Misinformation. It is a big topic these days, and a big problem. And when the topic is astronomy and the Copernican Revolution, misinformation abounds, even in the relatively durable, more controlled medium of books. “Caveat lector!” applies to this topic—“Let the reader beware!”
Two recently-published books are especially disappointing in this regard. One book especially disappoints because it misinforms despite being a product of the most reputable sort of scholarly publishing. The other book especially disappoints because it misinforms despite being a product of Catholic organizations and Catholic authors who sought to create a book for younger readers that in part corrects misinformation.
The scholarly book is The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-1625, published in 2020 by Oxford University Press (OUP). The author is Timon Screech, Professor of the History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. SOAS’s web site says that SOAS is “the leading Higher Education institution in Europe specialising in the study of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East.” Screech has numerous publications to his name. OUP is a major academic press, usually showing up in the top 5 of rankings of academic presses. Oxford University is, of course, the Oxford University. But despite all that scholarly muscle, Silver Telescope builds its title thesis on misinformation.
Silver Telescope tells the story of the English effort to sell their wares in Japan in the early 17th century. The title refers to a telescope that they took to Japan aboard a ship called the Clove, which left England for Japan in 1611. The telescope was a gift for the ruler of Japan, the Shogun. Screech maintains that the purpose of the telescope was to discredit the members of the Society of Jesus who had already been in Japan for some time, preaching, growing the Church (Screech describes Nagasaki in that time as “a self-governing Roman Catholic city [p. 9]”), and (in the eyes of the English) nefariously oiling their destructive, regicidal way into Japanese society.
The telescope would discredit the Jesuits, according to Screech, by showing that the geocentric astronomy that they taught was wrong. “The Japanese were thirsty for scientific knowledge,” he writes, “and the Jesuits taught as much astronomy as theology [p. 74]”. And so:
Here is the crux: telescopes allowed any careful observer to see that Copernicus was correct. The instrument made it possible to detect with one’s own eyes—never mind abstruse calculations in Latin—that the earth does revolve around the sun. To maintain the opposite view, after 1608, was to persist in wilful error [p. 73].
“A telescope could be used to turn the tables,” against the Jesuits, says Screech, as “a telescope would confuse and embarrass their whole mission [p. 74].” The “terrible findings” of telescopes in general, he says, “were shaking the papacy [p. 236].”
But of course the telescope did not make it possible to detect that the Earth revolves around the sun. To maintain otherwise was not to persist in willful error. All the new telescopic discoveries were fully compatible with Tycho Brahe’s new “hybrid” geocentric system (which Screech mentions in passing, p. 73). In 1611 telescopic discoveries were being verified by Jesuit astronomers at the Roman College, and Galileo was being honored by them for his work. Astronomy was being shaken—the new discoveries were bringing hybrid geocentric systems to the fore, but in 1611 this was not a concern of the papacy.
What is more, the chances that anyone who had not put in a lot of time at the eyepiece could pick up a 1611 telescope and use the thing to detect anything at all in the heavens were slim. Telescopes in 1611 were not user-friendly. A newcomer to the eyepiece would not have been able to do any astronomy with the Shogun’s silver telescope, not without some astronomer (likely a Jesuit) to teach that person how to use it!
There is a tangential reference to this in the book. Two Japanese gentlemen hear about the silver telescope and inquire about getting a telescope of their own. An English merchant had one, Screech writes, and—
This he was willing to give, though having experimented with it, the gentlemen graciously handed it back. There is no further record, but the two Japanese lords must have gone away with many new ideas [p. 180].
Anyone who has messed with a replica of a telescope from that era can tell you that there was probably just one idea that the two lords went away with, the same idea that was the reason they handed it back—namely, “it’s impossible to see anything through that tube!”
The title thesis of Silver Telescope, that the English took a silver telescope to Japan as a gift to the shogun so that the “astronomical notions conveyed with the telescope [p. 182]” would undermine the Jesuits (and in fact did so, contributing their expulsion from Japan shortly after the English arrived), is based on a complete misunderstanding of what a telescope could reveal, and of what a person using a 1611 telescope could see. Or rather, it is based on a complete absence of any effort to understand, for a little time with Wikipedia would have been sufficient to discover this.
Some time with Wikipedia would have also helped the book for younger readers: Brilliant! 25 Catholic Scientists, Mathematicians, and Supersmart People, also published in 2020. Pauline Books & Media and the Word on Fire Institute were the publishers. The book was written by David Michael Warren, illustrated by Jaclyn Warren, and features a Foreword by Chris Baglow, director of the Science and Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Bishop Robert Barron of Word on Fire made a video to recommend Brilliant!. But all that Church muscle failed to keep out serious misinformation.
Five of the 25 people featured in Brilliant! relate to astronomy: Nicolaus Copernicus, Fr. Christopher Clavius (of the Society of Jesus), Fr. Angelo Secchi (also S.J.), Fr. Georges Lemaître, and Karin Öberg. All but the Öberg section contain errors. Some of those errors are limited in scope—the Secchi section, for example, mixes the concept of bending light with the dispersing of it into colors. But it is the section on Copernicus (of course) where Brilliant! matches Silver Telescope for serious misinformation.
After introducing geocentrism, noting how the sun is indeed seen to rise and set as though it were circling Earth, and mentioning Aristotle and Ptolemy, Warren writes,
After a while, Copernicus started to see problems with the geocentric model. First, it did not make sense with the calendar of his time, the Julian calendar. The geocentric model called for a calendar year that was about eleven minutes too short. This might not seem like much time, but it added up over the years. Second, Copernicus noticed the planets would be brighter and bigger or dimmer and smaller depending on what night it was. If the planets went around the Earth in perfect circles—as the geocentric model claimed—they would always look the same.
Copernicus wanted to develop a model of the solar system that could make sense of these issues. He had the new idea that our solar system was heliocentric, not geocentric. This meant that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of our solar system! Suddenly, the universe made sense!...
Sadly, many people did not accept Copernicus’ way of seeing the universe. The people who could not see the truth of his claims called him a fool for his beliefs [p. 12-13].
Of course, calendars are not dependent on whether Earth circles the sun or vice versa. Indeed, the Gregorian calendar that we use now (and that Warren discusses in the section on Clavius) was instituted in 1582, under geocentric astronomy. The varying appearance of the planets had been noted long before Copernicus; Ptolemy had accounted for these variations by having the planets move around Earth on epicycles, not in simple perfect circles as Warren says. Thus, Copernicus was not seeking to make sense of the issues Brilliant! describes. The universe did not suddenly make sense under heliocentrism. Moreover, since the existing physics of the time was that of Aristotle, which worked well for a geocentric universe but not for a heliocentric universe, a lot of things made less sense.
Notice how both Brilliant! and Silver Telescope share the same notion—that somehow heliocentrism could be seen to be true, and that people who did not see this and opposed heliocentrism were sadly persisting in willful error (people like Jesuit astronomers). Historians of science know that heliocentrism could not be seen to be true in the early 17th century, and that strong evidence for heliocentrism would not arrive until the development of Newtonian physics and the discovery of stellar aberration more than a century after Copernicus. The strength of scientific arguments in favor of a geocentric universe has been one of my main subjects of research. It has been the topic of various posts of mine here on Sacred Space Astronomy—but it has also been featured in articles in Scientific American (click here for it) and Logos (click here), to mention a couple, and in a certain book (click here).
Warren’s Introduction to Brilliant! opens by asking “Have you heard these lies?” and listing common false beliefs about Christianity and science; it closes with “Ask the biggest questions you can so that you may find and know the Truth!” Baglow’s Foreword says, “This book tells the truth.” Yet Brilliant!, like Silver Telescope, contain so much that is not true.
The reason these books can contain so much misinformation is, in my opinion, that in our broader culture science is simply not understood, and thus in the end not questioned. Today, we believe that science leads to the truth; we know that science has shown that the Earth orbits the sun; we know that Copernicus proposed this. Hence, we assume that science must have always revealed the truth of Copernicus’s ideas: of course the telescope would reveal Earth’s motion to anyone who looked; of course heliocentrism would cause the universe to suddenly make sense. This attitude regarding science is so deeply embedded in how we think that even all the intellectual muscle of OUP or Word on Fire was not sufficient to prevent the publication of basic errors that would have been uncovered by the least effort to understand the science in the Copernican Revolution.
Please get serious about understanding science and understanding the Copernican Revolution, O Reputable Publishers of Books! Until you do, the misinformation problem will just grow worse. How can we take apart the web of conspiratorial and magical thinking that now has ensnared so many if reputable publishers put out books like Brilliant! and Silver Telescope? Caveat lector!
The Vatican Observatory Faith and Science web resource contains hundreds of entries on the broad topic of faith and science. I am Editor of this resource, and my more recent efforts in this regard have tended toward trying to find a wide variety of different material to add to the resource. And one new entry that really is “something completely different” is on the book Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann.
The chances are good that readers of Sacred Space Astronomy know something about science fiction. After all, with Marvel and Star Wars so popular now, the person who knows nothing about science fiction is pretty rare these days. But chances are also good that even those readers who know a good deal about science fiction will not be familiar with the material discussed in Determann’s book (which, as its title says, straddles both science fiction and science—and of course religion).
