fact, exist.
If you peruse the Vatican Observatory’s 2019 Annual Report you will come across the book Decoding the Stars: A Biography of Angelo Secchi, Jesuit and Scientist, by VO Adjunct Scholar Ileana Chinnici, which was published in 2019 by Brill. It is a really nice book that I can recommend to all readers of “Sacred Space Astronomy.” I am not the only one who likes this book. It was recently awarded the Donald E. Osterbrock Book Prize for Historical Astronomy by the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society (click here for more information on the award). Secchi was a pioneering astrophysicist—one of the first to study and classify stars by means of their spectra.
Secchi built an observatory in Rome on the roof of St. Ignatius church. The church was built to support a large dome, but the dome was never constructed, meaning the building could solidly support an observatory. Chinnici writes:
Thanks to a family legacy left by to his highborn assistant, Fr. Paolo Rosa Antonisi, Secchi took the opportunity to purchase a Merz equatorial telescope, which, at twenty-five centimeter aperture, was then the largest existing in Italy.... In 1852, after obtaining his superior’s permission, the project [of building on St. Ignatius] was carried out with the help of the young engineer Angelo Vescovali and with the financial support of Pius IX, who attentively followed the construction....
(Chinnici notes that Pope Pius IX was a science enthusiast who as a student had written a paper on the making of astronomical telescopes.) The Merz telescope served as Secchi’s main instrument. The St. Ignatius observatory is long gone, although the base of the observatory is still there and is even visible in Google maps!
However, it turns out that I can see Secchi’s telescope—and even look through Secchi’s telescope—without leaving the USA. Indeed, I hardly have to leave my state! All I have to do is go to the Cincinnati Observatory.
The Cincinnati Observatory does not actually have Fr. Secchi’s telescope—they just have one exactly like it. Consider this from their history page:
The Cincinnati Observatory is known as ‘The Birthplace of American Astronomy.’ It houses one of the oldest working telescopes in the world and was the first public observatory in the western hemisphere. Recently restored to its original beauty, the Observatory is a fully functioning 19th century observatory used daily by the public and amateur astronomers. The main telescopes are an 11-inch Merz and Mahler refractor from 1845....
In 1842, Cincinnati professor Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel was a dynamic, eloquent speaker and the first American populizer of astronomy – the Carl Sagan of the 1800s.... [I]n Munich, Bavaria (prior to a unified Germany) he discovered an 11-inch lens of incomparable quality that had already been ground but never installed. The tube was then constructed of brass and mahogany and the completed telescope was shipped via New Orleans, up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to downtown Cincinnati....
When the great refractor saw first light on April 14, 1845 it was the largest refractor in the Western Hemisphere and third largest in the world.
It is this telescope that is “one of the oldest working telescopes in the world”—still in regular use. And, it is all but identical to Angelo Secchi’s Merz at St. Ignatius. Consider the two sketches below—the telescope on the left is Secchi’s, the one on the right is Mitchel’s.
Now take a look at the two photos below. The one on the left is Secchi’s. Well, not quite. It is an identical Merz telescope installed at the Palermo observatory in 1865 by Secchi’s friend and scientific collaborator Pietro Tacchini (Chinnici writes that Tacchini and Secchi could easily compare the results of their observations because they had “two almost identical telescopes”). The telescope on the right is Mitchel’s. By the time the photo was taken the Cincinnati telescope had been moved to a different location and was mounted on a different pier than the one seen in the sketch. Mitchel’s 1845 Merz and Tacchini’s 1865 Merz would appear to be the same telescope—same tube, same spherical balancing weights, same spoked declination wheel, same counterweight on the declination axis.
It’s pretty remarkable how similar they are. So, it is a safe bet that the Merz telescope in Cincinnati is really similar to Secchi’s actual telescope. So, if you want to see what sort of telescope Fr. Angelo Secchi used in his pioneering work in spectroscopy, go see the Merz telescope at the Cincinnati Observatory! And you don’t have to just see it—the telescope is fully operational and open to the public, so you can see through it, too. Enjoy the photos below, which I took when I visited in August.
This is a "re-run" of a post that originally ran in January of 2019.
One correction is that I have since retired from my work at
Jefferson Community & Technical College, after a 30 year career there.
Let’s bet on that.
Is that not what science boils down to? Something that can be tested, proven? Like with a bet?
That ‘something’ might be: The sun will rise in the East tomorrow.
