Extreme Thinkover Reaches 40,000-View Milestone

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On March 7, 2012, Extreme Thinkover reached a great milestone by crossing the 40,000 views mark.  I want to express my appreciation to all my readers and subscribers, along with those who just happen to stop by and check out the blog.  Last year was an eventful year for me and I didn’t post as many articles as I have in past years.  But to those of you who have hung in there with me, I extend my special thanks!  So keep checking on the blog site.  There are some new plans in the offing that should not only generate more posts but also provide some great reading.

All my best,

David

P.S., Just for fun here are three photos of my vacation at Mt Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, California.  And thanks to Bruce and Mimi for the invitation!

I'm standing next to the 60" Hale Telescope. It's over 30 feet tall. Photo Credit: John Bogen

When the Hale saw first light in December 1908, it was the largest telescope in the world. George Ellery Hale, who later financed the 200 inch Hale Telescope on Mt Palomar near Pasadena, named the telescope after himself.

This is the chair Albert Einstein sat in when he visited Mt Wilson on January 29, 1931. Note the hair. Photo Credit: John Bogen.

Einstein and the Senior Astronomers (Edwin Hubble is standing directly behind Einstein. Jan 29, 1931. Photo Courtesy of Mt Wilson Observatory.

Quantum Hope

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Oh, no, not THAT word!

Put the word “quantum” in a title or sentence and people get nervous.  Perhaps their eyes glaze over and they hope that it will go away.  Some stop reading and skip to another article.  Others are so disconcerted by the mere appearance of the term they can’t read another word and turn on their TVs, frantically looking for reruns of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or better yet, Oprah.  Comfort food delivered by cable. Having placed “quantum” in both the title and the first sentence, however, those folks won’t have gotten this far.

So if you are still reading, you are among a small minority who are surprisingly brave and tenacious.  For most of you, however, I still need to allay one other fear: math.  Take a deep breath.  No math.  Please, though, don’t turn off your brain.  I’m going to suggest something that is indeed within the realm of quantum theory, but from a perspective few quantum physicists would entertain.

Consider this a treat.

If you aren’t sure what the quantum in quantum physics entails, I can provide a basic definition by offering a simple word picture.  It’s a matter of scale to describe the universe.  On the very big end is cosmology.  That’s what the giant earth-based observatories,  optical, radio telescopes, and space telescopes (like the Hubble, and the Kepler and the soon to be launched James Webb), look deep into space to better understand.  Cosmologists are interested in our  Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in our neighborhood (we have a really BIG neighborhood) and further out from there to the whole universe.  Astronomers and astrophysicists study the cosmos, the biggest stuff out there.

Quantum physics studies the small end of the universe, smaller than atoms: subatomic particles with great names like quarks, Fermions, leptons and bosons, down to the smallest of the small, called a “bit” (The bit is still theoretical and is also considered a function of entropy. Click here for an explanation [Warning: Contains math formulas]).  They also study how those subatomic particles fit together and work to make the matter we can see.  And that is what a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN straddling the border of France and Switzerland is designed to do.  Remember in The DaVinci Code, where the story starts in this giant underground building?  That’s CERN.  Particle physicists and quantum physicists study the small stuff and the forces that make them work.

What does this have to do with hope?  Everything, actually, but you’ll have to read just a bit more.

Quantum physics and cosmology have one goal in common.  They both want to figure out how the very large relates to the very small.  They want to discover how the smallest quantum bit is the building block for the universe (and maybe a whole bunch of other universes, too, but we’re not going there in this post).  This great quest is called the search for the Theory of Everything, or for short, The Big TOE.  Seriously.  Yeah, you can laugh.

Everything, however, is not scientifically measurable.  Life is one of those things.  I know we can create machines that can detect life and perhaps how much life exists a one place, but life as a phenomenon in the Universe is not measurable.

The whole notion is confounding, and has been the topic of debate among we humans well before the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus‘ manuscript, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.”   For example, Aristarchus of Samos, who lived CA 310-230 BCE, published the first treatise on the heliocentric model of the solar system, On the Sizes and Distances of Sun and Moon, which was then suppressed by the Greek religious authorities of his time because it did not match their beliefs about their gods and life in the universe.  That has a familiar ring to it.

For Half a Millennium…

The past half a millennium, from Copernicus to the present, we have struggled to decide not just what the universe is made of, but what it is at all.  It is the driving force in cosmology and quantum physics.