As Determann portrays things, Islam and the idea of life on other worlds go together pretty well. He writes, “Qur’an 1:2 translates as ‘praise to God, lord of the worlds’. In total, the expression ‘lord of the worlds’ (rabb al-ʿālamīn) occurs forty-two times in the scripture.” He continues:
Of course, before the Copernican Revolution, most Muslims would not have understood the Qur’anic ‘worlds’ as planets. The combined influence of Aristotle and Ptolemy would have precluded a view of Earth as a sibling of Venus or Mars, all orbiting the same star. Instead, many Muslim scholars differentiated between an inferior, terrestrial and a superior, celestial world. They also distinguished a sphere of sensory perception from one of ideas. The intelligent inhabitants of these realms include jinn and angels in addition to humans. Despite much exegetical effort, however, the word ‘world’ remained vague enough to allow for almost infinite interpretations. The philosophers al-Biruni and Ibn Sina and the poet Nizami Ganjavi were among many medieval figures who discussed the plurality of worlds. Yet, they hardly exhausted the concept. Later writers thus found it easy to apply ʿālam to modern cosmology.
Elsewhere Determann notes that the jinn (“genies”) have been connected to UFOs and the like. As Determann sees it, Islam allows plenty of room for other worlds, and for intelligent beings from them.
Plenty of room indeed. I used to read a lot of science fiction, and I remain a big fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to this day. But long ago the time came when I read one too many really bad, or really gory, science fiction stories. Well, there apparently is plenty of bad, gross science fiction in the Islamic world. While Determann’s book does deal with serious scholarly work on the concept of God and other worlds, much of Islamic science-fiction output fits time-honored sophomoric, sexist, gory science fiction tropes. Islam has plenty of room for all the worst and the cheesiest that comes with science fiction and the idea of life on other worlds: stories of beautiful women in capes with ray guns, or of creatures from underground worlds, or extraterrestrials who hunt and devour humans; speculations on whether Adam and Eve came here from outer space; weird UFO religions, headed by people who claim to be extraterrestrials themselves; and, of course, lots and lots of conspiracy theories.
Of course, what is so good about this is that, even if you know nothing about Islam, Determann’s book gives you a fresh look at the dominant “global science fiction culture” (that being Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Azimov, etc.). If you think that cults run by people claiming to have been brought here by UFOs are the sort of thing that can happen “only in the USA” (or other country of your choice, but we have Roswell in the USA!), think again—it happens in the Islamic world, too. If you think kooky conspiracy theories involving space aliens is sign of a certain sickness unique to modern “western” culture, think again—according to Determann, even certain Al-Qaeda leaders are hung up on these theories. The fact that we can see the weirdness that is so common in our own culture reflected back to us, but reflected through the lens of Islamic culture, is part of what makes this whole topic so interesting.
And while sometimes the weirdness is just typical science fiction stuff, meant to sell books and make money, at other times the authors are making a point. Those extraterrestrials who devour humans muse, as they munch, on whether humans have feelings, despite their technological and scientific inferiority. The author seems to be obviously referencing the actions of modern humans here, just as H. G. Wells did in his War of the Worlds. At other times the authors may live in countries where criticism of the government is not permitted, and science fiction provides a way to comment on the state of things.
Interest in extraterrestrials helps to drive interest in science regarding extraterrestrials, so the same forces that sustain science fiction in the Islamic world also help sustain an interest in SETI, astrobiology, and space travel. As Determann writes in concluding his book,
Muslim-majority countries and their diasporas have established solid bases for the production of speculative texts and images of all kinds. Free thinking flourished even in very repressive and conservative contexts. More than that, authoritarian governments and Islamists were often themselves highly creative producers of futuristic visions. Lack of censorship can be helpful for movie industries and UFO religions alike. However, constraints have also been enabling in many cases too.... Products of the scientific imagination are in turn likely to feed into concrete space programmes that various Muslim-majority countries have been setting up.... Whether more ambitious projects, like the UAE’s city on Mars, will be realized remains to be seen. However, the combination of immense wealth, technological ambitions, and almost limitless imagination makes many missions conceivable. Taleb Omran’s novel The Search for Other Worlds, with its Arab spaceship heading for Alpha Centauri, could one day be more than fiction.
Click here for the Faith and Science entry for this book.
If they [the stars] are suns having the same nature as our sun, why do not these suns collectively outdistance our sun in brilliance? Why do they all together transmit so dim a light...? When sunlight bursts into a sealed room through a hole made with a tiny pin point, it outshines the fixed stars at once. The difference is practically infinite.
So said Johannes Kepler, responding in 1610 to Galileo’s just-published Starry Messenger. Kepler was arguing against Giordano Bruno’s idea that stars were other suns, orbited by other Earths. Kepler felt that Galileo’s telescopic observations of stars strengthened the case against Bruno.
Kepler’s comments regarding the relative brightnesses of sun and stars are really perceptive. He knew what he was talking about. His comments illustrate something about the sun and stars that we probably do not appreciate.
Modern astronomers measure the brightness of stars using the “magnitude” system. The modern system is tied to an ancient rating scale for stars. On that ancient scale, the stars in the night sky that appear to be the largest (“magnitude” means “bigness”) were ranked 1; they were “stars of the 1st magnitude” (in other words, “1st-class stars”). Next came somewhat lesser stars, “stars of the 2nd magnitude” (“2nd-class stars”). And so it went, on down to those stars that were barely visible even to keen eyes under dark skies; such stars were ranked 6.
In the 19th century, astronomers figured out that the apparent sizes of stars were illusions, and that what mattered with the stars was their light output as seen from Earth—their apparent brightnesses. Astronomers developed a mathematical system for precisely stating a star’s brightness, and they tied this system to the old magnitude scale. Thus a star that ranked among the stars of the 1st magnitude in the old scale came up about a 1.0 on the new scale. The difference between a magnitude 6.0 star and a magnitude 1.0 star was a factor of 100 in brightness; 5 steps in magnitude equals a factor of 100 in brightness. In other words, a single magnitude 1.0 star lights up the night sky as much as 100 magnitude 6.0 stars.
But Sirius is actually brighter than all the other stars. If a dim star you can barely see is a 6.0, and a pretty bright star is a 2.0, and a bright star is a 1.0, then what is Sirius, which is brighter still? It turns out that in the modern magnitude system Sirius is a -1.5.
The sun, in this system, comes in at -26.7. Thus the sun is 25 steps of magnitude brighter than Sirius. Since 5 steps corresponds to a factor of 100 in brightness, and since 25 is 5 sets of 5 magnitude steps (5+5+5+5+5), then the sun is brighter than Sirius by a factor of 100×100×100×100×100. It would require 100×100×100×100×100 = 10,000,000,000 Siriuses in the night sky to be as bright as the sun. That’s 10 billion Siriuses. For reference, we can only see a few thousand stars with the naked eye, and all of them are dimmer than Sirius.
Now let’s check out what Kepler was saying about a pin-hole. Imagine you are in a dark room, like he says. Imagine the room has a high ceiling, perhaps 3 meters (roughly 10 feet) over your head. No light enters the room except through a hole in the ceiling, through which the sun shines in on you.
If the hole is large enough, you see the entire sun through the hole, as in the figure directly below. Thus you get the light from the full sun. But if the hole is small enough—smaller than 26 mm, or just over an inch*—then you will only see a portion of the sun, and only receive a portion of its light, as in the second figure below. In it the hole is only about a fifth the apparent diameter of the sun.
Area of a circle goes as diameter squared (A=πd2/4), so only (1/5)2, or 1/25th, of the sun’s area is visible through the hole. Given that the entire disk of the sun is 10 billion Siriuses, what is seen through the hole is (1/25)×10,000,000,000 = 400,000,000 or 400 million Siriuses.
Now let’s imagine a small hole, like Kepler said. Let’s imagine a hole in the ceiling that is just 1 millimeter in diameter.
That 1 mm hole is 1/26th the diameter of the sun. Its area is (1/26)2, or 1/676th that of the sun. So the light coming through is (1/676)×10,000,000,000 = 14,800,000 or 14.8 million Siriuses.
And what if we went smaller still? How about 0.1 mm? That is really small, and would look like nothing in a high ceiling! Well, the hole would be 1/260th the diameter of the sun. Its area would be (1/260)2, or 1/67,600th of the sun, letting through the light of 148,000 Siriuses! Remember that the difference between a bright star in the night sky and the faintest stars visible is only a factor of 100; this is a factor of 148,000. This 0.1 mm hole would be a blazing beacon compared to Sirius—exactly as Kepler said.
Even if you imagine the hole being 0.01 mm (how you would make a hole so small in any real ceiling, I am not sure) it would still blaze with the light of 1,480 Siriuses—still overpowering Sirius more than bright stars in the night sky outshine the faintest stars visible.
So Kepler was right. There is an immense difference between the sun and the stars. Kepler estimated that the size a star appears to the naked eye was about the size the 1 mm hole appeared in the example above. That is also about the size that most other astronomers had estimated, too, from Ptolemy in ancient times down to Tycho Brahe (Kepler’s former boss) at the end of the 16th century, and it is the size that most people today will estimate for bright stars, if they have not already learned that star sizes are illusory. The 1 mm hole was the one that equaled 14.8 million Siriuses, so the sun wildly overpowers the stars, not just as a whole, but also size for size.