It might be more complex: The sun’s position at 8:45 A.M. tomorrow will be such that the sunlight passing through that window will fall upon this spot.
It might be quite a bit more complex: The sun’s light will be eclipsed by the moon on this date, starting at this time, and the eclipse will last this long.
But ultimately, you can make a bet on it: whether the sun will rise in the East, or whether its light shines on a certain spot, or whether the eclipse occurs as predicted. And the person who is foolish enough to bet against these things is going to be out some money. Early in each semester of my Astronomy 101 class at Jefferson Community & Technical College here in Louisville, Kentucky we inevitably talk about this, because at least some of my students have been taught that truth is relative—that we can have my truth and your truth:
No, we can’t, in fact, have that. If you say that your truth is that the sun will rise in the North tomorrow, and I say it will rise in the East (and we agree on the definition of North and East), then we can make a bet. And if we get up early and go to where we can see the sun rise, and take the rest of the class with us, then you will need to bring a lot of cash, because you will be buying everyone breakfast.
It takes very little time for the class to agree that there is not your truth and my truth regarding where the sun rises (and we can recognize that of course this does not apply across all human experience—for example, John might say the art of Vincent van Gogh is great, and Joe might truly believe John is wrong, and Jim might truly believe John is right). The class also quickly agrees that truth is not democratic: that even if we have a vote on where the sun rises, and 82% of the electorate votes that the sun indeed rises in the North—that does not mean the sun rises in the North. Of course, not everything in science is as sure a bet as where the sun will rise, but the fact that the class can get these issues out of the way so quickly, even despite cultural issues with the concepts of truth and science, shows that we are all scientists to some extent.
Of course plenty of people do not think of themselves as scientists. My wife used to tutor a logic class back in her graduate school days, and she met students who would say they could not do logic. But she would tell them that they could, and that in fact they did logic all the time:
You are here, after all. To come to a tutoring session requires logic, and measuring and other things that make science. To cross a street requires inference from past experience—a collection of data and calculations of a sort that let us estimate how wide the street is, how fast the cars are moving, our own acceleration and speed, and so forth.
Thus we are all scientists, to some extent. Only people who are delusional in the strong sense—who cannot recognize the sun rising in the East, or the car coming down the street—are truly not scientists. Such folks are likely to have a bad encounter with that car.
Some people can be quite scientific, who may not think of themselves as scientists at all. In places that sell cloth and sewing supplies I am always struck by the measuring tools that are for sale. In the tools display we see units of measurement, angles, circles, lines, Cartesian coordinate systems. There is more mathematics and measurement in such places than you will see almost anywhere else people commonly visit—all between the Hello Kitty polar fleece and the material for making silk flower arrangements. And by golly, if you do not make those measurements correctly and do not make those cuts precisely, and if you do not have a good model or pattern to base your work on in the first place, then that shirt you are working on will come out looking like a shapeless blob. You can bet money on that.
Sewing is not rocket science. It is not brain surgery. It is not nuclear engineering. But it is science to some extent. Crossing the street is not sewing, but it is also science to some extent.
This post is part of a collection of posts on the subject of who can do science (click here for the whole series). And the point of these posts is that science is an inclusive activity. Whether we sew, or build, or take care of sick people, or study the stars—and whether we praise God, or work as slaves, or are strangers in a strange land—we all do science, and we all understand what it is, and we all understand where the sun will rise tomorrow. Sometimes we get the impression that science is the business of The Scientists—you know, guys who look and think like this fellow at right. Sometimes the scientific world is not very inclusive, and reinforces that impression. But that impression is wrong. Science is the business of us all.
Have you been watching the new “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” series with Neil deGrasse Tyson? I have. Hey, it’s “Cosmos”, and I’d watch Tyson talk about digging dandelions. The man can talk science and people will listen, and even make TV shows about science. So, more power to him. I’m glad “Cosmos” is on. I’ve seen three episodes now—the opening “double header” of episodes 1-2 (September 22), and the “third” episode (September 29)—and while I like this science show, I am going to criticize it.
“Cosmos” gives a misleading picture of the universe. The show is loaded with computer animation. Things go boom. Things crash together. Things flash. From opening credits to closing credits, the universe is one big fireworks show. Processes that would take longer than all of recorded human history flash across the screen in mere moments. The universe of “Cosmos” is far zippier, flashier, and more colorful than the universe you might see with your eyes or through a telescope. This is rarely, if ever, explained in the show. “Cosmos” will certainly spawn a new generation of people who buy telescopes and find themselves very disappointed with what they see. They are going to look through the eyepiece at the real universe and say, “that’s it?!?” Don’t look to “Cosmos” to see an accurate picture of what the universe looks like.