For those of us who are people of faith, we have also struggled to decide not just what life is made of, but have equally struggled to assign meaning to a concept that seems pervasive to all humans that we label spirituality.  And the greater challenge has been to assign meaning to our religious beliefs and their long-held sacred foundations.   As our understanding of both the Universe and Life have changed (yes, I am deliberately capitalizing both words to communicate that in this context I am seeking to convey a sense of cosmic wholeness) our search for meaning has not gotten any easier.  Why after thousands of years of consciousness in this earthly setting, do we still not understand either?

Diarmuid O’Murcho, who has written extensively about defining a “quantum theology“, states,

The universe knows what it’s about.  That it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else…Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the idea that it is mindful? (Evolutionary Faith, p. 199).

Even as I write the words of O’Murcho’s quote, I admit they sound strange, foreign, even counter-intuitive to me.  My intellectual world has never regarded the universe as mindful.  Neither has my theological world.  Perhaps, though, that has been the problem, my problem: I have viewed these two worlds as separate, distinct, and although I may have been able to conceptualize them as meeting, like two pieces of plate glass. When pressed against each other they have a cohesiveness, but they are still to pieces of glass stuck together.  In the world of the quantum reality, there is no reason for that to always be so.  In fact, it may be that it is only rarely so, because in quantum theory, boundaries and internal existence are not bounded or exist in the way I perceive them.

Spirituality, Cosmology & the Quantum Conundrum…

I come, then, to my most difficult and confounding question.  If I can believe in a mindful God who created a quantum universe, why do I assume that this mindful Creator did not create a mindful Universe in the same way that humans (therefore, me) were created: In the image of God?

If I allow myself to just for a moment to adjust my reality to that perspective, I realize that I see, though in a glass darkly as St. Paul says when he talks about hope (not just love, 1 Co. 13:15), a reason for hope in a universe otherwise devoid and incapable of such mindfulness:

Life is the universe’s sole expression of hope, for without life the universe cannot contemplate its existence, and without hope the universe does not exist.

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The First Image of the Universe as We Never Can See It, Because Our Eyes Cannot See in Microwave Wavelengths. Image: COBE, Goddard Space Flight Center, http://mather.gsfc.nasa.gov/cobe/science.html

We Have Seen His Star in the East–Myth or Astronomical Event?

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Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

 

The Star of Bethlehem? No, it's Canopus, 2nd Brightest Star in the Sky and a Specular Stand-in. 310 Light Years Distant. Image by D. Pettit taken from the ISS. Photo: NASA

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Prologue

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start to which I was alluding.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf.  Photo: NASA.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. It is Procyon, 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf. 11 Light Years Distant. Photo: NASA.

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First, Some Historical Background

The Babylonian Cosmos. Image Courtesy: Gavin White. From: Babylonian Star-Lore, 2008. Click on the image for a larger version.

Around nine to ten thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that is very hard to read.  White (2008) in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, suggests that Babylonian astrology began as early as 15,000 years ago, although he states that the practice of astrology was quite different than the modern version.  It relied on mathematical calculations written on clay tablets and the earliest tablets have been dated to the 7th or 8th Century, BCE.  So, I’ll suggest ten thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

At this point I need to dispel one very important misconception: the fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, or that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

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The Sky is a Problem, a Big Problem

If This was the Bethlehem Star, it Would Have Really Gotten Everyone's Attention. It isn't. This is Wolf-Rayet 104, a Totally Strange Double Star, But This Time, Both Stars are Massive. 8000 Light Years. Photo: NASA/Keck Telescope, Hawaii

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was an unexplainable event in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing.  The same thing happened to  the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that, too, is secondary to our discussion.

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

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What was the sky?

Supernova AD 1054. Chaco Canyon Petroglyph. Photo: Richard Goode, Porterville College, Calif.

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.  Of course, there were to main players in the diurnal cycle.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.  Our ancestors had figured out that part even before the start of our story.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.  Still the phases of the moon was so reliable that as humans began to cultivate their food, not just gather it, the Moon’s monthly journey and phases became an essential resource for the planting, growing and harvesting the crops.

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The Dilemma of the Wandering Stars

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings, at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light every two annual cycles.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine but not twinkle like the others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Milky Way Band. Photo Courtesy of John Gleason/NASA

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and recurring risings and settngs as the year progressed from the shortest days to the longest.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and motions.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them, was another thing altogether.