Kepler did not understand the illusory nature of star sizes at the time—no one really did—so his overall analysis was flawed. However, in terms of the appearance of stars and the sun he was absolutely correct. They do not look like they could be the same kind of body. And that’s why he thought Bruno’s claims were so ridiculous.
*The sun’s apparent diameter is half a degree. The size of hole needed to just see the entire sun through a ceiling 3 meters overhead would be a half degree portion of a circle 3 m in radius. The circumference of a circle is C = 2πr. The fraction of the full 360 degree circumference needed for a half degree hole is (0.5/360) × 2πr, or, for our ceiling, (0.5/360) × 2π × 3 m = 0.0262 meters, or 26.2 mm.
If you subscribe to Sky & Telescope magazine you will have noticed that half its issues over the past six months featured discussions of diversity in astronomy. The October 2020 issue had a “Spectrum” editorial by The Staff titled “Amateur Astronomy for All”. The December issue featured a “Focal Point” column by Dara Norman called “Time to Get Serious”. The letters section of the February 2021 issue was dedicated to reader responses to the October editorial and to the general lack of diversity in astronomy.
Apparently, no progress has been made in regard to diversity in astronomy, ever. Norman points out that—
while the total number of physics and astronomy professors increased from 2008 to 2016... the number of Black and Hispanic professors remained at the same tiny percentage of the academic work force
—namely 0.6%, combined.* In other words, there are effectively zero Black and Hispanic professors. That is truly remarkable. Note again that the number of professors has increased. So even though new positions have been created, making openings for more minority professors, the percentage did not change. Norman remarks on how—
Even in 2020, I am often the only Black scientist at a conference, on an advisory panel, and in my workplace.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Our Faith and Science pages feature an interview with NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps (click here for it), who is an alumna of Lemoyne, a Jesuit school. In that interview Epps talks about how both she and her sister majored in science back in the 1990s. She notes that at the time they really did not think it was anything unusual, and she remarks on the lack of progress made in the decades since—a Black woman astronaut/physicist like her should not be a big deal now, she says, and she would like for things to be more like what she and her sister thought, that “of course, this is what we all do”. Her comments echo my own feelings and experience. When I was in college and graduate school there were African American students majoring in science and engineering. And of course there were; there had been big Civil Rights breakthroughs a couple decades earlier, after all, pulling down the barriers that had kept these folks out. Duh!
But no. No progress has been made. And I doubt that more of the same sorts of diversity-promotion efforts that have been done for decades (and mentioned in the Sky & Telescope letters and commentaries—“a feature article on a Black Astronomer!”) will alter things. If astronomy wants to be more diverse, it should consider changing its culture.
Consider culture and religion. Religion occupies a place of particular importance for many Black and Latino Americans—who are more likely than others to attend church regularly, to report that religion is important to them, and to express orthodox or traditional religious beliefs. So say Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame in their 2010 study of religion, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. More recently, in responding to a 2019 Pew survey in which people were asked the following—
Which statement comes closer to your own views, even if neither is exactly right: “Humans have evolved over time” OR “Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”?
—59% of Black Protestants chose the answer that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
My experience teaching astronomy to a diverse population of college students over the years bears this out. I recall one young African American woman who was willing to speak her mind against the Big Bang theory, forcefully, but cheerfully and skillfully, amid a class that mostly disagreed with her. I recall another African American student, a man in his late thirties who had seen his share of troubles, urging his fellow students who were advocating non-theistic opinions to consider that a scientific theory about how the universe came to be is “not much to hold on to” in tough times.
Astronomy students advocating non-theistic opinions are a team on their home turf. They know Sagan and “The Pale Blue Dot”; they know Galileo and “But Still It Moves.” Astronomy’s culture is theirs.
We can discuss the flaws in those home team views, but that is not enough. I am a well-published scholar of the history of astronomy, determined to run a class friendly to all students—but what is one class and some historical or philosophical analysis against a prevailing culture? That cheerfully bold young woman is unlikely to pursue astronomy when astronomy is the turf of people who are confident that her views are, at best, quaintly misinformed.
But hers are not the views of the uneducated. American Grace notes, for example, that “overall levels of church attendance among African Americans have been rising” in concert with more African Americans obtaining college degrees. It also notes that, more than any major religious group in America, Black Protestants are “religious traditionalists,” and this is “especially marked among middle-class college graduates.” (Likewise, they note that Latino Catholics tend to be more orthodox in their views than non-Latino Catholics.) In all likelihood, our young woman will obtain her degree; she will attend church; she will remain skeptical of the Big Bang theory—and she will not become a Black, female astronomer, amateur or professional.
What changes in astronomy’s culture might encourage students like her to embrace astronomy?
One change might be for astronomy to wish to remember its history. Benjamin Banneker discussed faith in his almanac. Johannes Kepler wove prayers of praise to God into his scientific works. The NASA women in “Hidden Figures” were all active in their churches. But astronomy books discuss Kepler’s work without reference to his faith, while highlighting Galileo’s troubles (and even portraying his opponents as science deniers). They feature Banneker’s almanac but not what is in it. They tell a story of astronomy that is both inaccurate and unlikely to draw our young woman to the field.
Another change might be to approach controversial topics with different stories. Ole Römer’s discovery of light’s speed could be one such story. This discovery was accidental, a result of a careful study of Jupiter’s moons for their usefulness in timekeeping, but it raises profound questions: in a universe formed rapidly by a Creator, stars would not appear in Earth’s night sky for years (contrary to Genesis) unless their light in route to Earth was simultaneously created, in which case the universe at its moment of creation would have the appearance of significant age. This idea that astronomers judge the age of the universe from its appearance today can be very helpful to those who hold traditional ideas about its age. The Römer story does not involve scientific theories of origins—allowing for thoughtful and respectful discussion, with less chance of touching “hot buttons” and more chance of persuading people to stick with astronomy.
A third change is to reconsider the way language is used. Language can matter. When Pew reframed their question a little differently, so that people were asked this—
Which statement comes closest to your view: “Humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection; God or a higher power had no role in this process” OR “Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power” OR “Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”?
—only 27% of Black Protestants chose the answer that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Adding some nuance, adding an opportunity to recognize God, cuts in half the percentage of respondents who seemingly “reject evolution”. Astronomy should keep this in mind as regards astronomy classes, books, and magazines; it should seek to phrase things in ways that do not prompt people to think that science conflicts with their faith.
There are surely other cultural changes that might help astronomy address its diversity problem. Such changes will not appeal to some in astronomy who are quite comfortable on the home turf. But “more of the same” will change nothing.
*Norman does report the figure as 0.6% (or, specifically, 0.2% for one and 0.4% for the other). I have looked at some numbers and suspect that figure might be a typo, and the correct value a still-very-low 6%.
P.S. After posting this, I found that Sky & Telescope in fact has a recent feature on Benjamin Banneker. And it makes no mention of Banneker and religion. For two instances of Banneker writing on religion, visit our Faith and Science site:
This is a "re-run" of a post that originally ran on May 25, 2019.
I am rerunning it because the Journal for the History of Astronomy, which in February 2019
published the research that this post is based on, has made the published research available,
free of charge. So CLICK HERE and then download a PDF of the original paper. You will see
that it is pretty similar to this post.
In 1614, well before Isaac Newton was even born, a German Jesuit astronomer named Christoph Scheiner and his student, Johann Georg Locher, developed an explanation for how the Earth could orbit the sun. Earth, they said, was like a massive ball, perpetually falling toward the sun. They discussed this in their 1614 book Disquisitiones Mathematicae de Controversiis et Novitatibus Astronomicis, or Mathematical Disquisitions Concerning Astronomical Controversies and Novelties (recently translated by yours truly, and published by the University of Notre Dame Press—click here). This was Locher’s thesis for his degree from the University of Ingolstadt, where Fr. Scheiner taught.
Fr. Scheiner is a relatively well-known figure in the history of astronomy. He is the astronomer with whom Galileo debated regarding sunspots; he would go on to write a monumental 1630 book based on his long-term, detailed solar observations: Rosa Ursina Sive Sol. This book would define solar astronomy for decades. By contrast, not much is known about Locher. Galileo himself devoted quite a few pages of his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican to making sport of Disquisitions, which was considered Scheiner’s work as much as Locher’s. It was the “booklet of theses, which is full of novelties” that Galileo had his less-than-brilliant character Simplicio drag out in order to defend one or another wrong-headed idea.
But Disquisitions is nothing like Galileo’s negative portrayal of it (by this point, readers of The Catholic Astronomer probably will not be surprised at this, granted the recent discoveries regarding Galileo’s letter to Castelli of 1613, which were the subject of one recent post here, and granted some of the other strange things Galileo says in the Dialogue, which were the subject of a series of posts). There is in fact a lot of cool stuff in Disquisitions. However, its discussion on the physics of an orbit is extra cool.