Do look to “Cosmos” for lame philosophizing. Consider Tyson’s discussion on insects, people, and souls, from the second half of the double-header premier (at about the 15:00 mark):
We might be willing to grant the proposition that insects or even geese are mindless machines, but what about us? What, if anything, do the other animals think? What might they have to say to us if we could only communicate? When we observe them carefully, don't we find evidence of spontaneous decision-making? When we consider the genetic kinship of all life on Earth, is it plausible that humans have immortal souls and all other animals do not?...
Consider our friend the beetle again. It can see, walk, run, smell, taste, fly, mate, eat, excrete, and lay eggs. It has internal programs for accomplishing these functions—contained in a brain with a mass of only a milligram—and specialized, dedicated organs for carrying the programs out. But is that all? Is there anyone in charge, anyone inside, anyone controlling all these functions? What do we mean by “anyone”? Or is the beetle just the sum of its functions, and nothing else, with no executive authority, no insect soul?...
Some scientists get nervous if you ask about the consciousness of a housefly. On the inside, within its tiny brain, does it have no perception of making choices, no awareness of its own existence? Not a milligram’s worth of self-consciousness? Not a hint of a hope for the future? Not even a little satisfaction at a day’s work well done? If its brain is one millionth the mass of ours, shall we deny it one millionth of our feelings and our thoughts? And if, after carefully weighing such matters, we insist it is still “only” a robot, how sure are we that this judgment does not apply as well to us?
There is much that is wrong here, but to choose one thing: does Tyson really want to suggest that brain mass reflects anything? What is the difference in brain mass between a big person and a small one—between a towering basketball star on one hand, and a diminutive Olympic gymnast on the other? Does anyone think that size connects to self-consciousness, hope for the future, and satisfaction at a day’s work well done? No. So why is someone as obviously intelligent as Tyson making this connection? In fact, the above discussion on insects is taken directly from Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s 1992 book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Why did they, smart people both, write this? What is it doing in a science show?
Happily, the “third” episode left such things behind and focused on providing a nice tour of ideas about the formation of life on Earth and about the possibility of life on other planets. It had a nice segment about John Herschel, his father William and Aunt Caroline. Still, for a science show from 2020, “Cosmos” could sound a lot like that 2000-year-old poem by Lucretius, Of the Nature of Things. The episode opened with this—
This was our Milky Way when the galaxy was young and more fertile than it is today. Back then, she birthed 30 times as many stars as she does now—a firestorm of star creation.... Our own star was a child of the galaxy's later years, and that may be one of the reasons we exist.
The episode was full of references to “Nature” in the feminine, and to “Mother Earth”, and to pores in rocks that became “incubators” for the first life. Lucretius referred to “wombs” in the ground that formed the first life, rather than incubating pores in the rocks, but the language is the same:
And therefore Parent Earth does justly bear
The Name of Mother, since all rose from her...
Then who can wonder now, that then She bore
Far stronger, bulky Animals, and more,
When both were young, when both in Nature’s Pride;
A lusty Bridegroom He, and She a buxom Bride?...
For then much vital Heat in Mother Earth,
Much moisture lay: And where fit Place was found,
There Wombs were form’d, and fastend to the Ground:
In these, the yet imperfect Embryo’s lay,
Thro’ these, when grown Mature, they forc’d their way,
Broke forth from Night, and saw the cheerful Day...
The Earth, when new, produc’d no raging Cold,
No Heats, nor Storms: These grew, as she grew old.
Therefore our Parent Earth deserves to bear
The Name of Mother, since All rose from Her....
But weary’d now, and tir’d by length of Time,
The Earth grows old, and weak; as Women past their Prime....
Thus alt’ring Age leads on the World to Fate:
The Earth is diff’rent from her former State:
And what in former Times with Ease She bore,
Grown feeble now, and weak, She bears no more,
And now does that She could not do before.
Furthermore, Tyson presents these ideas with no mention of how ideas about life formation and life on other worlds have been, historically speaking, a fiasco. Since Aristotle in ancient times scientists have assumed that life arises spontaneously from inanimate matter; since at least Johannes Kepler in the early 17th century astronomers have assumed that other planets would be like Earth and would have life—but again and again science has shown those assumptions to have been wrong. History shows us that scientists have consistently expected the universe to be like Earth; we have expected other stars to be like our sun, other planetary systems to be like our planetary system, and other worlds to be like our world. We have expected homogeneity in the universe, but we have found diversity; most stars are not just like our sun, most planetary systems are not just like our solar system, most worlds are not just like Earth. And spontaneous generation has never been shown to work (and not for lack of effort in trying on the part of scientists).
“Cosmos” overlooks this history completely. The “third” episode of “Cosmos” keeps speaking of life as an “escape artist” that “will not be contained”, but what the science of the past two centuries has shown is that, as far as we can tell today, life is indeed “contained”—to Earth and only to Earth. Astronomers from 1820 widely believed that the whole solar system would be full of life, and they would have been shocked to see how lifeless the other worlds of the solar system really are. After all, as Kepler put it, speaking of the Jovian moons Galileo had discovered—
Our moon exists for us on the earth, not for the other globes. Those four little moons exist for Jupiter, not for us. Each planet in turn, together with its occupants, is served by its own satellites. From this line of reasoning we deduce with the highest degree of probability that Jupiter is inhabited.
Of course, we might yet find some life on the worlds Tyson discussed—on Mars or Europa or Enceladus. After all, just because the historical trend on this does not look good, that does not mean that trend can’t change; “past performance does not guarantee future results”. But those worlds are all very different than Earth (were you to be teleported to any one of them you would very shortly be dead) and science has never found life arising from inanimate matter (the incubating pores idea is merely that—an idea). Given all this, and given the fiasco of past performance, don’t bet any money on life on Mars or Europa or Enceladus, unless you have money to lose. Of course, who wants to watch a science show and hear “don’t bet on life”?
So, watch “Cosmos”. Enjoy the spectacle of all the flashing lights and things blowing up and crashing together. Enjoy the lame philosophizing and the lack of historical perspective. After all, a science show is still a “show”.
Do young Catholics leave their faith because of science? Some data say they do. In 2017, St. Mary’s Press of Minnesota and Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate published Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics. This very short book was a report on a study done in 2015 of young former Catholics, ages 15-25 at the time. Those former Catholics would today be ages 20-30.
The study involved a national survey that sifted through almost 4000 young adults (ages 18-25) and teens (ages 15-17) to find 184 young adults and 20 teens, all who self-identified as Catholic in the past but did not self-identify as Catholic at the time of the survey. The median age at which these folks abandoned Catholicism was 13 (that is, of the 204 respondents in the survey, half stated that they had left Catholicism at age 13 or earlier, half said they left at age 13 or later). One of the reasons that these young former Catholics cited for leaving Catholicism was science.
Science came up in the seventh question of the survey. It read:
There are many reasons people might leave Catholicism. Please indicate how important, if at all, each of the factors listed below were in your decision to no longer be Catholic.
Twenty-four different factors were then listed, and respondents were asked to rate each with one of these four levels of importance:
1 - Not at all important
2 - A little important
3 - Somewhat important
4 - Very important
Of the twenty-four factors, the two highest-rated factors were
Stopped believing in what the Catholic Church teaches
Did not like the Catholic Church’s rules and judgmental approach
50% of respondents—102 of the 204 young people who took the survey—rated each of these factors with a “3” or “4”. Next came
Disagree with the Church’s stance on a political issue important to me (e.g., immigration, same-sex marriage, death penalty, abortion, climate change)
47% of respondents—96 of the 204 young people who took the survey—rated this factor with a “3” or “4”.
And next, ranking #4 out of 24 possible factors, was
Church conflicts with my scientific beliefs
36% of respondents—73 of the 204—rated this factor with a “3” or “4”.
What ranked #5? That was
Stopped believing in God
It was rated “3” or “4” by 30% of respondents—61 of the 204.
So science ranked high, including above loss of belief in God. Notably, it ranked above factors like Reaction to the sexual abuse of minors committed by Catholic clergy, or A tragedy or death affected me and I began to question my faith, or Found a religion I like more, or Did not feel welcome in the Catholic community, or Believe the Catholic Church has become too liberal or progressive/too traditional or conservative, or The Catholic Church wasn’t meeting my spiritual needs, and a dozen others.