This discussion treats an orbit as a perpetual fall. It appears in a part of the book that treats the issue of movement downward on Earth. “Everyone,” Locher writes, “even Copernicans, acknowledges heavy bodies to be pulled down toward the center of Earth along a vertical line”. He notes that the downward urge of heavy material is the reason why the terrestrial globe exists, and why its center of gravity coincides with its geometric center. However, because of evaporations and eruptions and other processes on Earth, the center of gravity is changing, and therefore “the globe itself must vacillate with a certain perpetual, but entirely insensible, trembling”. Locher then says that, “perpetual motion is not incompatible with nature.” And, from this statement, he launches into his discussion of orbital “perpetual motion.”
Imagine, says Locher, an L-shaped rod, buried in the Earth. The asymmetry of the rod means that it would topple were it cut off at Earth’s surface. This would be all the more true, he says, were a heavy iron ball attached to the end of the rod, as shown in the figures below. Now, he says, imagine the rod being hinged at the Earth’s surface (at point A in the figures). The heaviness or gravity of the ball (“gravity” here meaning the ball’s action of trying to reach its natural place at the center of the universe—Aristotelian physics was the rule in 1614, with Newtonian ideas about gravity lying decades in the future) presses down on the rod, but the rod keeps the ball from falling straight down, so the ball causes the rod to pivot about the hinge. The ball falls along an arc of a circle whose center is A. The ball strikes the Earth at B.
Next, says Locher, imagine that the Earth is made smaller relative to the rod. The same thing still occurs—the rod pivots; the iron ball falls in a circular arc. If the Earth is imagined to be smaller still, the rod will be what hits the ground, not the ball, so the ball stops at its lowest possible point (C as shown in the figure below), but it still falls in a circular arc whose center is A. If the Earth is imagined to be progressively smaller, the ball still falls, driven by its gravity, in a circular arc.
At last Locher says to imagine the rod to be pivoting on the center of the universe itself—the Earth vanishing to a point. Surely, he says, in this situation, a complete and perpetual revolution will take place around that same pivot point A (fiet reuolutio integra & perpetua circa idem A). If the rod is put into motion, it will circle back around to its starting point, and continue on from there again, as before, “and so on into perpetuity.” You can see all this in the illustration that Locher made for Disquisitions, seen below. Curves MN, OP, and QR are the surface of the Earth, being imagined smaller and smaller. S is the iron ball. A is the center of the universe. Circle CHIC is the path of the orbiting ball.
In this way, says Locher, we see that perpetual circular motion by a heavy body is possible. And if we imagine the Earth being in the place of the iron ball, suspended over the center of the universe, he says, now we have a thought experiment (cogitatione percipi possit—it may be able to be perceived by thought) that shows how the Earth might be made to revolve about that center, and therefore about the sun, which sits at the center of the universe in the Copernican world system. The Earth would revolve about the sun because it would be perpetually falling into the sun, in the same manner as the iron ball would be falling into Earth.
Now is that cool or what? That is, in my opinion, a very nice, clever, plausible, and understandable explanation of how an orbit might work.
Isaac Newton also explained orbits as a perpetual fall—some decades later. He explained orbits using a cannon ball launched from atop a mountain and falling to Earth. This is the explanation that students everywhere learn today in science class, and it is the explanation that you will hear on science shows like NOVA:
The idea that an orbit is a perpetual fall is the modern explanation for how things orbit. So, Locher’s discussion seems prescient. However, he himself attributed little weight to this idea. Even if such motion could actually occur, it would not help the Copernicans, he said, because it explains no observations.
Locher believed that the Earth was immobile at the center of the universe. He felt that observations of both astronomical and terrestrial phenomena supported an Earth-centered system, and opposed any motion of the Earth. He backed the system of Tycho Brahe, where the sun, moon, and stars circled an immobile Earth while the planets circled the sun—a system that was fully compatible with the new telescopic discoveries of the time, such as the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter. Indeed, Locher saw these discoveries as supporting the old geocentric ideas. For example, he saw moons going around Jupiter not as supporting the Copernican system, as Galileo did, but as supporting the old Ptolemaic concept of epicycles. To Locher, the moons going around Jupiter as Jupiter itself moved was proof of the ancient concept of epicycles—circles moving upon circles. Ptolemy had postulated the existence of epicycles, Locher said, in order to explain the visually observed motions of the planets. Now, however, “the optic tube has established... that the center of the motions of the Jovian satellites is Jupiter.... Therefore epicycles do exist in the heavens”. Locher also questioned at length how falling bodies could be observed to descend vertically on a rotating Earth, since different points on a rotating Earth all move at differing speeds. And he attacked the Copernicans for their views regarding the sizes of stars.
Even viewed through a telescope, stars were observed to have small but measurable disks, disks that in the first half of the seventeenth century were yet to be understood as spurious products of the optics of the telescope, and that did not represent the real bodies of the stars. Under the Copernican system, stars had to be so distant that by comparison the Earth’s orbit was like a point—immeasurably small, producing no observable effects. Locher noted that, since “small but measurable” is larger than “immeasurably small,” under the Copernican system every last visible star had to be larger than the Earth’s orbit. The Copernicans did not deny this, said Locher, but rather chalked up the giant stars to the power of God. Locher thought that was a “laughable” attempt to deal with the star size issue. In summary, Locher did not believe that his mechanism for explaining how Earth might orbit the sun could save the Copernican system from its flaws.
In 1651, Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, an Italian Jesuit astronomer, dismissed Locher’s orbit mechanism. Riccioli was another Brahe-style geocentrist, and in his 1651 book Almagestum Novum, or New Almagest (referencing Ptolemy’s classic Almagest), he further developed the star size argument against Copernicus; he also went beyond questions about falling bodies and differing speeds on the surface of a rotating Earth, to develop arguments against Earth’s motion in which the modern reader will recognize the “Coriolis Effect”. But while Riccioli may have been of like mind with Locher on these matters, he dismissed the Disquisitions orbit mechanism in short fashion. Crediting Disquisitions to Scheiner, Riccioli wrote, “that most acute explorer of the sun hallucinates [hallucinatur]”. He did not grasp the thought experiment presented in Disquisitions. He only considered the final case of the ball orbiting a point. He omitted mention of the rod and ball standing on Earth’s surface and toppling, and his illustration of Locher’s diagram was very bare-bones. The idea of imagining the Earth to be smaller and smaller, and supposing that if the iron ball would naturally move in a circular path for an arbitrarily small Earth, then it would do so for a vanishingly small Earth, seems to have eluded him. Likewise a later Jesuit, Fr. Athanasius Kircher, included in his 1680 book Physiologia a bare-bones version of the orbit diagram from Disquisitions, along with an insultingly dismissive discussion. “Here I cannot disregard,” wrote Kircher, not mentioning Locher or Scheiner by name, “the vain fabrications and manifest paralogisms of some, which they believe—no, they assert—to demonstrate artificial perpetual motion to be able to be made by a sure way around the center of earth, and which they strive to show by this reasoning....” After providing a synopsis of the mechanism (a synopsis that again overlooked the concept of Earth being made smaller and smaller), Kircher continued, “I can hardly keep from laughing at the deceitful fallacies of the human imagination”. According to Kircher, this whole idea was the equivalent of saying that, were a trough built that encircled the globe, a ball would roll around it, or water would continually flow around it, forever.
By the time Fr. Kircher wrote this, Isaac Newton was already building the physics we now use. Unlike Locher and Scheiner, Newton departed from Aristotelian physics entirely, but he and they both agreed that an orbit is essentially a perpetual fall. So, you might wonder: did Newton ever encounter the ideas found in Disquisitions? Might he have even been inspired by them? There are hints to suggest that he might have encountered them, at least through Riccioli. Newton had a copy of the Almagestum Novum in his library. He and Robert Hooke exchanged letters in 1679-1680 regarding the easterly deflection that a heavy ball, suspended by a cord and then released, should exhibit were Earth rotating—one of the “Coriolis” arguments advanced by Riccioli against Earth’s rotation (the apparent absence of such deflection indicating Earth’s immobility to Riccioli). You can find the details on all this in Setting Aside All Authority (also by yours truly, also from the University of Notre Dame Press—click here).
Newton references Riccioli in his first edition of the Principia, the book in which he develops so much of his physics, but only in relation to the distance to the moon. Evidence that Newton ever encountered Disquisitions itself is difficult to turn up, and it seems doubtful that Riccioli’s perfunctory discussion of the Disquisitions orbit mechanism would have provided inspiration to anyone.
What happened to Locher after publishing his book? We do not know. Perhaps he died shortly after publishing Disquisitions. Perhaps he went off to missionary work in some far-flung place. Or, perhaps he went into charity work in a nearby place. He says in Disquisitions that he was from Munich. In the 1872 book Das Matrikelbuch der Universitæt Ingolstadt-Landshut-München under “Doctoren der Rechte” appears “Joh. Georg Locher, München [that is, Munich]” for 1617. The 1895 book Die Kunstdenkmale des Regierungsbezirkes Oberbayern notes a “Georg Locher, Waisenpfleger aus München”—a person who cares for orphans—as having in 1649 donated art to a certain church. All this plausibly could refer to the same Locher. If it is the same Locher (and that is a big “if”), then perhaps Locher found a calling in his own home town that was more important to him than science. Perhaps, sort of like Louis Sansbury, his strongest calling was to care for people in his community. We are deep in speculation here. However, it does not seem too speculative to suppose that, had he remained active in the scientific community, he might have developed his physics further. After all, he (with Fr. Scheiner) came up with the idea that an orbit is a perpetual fall.