Before we proceed further: Remember, O Readers of Sacred Space Astronomy—O Readers of this SCIENCE BLOG—that a study like this has to be taken for what it is. “Reproducibility” is key in science. If we ran this study again, would we get the same results? How would the results change if we just re-arranged the order of the twenty-four factors? Or if we changed the wording slightly? For example, if we changed the wording on the “science” factor from “Church conflicts with my scientific beliefs” to “Church teachings conflict with scientific evidence”? After all, “scientific beliefs” is a weird phrase, and perhaps carries within it the suggestion that science is sort of a religious activity in conflict with church. I doubt anyone is going to rigorously reproduce this study several different times to test all this out, so we will not know the answers to these questions. Moreover, the authors of Going, Going, Gone themselves state that the sample of 184 young adults and 20 teens “results in a margin of sampling error for all respondents of +/- 6.9 percentage points”. That’s a lot of error. And that’s just the inherent error that arises from the process of asking a sample of people questions and supposing their answers represent all 15-25 year-old former Catholics.
So, do not accept these results as being handed down from On High on Stone Tablets. What I would take away from this study is simply that there is reason to believe that science is indeed a factor in the decisions many young people make to leave Catholicism—along with other factors, such as not believing in what the Church teaches, not liking its rules and judgments, political conflicts with teachings, and loss of belief in God.
However, what is unique about the “science” factor is that it can be addressed. After all, if someone says he or she does not believe some Church teaching—for example, if someone says “I think that ‘Communion of Saints’ stuff in the Creed is completely bogus”—well, that is tough. After all, the Communion of Saints is indeed in the Creed. Or if someone says “I hate Lent and the abstaining from meat on Fridays”—well, Lent is indeed part of Catholicism, and abstaining from meat is part of that. And obviously lack of belief in God would be a Big Problem! But conflict with science is not in the Creed, obviously, and it is not part of Catholicism.
I’m not in religious education or pastoral work. I have no suggestions about what to do if a young person is thinking “I hate Lent, and I am going to leave the Church because I am sick of Lent and sick of all those stinking Friday fish fries my parents drag me to.” But if a young person is thinking “I hate how the Church conflicts with science, and I am going to leave the Church because I am sick of its attitude toward science”, I have suggestions. The young person is leaving the Church over a myth. The solution is to dissolve the myth. Also, the solution is to make sure all Catholics, including older Catholics, are well-educated so that they can recognize the myth and not let it get a toe-hold in the minds of young folks in the first place. If young people think there is a problem with the Church and science, that is probably because they are learning that from other people within the Church itself who have in some way accepted the myth.
It is one thing for a young person to leave the Church at 13 over something that is actually a part of the Church. It is another thing for a young person to leave the Church at 13 over a falsehood—to leave the Church over some mythological conflict with science. That needs to simply not happen, and surely it can be addressed with relative ease. The issue of young people leaving the Church is a big one, but the science side of the issue should be “low-hanging fruit”.
One evening last month my wife and I were watching a lovely sun set and were struck by the changing illumination of the clouds after the sun had disappeared below the horizon. First, sunlight shone up on the undersides of the clouds. Then, gradually, the lower clouds grew dark while the higher clouds remained lit. Finally, even the high clouds went dark.
And this of course led me to the obvious question:
Where is the edge of the Earth?
After all, those clouds were darkened by the Earth’s shadow passing over them. See the figure below. The flat Earth is in dark green. When the sun is at some angle A below the horizon of a flat Earth, a higher cloud (1) will be lit (from below) by the sun’s rays while a lower cloud (2) will be in the shadow and dark. If we know the height H of cloud 1 and the angle A, we can calculate the distance D from the spot under the clouds to the edge of the Earth.
How would we determine A? As the rises, sets, and rises again, it completes a circuit of 360 degrees in 24 hours of time. That is 15 degrees per hour; 0.25 degrees per minute. Knowing the time of sunset, the direction the sun is moving at sunset, etc., we can use the 0.25 deg/min value to determine just how far below the horizon the sun will be at any moment after sunset.
What about the cloud height H? Airliners flying at 30,000 feet or so fly well above most clouds. We could reasonably estimate H as 20,000 feet.
Let us then determine the distance to the edge of the Earth. Refer to the photograph below. It shows a cloud above Louisville, Kentucky, illuminated by the sun while clouds below it are dark. It was taken at 8:54:42 PM on May 23 of this year (thank you, camera, for stamping that information on the image file). At that moment the angle of the sun below the horizon was A = 0.8729 degrees.*
Calculating the distance D is an exercise from high school trigonometry: the tangent function for triangles. If H = 20,000 ft and A = 0.8729 deg, trigonometry says D = 1,312,600 ft, which is approximately 250 miles.*
Thus, if the Earth is flat, the edge of the world is just 250 miles away! Denver, Las Vegas, and San Francisco all must not exist. Nothing must exist west of the Mississippi River. The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), located on Mt. Graham in Arizona, must not exist, either. If the Earth is flat.
Alter the height of the clouds a bit and things do not really change: Were the illuminated clouds in the photo at 40,000 ft then the edge of the world would be 500 miles away. There would still be no Denver, no VATT, etc. If the Earth is flat.
Of course, the point here is that obviously the Earth is not flat! Watching a sunset shows that the Earth does not even look flat. We can see from the light on the clouds that the edge of a flat Earth would be too close (the light is not a problem for a globe Earth).
I love carping on the shape of the Earth. It is such a great illustration of the basics of science, and of the problems our modern society has with science. Modern flat-Earth-ism is something all my recent students have been familiar with; some of them even claim to think themselves that the Earth is indeed flat. Flat-Earth-ism is a creature of the internet, but it is also a creature of our modern approach to knowledge itself, of our modern insistence that knowledge consists of believing what experts tell us (especially those experts whose proclamations mesh with our own world views; especially when the topic involves math). That modern insistence means that too often we teach children in school that the Earth is round, but do not teach them how we know that it is. So they end up finding flat-Earth-ism plausible, because to them the fact that Earth is round is just something some expert says.
But science is not based on what experts say. It is based on observing and measuring the real world, thinking critically and mathematically, and seeing for ourselves: “reproducibility” is the word. We can’t personally reproduce every scientific result, of course—to a great extent we must rely on other scientists, and especially on past scientists, who became the experts by doing the observing, measuring, and so forth.
But it is good to personally reproduce and verify some things. Sometimes we can do that just by watching a sun set and seeing the light play upon the clouds.
*While calculating A is not hard, I found its value of 0.8729 deg the really easy way: I plugged in the date and time into the Stellarium planetarium app and it gave me the angle, which agreed with my rough analysis. To find D, I used
tan(A) = H/D
D = H/tan(A) = 20,000 ft/tan(0.8729) = 1,312,600 ft.
1,312,600 ft / 5280 ft/mile = 248.6 miles.
Sometimes you find the night sky where you least expect it. When I began writing for Sacred Space Astronomy / The Catholic Astronomer I started keeping an eye out for examples of astronomy in art and architecture. Those examples have been far less common than I would have guessed. So I was pleasantly surprised to find the sun, moon, and stars all represented in art—all in the sink of a Mexican restaurant!
Who expects to look down into a sink and find the sky there? The answer to that question might be “more people than you think, Graney”, because a few months after seeing the sink pictured above, I ran into another sky sink, pictured below. This was at a different Mexican restaurant (yes, I am a big fan of Mexican restaurants).
The artists who created these sinks did not aim for a “realistic” depiction of celestial bodies. In particular, the first sink shown here has little crescent shapes with dots embraced within the crescents—a configuration that never occurs in the sky. Nevertheless, these sinks represent all the heavenly bodies visible to the eye: the blazing sun, rosy-cheeked in both depictions; the crescent moon, shown in both sinks with long eyelashes; and stars (I am taking the historical view and counting the planets as “wandering stars” here).
While the artists may not have aimed for a realistic depiction, one of the sun depictions hints that its artist might have known a little more about astronomy than the average person. The first sink’s depiction of the sun includes, inside the fiery blazes spreading out in all directions that are so common in representations of the sun, a sort of orange “grass” around the edge of the solar disk itself. This looks a lot like the solar spicules that I have seen in Hydrogen-alpha images of the sun.
Maybe the artist had some familiarity with what the sun looks like through an H-alpha filter. Maybe the artist had just seen enough H-alpha pictures of the sun to think to add this touch. Or, maybe this is purely coincidence, and the artist just liked the orange “grass”.
At any rate, these two sinks are cool examples of astronomical art. I saw a lot of other examples of astro-art at a Mexican market in San Antonio, Texas, last year, so now I really have my eye on all things Mexican for still more cool examples of astronomy in art. Looking down and seeing the sky will no longer be so unexpected.