The bottom line is this: The key idea of an orbit being a perpetual fall was proposed as early as 1614 by a Jesuit astronomer and his student. That idea circulated among knowledgeable readers. It came to the attention of and was discussed by two prominent Jesuit authors. However, the idea of an orbit as a perpetual fall was dismissed by those authors, and it had never been further developed by its originators. It would be proposed again by Isaac Newton, under a new physics, and would come to be the explanation that everyone learns in school of how an object remains in an orbit.
I am pleased to share all this with you, O Reader of The Catholic Astronomer. You will not have heard this story before, because it is all new research, just published in the Journal for the History of Astronomy in February 2019. In fact, this post is a modified version of the JHA paper. Click here to see the full published paper. Click here to see an early version of this story that I wrote as a guest post for The Renaissance Mathematicus blog back in 2016.
Take a look at a new resource on the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science website!—brief reviews of astronomy textbooks from a “Faith and Science” perspective. You will find all this under “Educational Resources”.
The idea for these reviews arose from questions that Vatican Observatory/V.O. Foundation folks have received over time, and from one question in particular.* A while back, someone used the contact link here on the blog to ask about astronomy textbooks. The questioner asked if we could recommend an introductory astronomy textbook that would be suitable for Catholic homeschooling.
This question produced a bit of discussion at the V.O.F. What was the questioner looking for? What would make an astronomy text more or less “Catholic-suitable”? There are science textbooks, published for certain religious schools, that do not discuss, say, the Big Bang theory. But the V.O. is a scientific establishment—we are not going to recommend a book that dismisses a major scientific idea that has good reasoning and data behind it. Moreover, the Big Bang Theory was developed by Fr. Georges Lemaître, who would go on to head the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It’s not as though the Church has some problem with the theory. But our questioner probably knew all that. And he or she did not ask for information about that kind of book. Indeed, he or she might think us rude were we to respond with “waddaya want, some book that don’t talk about da Big Bang?”
Maybe what the questioner wanted was a book that was scientifically sound, but that did not repeat those hoary and misleading “religion against science” myths that are so common. Unfortunately, they sometimes do appear in textbooks. It would be logical for a Catholic homeschooler to prefer not to have to deal with questions from his or her children like “hey, it says here in the book that Galileo invented the telescope, and he could look through it and plainly see that the Earth circles the sun, but the Pope threatened to burn him at the stake; how could the Pope threaten someone over something that anyone could look at and see was true?!”
But the fact was, we were unprepared to help our questioner on this. We were not familiar with enough books. The only V.O./V.O.F. person teaching introductory astronomy at the time was me; I used my own textbook however, and so I was not looking through commercially produced textbooks on a regular basis. But, as Editor of the Faith and Science pages, I thought it would be useful for me to start becoming familiar with such textbooks. I could stop in college bookstores and take a quick look at available texts to see what was good and bad in them. That would be an interesting and fun project. I like bookstores.
College bookstores are not so fond of people browsing the shelves these days, however, at least not in my region of the USA. The stores now keep the books behind a barrier. Stopping in college bookstores and wandering the textbook shelves was not going to work. That was the end of my short-lived astronomy textbook project. But, it remained in mind.
Then this past Fall I started work cleaning up one of the physics labs at my former college (I retired this past summer, so of course it is obvious that I would now hang around doing manual labor for fun). The lab had not received attention for quite some time. And, guess what I found buried under papers and old boxes of Vernier software and manuals from two or four decades ago (“Lab Interface card for the Apple IIe”!) and so forth? A collection of astronomy textbooks! The textbook review project came back to life, and thus the new addition to the “Educational Resources” section of the V.O. Faith and Science website.
I have reviewed 19 astronomy textbooks so far. The oldest book was published in 1973; the most recent in 2018. The scope of the reviews is very limited, as you will find explained on the textbook review pages. Nevertheless, you will find much variety in the texts. You will learn something about astronomy textbooks, as you can find one text saying one thing, and another saying just the opposite. You will find, among the 19, several by the same author or authors (in one case, the authors of a book published in 1991 published another in 2018). In these cases, do the books improve with the passage of time? See what you think.
Click here for a direct link to the “Educational Resources” page of the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science site. Scroll down a bit for the information on textbooks. Enjoy. Should someone ask us about astronomy textbooks now, we will have something toward which to direct them.
*This is my general recollection of something that occurred some time ago. I do not imagine that my memory regarding this is completely accurate.
When your favorite team is not so good, sometimes the end of the season can come as a relief. That’s doubly true when the last couple games of the season go especially badly. This Cosmos fan finds himself happy to see this season come to an end. There is always next season, maybe, and hope for better days to come.
“A Tale of Two Atoms”, the 10th episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, was a win. I liked the overall discussion of scientists involved in nuclear physics, especially Neil deGrasse Tyson’s clear-eyed view of those scientists. He notes, for example, that even after World War II ended, scientists kept right on working on atomic weapons. Apparently, many scientists were willing to continue work on weapons of mass destruction even after the crisis of war and its perceived threat of German nuclear technology had passed.
But the highlight of the whole Cosmos: Possible Worlds series for me was the animated feature in Episode 10 about Marie and Pierre Curie. The Curies work so hard together to isolate the element radium. But they have no idea what they are doing. They sit and admire the glowing bits that they have produced through their labor. They understand that, were those bits glowing by reason of chemical reaction, like glowing coals, they would consume themselves rapidly—so the Curies realize that they have discovered some marvelously powerful energy source. They work with the radium so much that it literally permeates their lives; we see that even Marie’s cookbook is dusted with radium....
And Tyson leaves the story there. I found that to be very effective, almost moving. I was standing in the bleachers, cheering the team. Tyson has no need to discuss what follows. That is clear, for we have learned that radium is radioactive. If Curie’s cookbook has radium on it, and is radioactive, then her cooking must have been likewise. Marie and Pierre were living in, and even eating, radioactive radium, happily and unwittingly killing themselves.
Marie died of aplastic anaemia, a blood disease associated with exposure to large amounts of radiation. Her body is radioactive. She was buried in a lead-lined coffin. But the Curies were not just killing themselves. The discovery of radium led to the production of glowing radium paint. Women worked in the manufacture of clocks with glowing dials that could be read at night. To coax a fine tip out of the paint brushes that they used to paint the dials, they would lick those brushes... and things did not go well for them. Things have not gone well for many who got too close to radioactivity in the years since. We know today that radioactive materials are dangerous. We did not learn about that danger through divinely infused knowledge, or because scientists were so brilliant that they just figured out that of course this new energy source might be dangerous. We learned because of what radioactive materials did to people when radioactivity was the cool new technology, and no one realized the danger it posed. Episode 10 of Cosmos gave us a clear-eyed look at the tragic, darker side of science.
But Episode 10 was one of the bigger wins of the series. The next episode I saw was Episode 12, “Coming of Age in the Anthropocene”, about the impact that human beings have on planet Earth. It was fine. It prominently featured a cute baby, and you can’t go wrong with a cute baby. Its animated features about Cassandra and the Trojan War, and about CFC’s were both good. It was worth a watch.
But then I saw Episode 11, “The Fleeting Grace of the Habitable Zone” and Episode 13, “Seven Wonders of the New World”, and each of these was a chore to watch. Both were plagued by mounds of computer-animated fluff. And the fluff was not even about real science. Rather, we get:
- alien space ships scanning a still-molten Earth
- a giant unfolding space telescope (one showing of this was more than enough, and I think we must have seen it 40,000 times in the show)
- “holodecks” in New York City in the year 2039—and it seems that in 2039 holodecks will be visited primarily by the trim, the young, and the smartly-dressed (for those not familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-offs, the fictional “holodeck” creates 3-dimensional scenes and intelligent, interactive artificial people so that you can think you are walking through, for example, 19th-century London; in Cosmos, the holodecks of a mere twenty years from now are such that you can sit with your family on the surface of the moon and watch the Apollo 11 “Eagle” land, or have a conversation with Albert Einstein, whose entire brain has somehow been reconstructed).
Indeed, the end of Episode 13, the final episode of the season, was an extended display of computer-spawned “fireworks” (complete with crowds “oohing” and “aahing”) that were supposed to be some representation of the formation of the universe. Look! Up in the sky! It’s the first stars forming—Boomboomboom! Look! It’s something crashing into a molten, glowing Earth, producing a shower of sparks and (gasp!) The MOON! Oooh.
Throughout this entire season, Cosmos: Possible Worlds has suffered from too much—way too much—emphasis on bright and shiny objects spewed forth from some computer—objects that then usually proceed to explode, crash into something, fly off on a beam of light, etc. These last two episodes suffered from this all the more, and watching all of this tested my patience. This season should not be titled Cosmos: Possible Worlds, but rather, Cosmos: A Computer Generated WOWzaverse. Anyone who is inspired by Cosmos to buy a real telescope and to see the real universe is going to be very, very disappointed.
And that is The Big Problem with Cosmos. The real is not good enough for it. The real universe is not good enough. Real science is not good enough. Real history is not good enough.