Click here for all Astronomy in Art & Architecture posts.
Have you ever heard a scientific explanation for the origin of life? Carl Sagan discussed this in his famous “Cosmos” TV show, during the second episode, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue”:
Now, let’s take a closer look at who our ancestors were. A simple chemical circumstance led to one of the great moments in the history of our planet. There were many kinds of molecules in the primordial soup. Some were attracted to water on one side and repelled by it on the other. This drove them together into a tiny enclosed spherical shell like a soap bubble, which protected the interior. Within the bubble, the ancestors of DNA found a home and the first cell arose.
Sagan’s discussion remains current. You can find a more recent short video discussion of the origin of life by typing “origin of life” into a Google video search. You will get results something like what is seen below. The short videos consist of material from “Stated Clearly” (whose funders include NASA and the National Science Foundation), from “Khan Academy”, and from “TED-Ed”. All these are well-known sources. All say things similar to what Sagan said.
For example, in the Khan Academy video, the presenter talks first about when life might have formed, noting that originally,
Earth wasn't very suitable for even very simple life to form, and that's because the solar system was a crazy place. You had collisions of all scales happening all of the time. The moon itself was formed from the collision of two planet-sized objects... And even once the moon was formed, you had a heavy bombardment of things in the solar system; the solar system was a messy place. It took a long time for the stability that we now observe out there. And so that continued, we believe, until about 3.9 billion years ago, which is the earliest that we currently think that Earth might have been suitable for life.
The presenter then goes on to note that fossil evidence points to life actually existing by 3.5 billion years ago, so obviously Earth was suitable by then. But even if we can pin down a time frame for when life first arose, he continues, that does not answer the question of how life first arose. The question of “how” he says, is more important and more interesting than the question of “when”. He then talks about simple molecules like water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia; and then about amino acids and how those and other organic molecules have been found outside of Earth; and about how lab experiments have been able to show that complex organic molecules appear to form readily in certain environments. He notes that these molecules are not life, and they are not even as complex as many of the molecules that are essential for life. But, he says,
We have evidence that you can go from the amino acids to the proteins, or you can go from the nucleotides to the DNA without the presence of life, that these things can happen spontaneously if you have the right context, the right energy available, some people believe; or it's been observed, that if you have the right surfaces that these molecules can be organized in the right way to form these more complex things.
Then he gets to the question of life itself:
Now, I know what you're thinking: 'Alright, proteins are really cool, DNA, RNA is really cool, but then how does that become life? At what point would we start going, "That was a proto-life form?"'
And this is where we really get into the area of the unknown because we don't know. And there's a couple of hypotheses out there.
One of them is called the RNA World Hypothesis... And this is the idea that the first proto-life was self-replicating RNA molecules. And the reason why people tend to focus in on RNA a little bit more than DNA is that even in cells today, RNA doesn't just store information, it can actually play a role as a catalyst… And so maybe some of that first proto-life was RNA, information that replicated itself and catalyzed the replication of itself. Maybe it somehow got organized into membrane-bound structures so it could separate so you had environments that were separated from the outside world. But the simple answer is we don't know.
Another mainstream hypothesis is the Metabolism First Hypothesis... And this is the idea that a lot of basic pathways that you might study in a biochemistry book... could have been happening in this primordial soup where you had these organic molecules in the right conditions, maybe around heat vents and whatever else, but the Metabolism First is that some of these mechanisms that we now study in biochemistry, these might have happened outside of a cell or outside of life, and they just kept creating more and more complexity, but at some point these things started happening in self-organizing, membrane-bound structures.
Maybe there's some kind of combination of the two. The simple answer is we just don't know, but there's some fascinating clues.
So, between Sagan in the 1970s and Khan Academy in the 2010s, the general outline is the same: “primordial soup”, the conditions became right, “bubbles” or “membranes” form, and the magic happens inside. You have encountered this idea many times, I am sure. I certainly have.
Well, recently I was stunned to encounter this idea in a most unexpected place. Here is the version I encountered:
The Earth first stiffen’d and grew together, when the circumfus'd Fire of the Sun had enlighten’d, and warm'd it all around: Then, when, by reason of its being thus heated, the outmost Surface of it was in a manner fermented, some Humidities swell'd in many Places, and in them there grew certain slimy stinking Substances, involv’d in tenuious Membranes: the like to which may be seen to this Day in Fens and Marshes, where the Waters stagnate.... Now those humid Things, which we mention'd before, being animated by the Heat, receiv'd Nourishment in the Night by the Mists that fell from above: but in the Day were consolidated and harden’d by the Heat. Lastly, When they that grew in the Wombs of the Earth, had attain'd their due Growth, the Membranes, being burst and broken to pieces, disclos'd the Forms and Shapes of all Kinds of Animals.