Rather, Cosmos presents us with a computer-generated universe that is flashier than what you will ever see. Cosmos largely ignores the science that exists—how we know the things we know—and mostly asserts what we know (just take it on authority, viewers) while also showing us cool graphics about cool ‘sciencey’ stuff like warp drive, holodecks, galactic databases of alien civilizations, and our densely packed asteroid belt* (to select from just the last two episode) that in fact we don’t really know. Cosmos doesn’t bother to show us a historically accurate view of Saturn as Galileo drew it, and instead presents a Cosmos idea of Galileo’s view of Saturn.
Instead of the real universe, real science, and real history, Cosmos too often wants to give us something better, cooler, and more exciting. The good aspects of the show can’t outweigh this Big Problem. I find myself questioning even those parts of the show I really like. After all, I see so much baloney in other parts. I am no expert on the Curies. Is that animated feature about them, that I liked so much, accurate? Or did Cosmos just make things look they way they thought would be coolest, like with Galileo’s Saturn?
I am a die-hard Cosmos fan. I have been since Sagan’s original show. But it seems I am doomed to be a die-hard fan of a team that too often does not come through. This season the losses significantly outweighed the wins—again. That was aggravated by the fact that the season ended with a couple of games that went so badly that I wanted to head for the exits well before the games were over. But a fan can always hope for the future. Perhaps next season will be better... if there is a next season.
Click here for all posts on “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”.
*Cosmos featured the typical Hollywood, “Empire Strikes Back” imagery of our asteroid belt as a veritable swarm of floating rocks. In fact, the asteroids are widely spaced (which is why we have been able to send all those space probes into the outer solar system without Han Solo to pilot them through the asteroid belt).
Tomorrow is the Baptism of the Lord, the end of the Christmas season which began on December 24. So today is still Christmas, and that means a post about the 2020 “Christmas Star” is still appropriate!
In my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky the weather was persistently cloudy across mid-December. I did not have my hopes up for seeing the Great Conjunction. So when the weather folks started mentioning that the sky might clear a bit the night of December 20, I decided that, if clear weather did come, I would make a big fuss over getting out a telescope.
December 20 dawned as grey and dreary as the previous who-knows-how-many days had been, and by 2:00 PM it was still grey and dreary. But then, around 3:00, the sun started to break through, and before long the weather was absolutely gorgeous. So I started text-blasting my neighbors, telling them that I would have a telescope set up on the corner of our block that has a clear view of the south-western horizon. Would anyone show up? I did not know. After all, the news was saying the Conjunction was the 21st (but the weather was saying the 21st would be cloudy).
But as I carried my 127 mm Maksutov down to the corner shortly after sunset, there was one of my neighbors, Bruce, waiting on me. And more arrived. We saw “The Christmas Star”! It was cool. I even got a terrible photo of it through my telescope, as did various neighbors. Even if the weather was bad the next day, we still had seen the Conjunction, mostly.
But lo! and behold! December 21st arrived, and again the evening was clear! The weather folks had been wrong. So once again, a text blast (plus a couple of neighbors who missed the 20th asked if I would be going back out), and again quite a few people showed up—as did another telescope. Plus, some people dropped by who were just driving or walking around looking for a good place to view the Great Conjunction. A few people who had been there the previous night returned. So now we had two telescopes (with different magnifications and fields of view) trained on Jupiter and Saturn. Again, I got a lousy photo that I was nonetheless very pleased with.
Then, the sky turned out to be clear on the 22nd. Once again, the telescope was set up on the corner. Once again, people showed up. This time I got a photo that was a little better.
Seeing both Jupiter and Saturn together in the eyepiece was very cool. The interesting thing is that most of the neighbors looking through the scopes were less amazed by that than by Saturn’s rings—after all, quite a few were seeing planets through a telescope for the first time, and so they would not know how unusual is the sight of two planets together in the eyepiece.
I particularly liked how it was possible to compare the brightness of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn to each other, and the disks of Jupiter and Saturn to each other. Jupiter’s disk was clearly whiter and brighter in color than Saturn’s. This shows even in some of my lousy photos. But more dramatic were the moons—Jupiter’s four Galilean moons appeared much brighter and much larger in the eyepiece than did Saturn’s moon Titan. There was also a star lying in the plane of the Jovian moons, and it was interesting to compare it to the moons, too, and to see how it moved through the Jovian system.
Another really cool thing was seeing with the naked eye how the two planets dramatically changed positions over the three nights. On the 20th Saturn stood right above Jupiter, at about the 12 o’clock position. On the 21st it was at about the 1:30 position, and closer to Jupiter. On the 22nd it was at about 3:30, and farther away again.
A third really cool thing was how various people had heard that this was like the Star of Bethlehem, or that it was in fact the Star. This allowed me to pontificate on my favorite Star topic, that according to Matthew’s gospel the Star was not noticeable to anyone but the magi—the astronomers—until they pointed it out to others. Matthew reports that Herod had to ask when the Star appeared; it could not have been something real obvious. And thus probably the Great Conjunction really was like the Star of Bethlehem: people understood that it was something remarkable, not to be seen in centuries, but except for their having read about it or having had it pointed out, they never would have noticed it. Several people commented that what they read in the media had led them to think the Conjunction would appear as something truly brilliant, and that could only be seen on the 21st.
So it really was a great conjunction, a great Christmas Star! Three great clear nights, on the three optimal nights for viewing. The weather was cloudy as can be on the 23rd. I did not care.
Tomorrow is Epiphany, and chances are high that you will hear at mass this refrain from “We Three Kings”:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
And if you are not at mass tomorrow, I bet you know that song anyway. It was written by John H. Hopkins, Jr. in 1857.*
Another song that might be sung at Epiphany mass is “What Star is This”:
What star is this, with beams so bright,
More lovely than the noonday light?
ʹTis sent to announce a newborn King,
Glad tidings of our God to bring.
ʹTis now fulfilled what God decreed,
“From Jacob shall a star proceed;”
And lo! the eastern sages stand
To read in heav’n the Lord’s command.
That is by Charles Coffin (1676-1749), translated into English by John Chandler (1806-1876).
Every year around Christmas my most patient wife has to listen to me carry on about how the “Star of Bethlehem” could never have been the blazing beacon portrayed in Christmas cards and hung above Nativity scenes everywhere. Indeed, this year I also got to pontificate about this to all my neighbors, as we all observed the 2020 “Christmas star” Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
What is the basis of this pontification? Because the star described in the gospel of Matthew is no blazing beacon. The second chapter of Matthew begins with magi showing up in Jerusalem, looking for a newborn king of the Jews because they had seen his star. Matthew begins the star story with the magi; no one in Jerusalem had a clue about the star until the “astro-nerds” (magi) showed up and pointed it out to them.
This sounds just like the Great Conjunction of 2020. Who would have noticed it just by chance? After all, Jupiter had been in the evening sky since summer. Indeed, back then it had been both brighter and better placed for easy viewing. In the Conjunction, Saturn was far dimmer than Jupiter, and so its closeness to Jupiter did not make for any blazing beacon of light. People who might have been outside just because they were returning from work or taking an evening walk or carrying out the household trash would have been unlikely to look up at the sky and say “wow, look at that!” Even had they seen the Conjunction, they probably would not have thought much of the little star next to the bright star they had already been seeing for months.
But bring in some astro-nerds—people like me and the rest of the gang here at Sacred Space Astronomy, and perhaps even like you, O Reader—and now people learn about the Conjunction and understand why it is a big deal, and it makes the news. This is the sort of thing that Matthew describes.
Moreover, in verse 7 Matthew says that King Herod pulls the magi aside “and ascertain[s] from them the time of the star’s appearance”. Obviously, had the star been a blazing beacon, Herod would not have had to do that—everyone would have already known the time of the star’s appearance. Matthew’s gospel is discussing a celestial phenomenon that only the magi noticed; something that Herod saw only after the magi pointed it out—just like the Great Conjunction.
This raises the question of why so many Christmas carols describe a big, bright star. Plenty of them do. There are the two I mentioned above, and then there is also “As With Gladness Men of Old”, by William C. Dix, 1861:
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright;
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led to thee.
There is “The First Noël”, a carol that dates from the 16th or 17th century:
They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.
And by the light of that same star,
Three wise men came from country far,
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Going back further, there is “This Endris Nyzgt”, or in modern English, “The Other Night”, a 15th-century English carol about Mary marveling over her child:
The other night I saw a sight,
A star as bright as day;
I listened long a maiden’s song,
Bye bye, lully lullay.
This lovely maiden sat and sang,
And to her Child did say:
“My son, my Brother, Father dear,
Bye bye, lully lullay.
“My sweetest One, whence art Thou come
Art Thou not God alway?
But none the less I will not cease,
To sing bye bye, lullay.
And going way, way, way back, there is “Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities”, by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. He lived from 348 to 413. Yes, this song is from the 4th or early 5th century!
Fairer than the sun at morning
Was the star that told his birth;
To the lands their God announcing,
Seen in fleshly form on earth.
By its lambent beauty guided
See the eastern kings appear;
See them bend, their gifts to offer,
Gifts of incense, gold and myrrh.