I think this sounds a little bit like Sagan and Khan: water, heat, membranes, ooze—and the magic occurs, and life comes forth! But what was stunning was that I read this in a book from the year 1714. If you have been reading this blog for at least a couple of months, you are already somewhat familiar with that 1714 book. It is a translation of the ancient poet Lucretius’s work, Of the Nature of Things. And yet what was still more stunning to me is that this material about the membranes and all was not even from 1714. It dated to ancient times. The book’s author cites as his source Diodorus Siculus,* who lived before Christ. The 1714 author added the Siculus material in as commentary to supplement a portion of Nature of Things in which Lucretius says life spontaneously arose on Earth through the formation of wombs in the Earth that gave birth to all sorts of creatures, including both men and monsters, just as the Earth, he says, continues to spontaneously generate smaller life forms even now.
I could not believe it: the “primordial soup” idea, that we all have learned as the standard scientific explanation for the origin of life, dates back to ancient times—and it is intimately connected with the idea of spontaneous generation, a notion that has been completely abandoned by science. As the old saying goes, “knock me over with a feather”.
Now let me be perfectly clear here about a few things:
First, I am not saying that Sagan, Khan, etc. are wrong. Let it not be said that on some Vatican-related website there’s some guy who says that all this primordial soup business regarding the origin of life is a bunch of nonsense. I make no such claims. What I am saying is that, when we hear that primordial soup idea on “Cosmos” and elsewhere, it would be good to also hear that such ideas date back to the ancients; and that such ideas have connections to another idea (spontaneous generation) that science has now completely discredited. The history of ideas is important.
Second, Khan Academy’s video repeats several times that “we don’t know”. That is good. But I would really like to hear, not just that we don’t really know the answer to the origin of life, but that our hypotheses (for which we are claiming at least some evidence) just happen to have links to wacky ideas of the ancients. (“Stated Clearly” sort of says “we don’t know”, but less definitely than Khan. “TED-Ed” does not state this at all.)
Third, I knew nothing of Diodorus and Lucretius until recently. Probably most people who attempt to explain through videos the origin of life know nothing about Diodorus, either. But, we should know. We should be educated. We should not just know what science’s ideas about the origin of life are. We should also know the origin of those origin ideas.
*Here is Diodorus Siculus on the origin of life (from Book , number 7 of his Bibliotheca Historica/The Library of History):
When in the beginning... the universe was being formed, both heaven and earth were indistinguishable in appearance, since their elements were intermingled: then, when their bodies separated from one another, the universe took on in all its parts the ordered form in which it is now seen; the air set up a continual motion, and the fiery element in it gathered into the highest regions, since anything of such a nature moves upward by reason of its lightness (and it is for this reason that the sun and the multitude of other stars became involved in the universal whirl); while all that was mud-like and thick and contained an admixture of moisture sank because of its weight into one place; and as this continually turned about upon itself and became compressed, out of the wet it formed the sea, and out of what was firmer, the land, which was like potter's clay and entirely soft. But as the sun's fire shone upon the land, it first of all became firm, and then, since its surface was in a ferment because of the warmth, portions of the wet swelled up in masses in many places, and in these pustules covered with delicate membranes made their appearance. Such a phenomenon can be seen even yet in swamps and marshy places whenever, the ground having become cold, the air suddenly and without any gradual change becomes intensely warm. And while the wet was being impregnated with life by reason of the warmth in the manner described, by night the living things forthwith received their nourishment from the mist that fell from the enveloping air, and by day were made solid by the intense heat; and finally, when the embryos had attained their full development and the membranes had been thoroughly heated and broken open, there was produced every form of animal life. Of these, such as had partaken of the most warmth set off to the higher regions, having become winged, and such as retained an earthy consistency came to be numbered in the class of creeping things and of the other land animals, while those whose composition partook the most of the wet element gathered into the region congenial to them, receiving the name of water animals. And since the earth constantly grew more solid through the action of the sun's fire and of the winds, it was finally no longer able to generate any of the larger animals, but each kind of living creatures was now begotten by breeding with one another.