These words are an English translation by Edward Caswall (1814-1878). Is the idea of a brilliant star in Prudentius’s original Latin? Indeed it is, at least in the first of these two verses:
Haec stella, quae solis rotam
vincit decore ac lumine,
venisse terris nuntiat
cum carne terrestri Deum.
Which I translate as,
This star, which excels the wheel of the sun in beauty and light, announces to the nations God coming in earthly flesh.
(The “lambent beauty” is not present in the Latin of the next verse.)
The idea of a brilliant Star of Bethlehem has been around a very long time, despite such a star standing plainly contrary to what is in Matthew. And such a star plainly downplays the importance of astro-nerds! Go figure that on this Epiphany. How this came to be could probably be turned into a good book, if it has not been already.
(And my thanks to my wife, who came up with the idea for this post and dug up all the songs except “Endris Nyzgt”.)
*Words and song information in this post are from the Ignatius Pew Missal 2020 and from Torstein O. Kvamme’s 1935 The Christmas Caroler’s Book in Song and Story.
Drive northeast of Cincinnati, Ohio, and a few miles due east of the town of Lebanon, and you will find Fort Ancient. The “fort” was constructed by Native American “Hopewell” people long prior to the arrival of peoples not indigenous to the Americas.* The place is really cool. It is an impressive piece of work, consisting of three and a half miles of earthen walls that measure up to 68 feet wide and up to 23 feet high, enclosing a flat area of 100 acres, all sitting atop a 235-foot high plateau overlooking the Little Miami River. Within the walls of Fort Ancient are a museum/visitor center and a very nice picnic area constructed during the Great Depression by one of the African American units of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
But Fort Ancient was probably never a fort. The walls are broken by 67 openings. Inside the area are various stone circles, sections of flagstone pavement, and conical and crescent-shaped mounds. So, given all the wall openings and other features, archaeologists think Fort Ancient was not a fort, but a place “constructed for social, ceremonial, and political events”. It was an event space!
It is an old event space. Archaeologists have found patterns of dirt-filled holes that appear to have held the wall posts of several oval-ish structures, structures that also contained cooking and storage pits with pottery fragments, animal bones, flint tools and flint flakes, and plant remains. Radio-carbon dating from charcoal found in the post holes yields a date of 120 A.D.
The Hopewell civilization had long since vanished by the time European explorers and settlers came across Fort Ancient and other earthen mound constructions that dot Ohio and nearby states. According to a panel at Fort Ancient, scholars in the 19th century hypothesized that there were three great New World civilizations: the Inca, the Aztec, and the Mound Builders who built these earthworks places. The scholars supposed that the Native Americans who lived in the area when Europeans arrived had conquered the Mound Builders. They imagined that the modern Native Americans or “American Indians” could never have built structures like Fort Ancient (the 19th century was a big time for declaring—on the basis of science, of course!—that certain groups of people could never do certain things) but could have conquered the people who did. Today archaeologists believe that the people who built Fort Ancient were indeed the ancestors of modern Native Americans, but still not much is really known about them. A little bit about their appearance and what they wore can be ascertained from artwork that has been found on sites like Fort Ancient. But there is a lot of room open for speculation about them—a lot of room.
One of the interesting bits of speculation involves Fort Ancient and astronomy. Inside the museum there is a panel titled “Hopewell Astronomy” that states:
Four mounds in the North Fort form a perfect square 512 feet to a side. These are not burial mounds but covered areas where the Hopewell people kindled fires. Researchers have found alignments between one of these mounds and several openings in the northeast corner of the earthwork. One alignment points to the position on the horizon where the sun rises on the summer solstice. Two others appear to be oriented on the rising of the moon. This portion of the Fort Ancient earthworks may have functioned as a calendar.
At the mound in question is a panel titled “Astronomical Alignments” stating:
American Indians who built Fort Ancient used the sun and moon to measure time. By observing the rising location of these celestial objects they knew when to gather together for religious or social events or when to plant crops. They used sunrise locations to predict annual events and moonrise locations to measure intervals of several years’ duration.
You are at the southwest corner of a nearly perfect square made by four mounds. Three astronomical alignments have been demonstrated from this point.
On the summer solstice, usually June 21, the sun rises in the gap [marked “2”] just north of Rt. 350 [the road through Fort Ancient].
The maximum northern moonrise [marked “1”] occurs approximately 9.3 years after the minimum northern moonrise [marked “3”] with this complete lunar cycle taking 18.6 years or one generation.
I thought this was, of course, very cool. I could stand at the mound and look out toward gap #2. The museum even had an artist’s impression of a Hopewell ceremony for the sun rising through the gap.
But then skepticism started kicking in....
First, standing at the mound, looking down through the sunrise gap—gap #2—I noticed all the trees visible in the distance. Ohio is not a desert; it has lots of trees, and lots of vegetation in general. Trees would have to be cleared all the way to the horizon in order to see the sunrise. In the painting, everything is denuded of trees. (And there is snow on the ground, which seems wrong for a summer solstice—but I suppose that is artistic license.) Also, the painting shows the sun standing above the horizon, well after sunrise. The sun does not rise straight up in Ohio (that only happens at the equator), so the sun in the painting would have had to have risen from a point well to the left of the gap, not in the gap itself.
In reality, at the actual moment of sunrise, the sun would just peak out over the horizon. What would be seen through the gap #2 would be the sun doing just that. The sun would then move up and to the right, away from the gap. So in order to see the sunrise in the gap, the horizon would also have to be flat, and the ground would have to be clear of vegetation and other obstacles all the way to the horizon. Keeping that all clear would be a heck of a lot of work in June, in Ohio, when every plant that lives is growing at full speed. And the moonrise gaps would have to be kept clear, too, for events that occurred only once a decade.
Well, perhaps the Hopewell people were really into cutting brush. But then I ran into something else: a panel showing an old map of Fort Ancient, with the various gaps in the wall marked—and there was nothing on that old map for gap #2. The old map was from Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis’s detailed survey of ancient earthwork structures, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley: Comprising the Results of Extensive Original Surveys and Explorations, published in 1848. Gap #2 today is not small. Why is it not on the old map? Was it in fact cut by some farmer in the years after Ancient Monuments was published, so that the gap has nothing to do with ancient Native Americans?
Such is the nature of science. So often science is an uncertain business. Surely the business of archaeology is particularly uncertain, where so little hard information is available about a place like Fort Ancient that is so remarkable.
I speculate that the Fort Ancient astronomical alignment might have been discovered by a professional scientist who wrote about it with all due caution and warned about the inherent limits involved in determining things ranging from alignments to dates of holes. Or, perhaps the alignment was discovered by an amateur who was more enthusiastic. Either way, I speculate that the alignment was just too cool for people to not talk about, and before long an idea that was never rigorously tested got turned into a way-cool feature of Fort Ancient that captured the imagination of visitors and artists alike. The idea could even be made into a cool video (below, from the Ancient Ohio Trail). Who can’t appreciate the image of the sun rising up out of the gap in the snow-covered walls on the summer solstice?
But in science it is good to be a bit skeptical. That skepticism need not prevent anyone from thinking a place like Fort Ancient is way cool. And maybe those old mapmakers just missed that gap, and the Hopewell people really did like cutting brush!
*All information pertaining to Fort Ancient in this post comes from material in the site’s museum/visitor center and various plaques and informative panels around the site.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, surely was no fan of Advent. Writing to Thomas Jefferson in January of 1825, he complained of people who “believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe… came down to this little ball [Earth].” He added that, “until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.”
Some people today feel the same way, but rejecting not just the Incarnation, but God as well. These modern Scrooges have been sold the idea that science says we humans are nothing more than a finite number of atoms in motion, with no soul, and that the world is merely an uncreated result of random happenstance. They reject belief in anything that can’t be measured and verified through experiment. And so, there is no God, no Advent, no Christmas. Bah! Humbug.
Let us think rationally, like a scientist, about this Scrooge-iness.
Science works through reproducibility—the same experiment repeated the same way yielding the same result. But getting the same, verifiable result from the same repeated experiment requires that the world have an order, a structure. Otherwise experiments would generate only disordered, useless results.
Moreover, some things in science cannot be experimentally verified. Consider ‘pi,’ a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter. Call up pi on your scientific calculator app and you will see 3.1415926535897932384626433832795.... Only the first few of those digits of pi are testable by measurement; the later digits cannot be verified by any conceivable measurement. Yet pi has been calculated to “bazillions” of digits. Indeed, mathematicians have shown it to have infinite digits. Thus, somewhere in the infinity of pi is every winning lottery ticket number ever (and losing ones, too). Shakespeare’s plays are in there (with the alphabet encoded into numbers). So are the lyrics to all your favorite songs. We can study the infinity that is pi, learn more and more, and yet what we know will always be nothing compared to what is there.
Now consider: What is the source of the order that allows science to work? How could people who are mere finite collections of atoms in motion ever conceive of, and then explore, an infinity like pi? A rational answer to these questions is that there is something beyond the material universe—a Creator, an unlimited Being that shares of itself with us.
And consider scientists like Blaise Pascal. His ideas are studied in science classes everywhere. He was no Scrooge. God either exists or not, Pascal said, and we either believe in God or not. If we believe, and God does in fact exist, then we gain infinitely, because we gain a relationship with the Infinite. If we believe, and God does not exist, then we lose nothing—because if there is no God and we are just atoms in motion, then we are nothing and what we do matters not. And so, he said, because we stand to gain everything by belief in God, yet risk nothing of value, reason demands belief.
If you know Scrooges who think that science opposes the idea that there is a God who came down to Earth for us, ignore their “Bah! Humbug” attitudes. Wish them a Happy Holidays, share some Christmas cheer with them, and pray that they may learn better how to think rationally regarding these things.
It’s time for more commentary on the Cosmos: Possible Worlds show now that a few more episodes have aired: “The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth” (Episode #7), “The Sacrifice of Cassini” (Episode #8), and “Magic Without Lies” (Episode #9).
Episode #9 was on the wave/particle nature of light and on quantum mechanics. It included an animation of Newton sticking a bodkin (something much like a knitting needle) into his eye socket as part of his investigations into light. That was cringe-inducing, of course. I love pointing* out that stunt of his to students—especially showing them Newton’s notes where he describes doing this. And his notes show that he pushed that needle deep into his eye socket, too. Had Newton been alive today, would he have made the discoveries that he made? After all, had Newton been alive today, he surely would have been on a strict regimen of therapy and medicine. He might then have been less prone to inflicting pain on himself with bodkins in the name of science. But would he have done so much great science?
And I loved that in Episode #9 Cosmos’s host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was very explicit in talking about how we don’t understand many things about quantum mechanics. I liked the analogy he drew between quantum mechanics and fire, in which he imagined how the human beings who first tamed fire certainly knew some things about it, and could put it to use, but they didn’t understand most of what we now know about fire. They did not understand the chemistry, the thermodynamics, etc. of fire—and that is probably something like how it is now for us and quantum mechanics.
But Episode #9 was absolutely drenched in gratuitous computer-animated junk. That overwhelmed the show’s good points. But, it was a show about quantum mechanics, a tough topic, so I will say no more.
Episode #8, “The Sacrifice of Cassini”, was my favorite Cosmos episode so far. I really liked how the show introduced scientists who many people likely have never heard of: Christiaan Huygens, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Ole Rømer, Édouard Roche, and Aleksandr Ignatyevich Shargei. This episode gathered many different ideas together, all under the umbrella of Saturn and NASA’s Cassini/Huygens mission. I particularly found it cool that we’ve discovered, in orbit around another star, a planet with a ring system—and that ring system is so large that it compares in size to Earth’s orbit. I did not know that.
My complaints about Episode #8 are all minor quibbles:
First, “Galileo’s” view of Saturn looked like a shapeless blob. Why? This is true nit-picking, but the fact is that Galileo drew Saturn as he saw it through his telescope, so it would have been simple for Cosmos to represent his view accurately. That the makers of the show did not do that speaks to their casual attitude toward accuracy in the history of science.
Second, there should have been mention of why Cassini and Rømer were so interested in the Jovian moons (which led Rømer to discover that light has a speed). They were interested in the moons because the moons had value as a time-keeping device. Cosmos missed a chance to show how astronomers often worked in the service of a practical need (click here for more on that).
Third, Tyson says that the Cassini probe showed that Saturn’s ring system is relatively young, but does not explain why. Again, I nit-pick, but this illustrates the show’s tendency to see science as a matter of “authority”.
And finally, parts of this episode were so syrupy! Tyson tells the story of the final minutes of the Cassini probe in full “tear-jerker” fashion: the faithful robot, obediently following its master’s command to swing into Saturn’s upper atmosphere and thus bringing about its own doom, valiantly struggles to the very end to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth and send back data, even as the atmospheric drag starts to tear it apart, until its last drop of thruster fuel is expended, and it perishes in a blaze of glory—a bolide above the clouds of the ringed planet it had studied for years. It was like one of those sad, B-grade movies where the family dog saves the child but perishes in the process.
But overall, Episode #8 was good.
On the other hand, Episode #7, “The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth”, was the worst so far. If my attitude toward Cosmos is that of a 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 comes back again and again, win or lose, to root for the team to actually play up to their potential... well... this was where that fan was tearing off his team jersey, throwing it to the ground, and stomping on it.
If you saw the second half of the show’s double-header broadcast premier, you may recall Tyson musing on whether insects have self-consciousness, hope for the future, satisfaction at a job well done, a soul. Well, in Episode #7 Tyson takes this up a notch or five, talking about even plants in human terms. He speaks of trees and forests in terms straight out of a J. R. R. Tolkien book. The forest is “abuzz with conversation” in “an electrochemical language” of a sort “creatures like us” do not notice. Through “an ancient, subterranean worldwide web,” known as the mycelium, creatures of the forest exchange, among other things “messages and empathy [!] with one another, across species, and even across the kingdoms of life.” Tyson suggests that trees can “know” things and “want” things and can “think” things and have “excellent parenting skills” and even a consciousness. Who are we to search for intelligent life beyond Earth he asks, “when we can’t even recognize, or respect, the consciousness all around us, and even beneath our feet?” Any viewer familiar with Tolkien’s The Two Towers is probably thinking now of the trees of Fangorn and of Huorns on the move.
But the trees are not the only consciousness in Episode #7 of Cosmos. Much of the episode is devoted to bees and how they apparently communicate through a “waggle dance.” Tyson describes a swarm of bees as being “a kind of mind, a collective consciousness to which every individual bee makes a contribution.” Bees, in Tyson’s view, have “a knowledge of astronomy and mathematics [that] would astonish most of us.” They also have “a commitment to resolving their differences democratically, and reaching the broadest possible consensus through debate” that Tyson says is unparalleled in any human society. Here, he says, “every individual has a voice.... corruption is unknown…. [and] the community acts only when it has arrived at consensus through reason [!] and debate.”
What allowed us to recognize in bees “another intelligence that had always been there?” The ideas of Charles Darwin, that’s what. Darwin is “the greatest spiritual teacher of the last thousand years” in Tyson’s view. And, he says, “Darwin worshipped nature”. Darwin’s idea that “a tiny, one-celled organism evolves into you and everything else that is Earthlife” is the basis for an understanding of the world that is pretty rosy. “Life itself can be seen as an emergent property of chemistry,” says Tyson, “science as an emergent property of life, a way that life has found to begin to know itself.” And then:
[Darwin] debunked the story of Adam and Eve. Humans are not the kings of life, created separately, and charged with its management but instead, an upstart offspring of its stately, ancient family.... [Darwin] was also one of the first to recognize that if all life is related, there were certain philosophical implications. If we were not created separately from the other animals, must we not share more of who we are with them? Our awareness, our relationships with others, even our feelings?
I could not help but think here that Tyson is undermining science by needlessly pitting it against religion. As I have discussed on this blog many times before, science does not need to pick fights. It has enough enemies today, when some people find the very idea that things can be true, and that we can even know what truth is and converse about that truth with others, to be inconvenient, and easily ignored or scoffed at. And I also could not help but wonder: when was the last time he read Genesis? A separate creation is not to be found in Genesis 1, where people are created on the sixth day, along with the cows and the creeping things; nor is it to be found in Genesis 2, where God forms Adam out of the ground and forms animals and birds out of it, too. But Tyson continues:
Instead of a single island of human perception in the universe, Darwin realized that we are surrounded by other ways of being alive and conscious. For Darwin, science was a pathway to a deeper level of empathy and humility. When word reached him that a local farmer was mistreating his sheep, Darwin dropped his research to make an arrest of the man.... And this compassion extended even to our own species. He recognized the blindness of his 19th century contemporaries. In his autobiography, he recounted the story of an African woman who jumped off a cliff to her certain death, rather than submit to being enslaved by the Portuguese. Darwin observed that if she had been a Roman matron from classical antiquity.... we would be naming our daughters after her.... [Darwin’s] knowledge of science informed and drove his compassion to new heights.
And so Tyson presents us with the great spiritual teacher Darwin, worshipper of nature, who leads us to share empathy like the trees, and to reason like the bees, and to be compassionate to sheep and even people. But consider this, from Darwin’s The Descent of Man:
The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practises infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
Where is the compassion in this description of this group of indigenous South Americans? But, if people have no souls and are ultimately no better or worse than flies or bees, then logic suggests that people are worth no more than flies or bees. And thus, if we’ve got the guns (metaphorically or literally) to back up our wills, can we not dismiss people based on their behavior and what we see as worthy, or even swat them like we would a stinging bee or biting fly? We need not consider that those savages were created ad imaginem Dei in a way that flies or bees were not, because that imaginem does not exist.
And if we are basically soulless insects, why can’t a person conclude that it is in his best interest to torture enemies and treat wives as slaves? Or maybe to practice infanticide without remorse, so that resources are not squandered on the weak, the disabled, and the unwanted? If such behavior works for that person, yielding lots of healthy offspring and thus evolutionary advantage, how is such behavior not more desirable than compassion towards sheep, or towards anyone else? Episode #7 seems to have been put together without even a thought for such questions. I am sure someone could have told Tyson that if he is going to talk up a great spiritual teacher who worshipped nature, such questions are bound to arise.
So I’m hoping for more episodes like #8, and no more like #7. We shall see. I’ll be in the bleachers.
Click here for all posts on “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”.