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The First Astronomers

Sunburst Petroglyph, Chemehuevi People, near Lanfair, CA. Photo Courtesy: Donald Austin & NASA

To explain the sky, both day and night, these earliest of astonomers drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

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The Aztec Creation Story: Mother Sun Dismembered

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres.

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The Sumerian Creation Myth: The Mother Goddess Gets Dismembered

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.

 

Updated: Rosetta Still Speaks–Not From Egypt’s Eternal Sands but in a Voice “Thro’ Vast Immensity can Pierce”

It's Just One Boring Day After Another. Photo Courtesy Zazzle.com, UK

I don’t know about you, but my life most weeks is pretty routine.  Even though I work in a setting where no two days are the same, in some respects (I never know which patients I’ll be seeing or what their issues will be) my schedule is predictable, Monday through Friday, with a night of being on-call every other week (One thing is certain, here.  If you get called in the night, it’s never good!  Chaplains don’t get called for the happy stuff at night—that’s just a given.  And with our large service area and being a Trauma II hospital, it’s a rare night I don’t get called).

With that in mind, I look to other sources to provide the unique, the unexpected, the stunning, the beautiful, the historic.  What takes my breath away? Beauty where there should only be the drab.  Inspiration from the simplest of the simple where there should only be plainness.  And historic perspectives never glimpsed by the human eye.

Lagerfeld (TM) Rose Blossom. Photo: David Waggoner

We’ve gotten used to the magnitude of the beauty of the galaxy from photos by the Hubble Space Telescope, or the Twin Keck’s on Mauna Kea’s lofty peak, or composites made possible by the digitization of multiple pictures of the same object taken in various light spectra by different space and earth-based observatories.  The robotic

Cassini Huygens Titan Montage. Photo: NASA/JPL/ESA

probe expeditions to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, such as Galileo and Cassini, respectively, not to mention the earlier Voyagers, have so completely revised our understanding of those miniature solar systems that astronomy textbooks written even five years ago are hopelessly out of date.  In a century Mars has gone from a planet believed to have a struggling civilization, to a dusty, dead, rocky world with no potential, back to a world of potential and interesting; the search for life in space has zeroed in on it as prime suspect #1.  The discovery and confirmation of water ice, just inches below

Mars 27Aug03 at Opposition by HST. Photo: HST/NASA

its surface is reigniting the global interest to send a human crew to investigate, even though the political and economic chaos rippling around the makes the realization of that dream tenuous at best.  Saturn’s moon Titan has now been to be discovered to be so earthlike, although its rains, and rivers and oceans are of methane that astronomers are stunned and rewriting what a planet is and what an active environment can be every few months.  I could go on and on.

Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE, Disc. 1799 in Egypt. Photo: British Museum, London

The picture below fits into the category of “Historic Views Never Seen Before by Human Eyes”.  The photographer is the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Space Probe launched in 2004 whose ultimate destination is the comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it is scheduled to reach in 2014.  Like a miniature Casinni-Huygens, Rosetta will launch a probe, the Philae Lander to the surface of the comet and gather data to be radioed back to Earth.  So it has a way to go, but is on track to make its target date.  Rosetta’s trajectory is a gravity-assisted boost cycle, circling the Sun and planetary flybys to increase its speed and set it up for its ultimate goal.

Along the way, Rosetta has encountered several asteroids, the most recent being 21 Lutetia.  This is the last asteroidal encounter before the probe is put into deep space hibernation as it flies toward the comet.

Rosetta Spacecraft Probe. Image Courtesy: ESA

Just released is one of those stunning photos, historic in that no human eye has ever seen 21 Lutetia other than as a dim dot of light, but in the distance is the grand dame of the Solar System, Saturn.  The black of space punctuated by a small asteroid—a piece of the earliest solar system—in the foreground and in the distance—massive Saturn, millions of miles distant but still unmistakable with its signature rings.  The asteroid photo, taken from a distance of  22,300 miles, shows it is approximately 81 miles on its long axis.  Such stark beauty of the very small and the massive opposite in their juxtaposition against the eternal night of deep space takes my breath away!

21 Lutetia Asteroid from 36,000 km by Rosetta with Saturn in Background. Photo: ESA

I end with these prescient verses written nearly 300 years ago by a man who could only imagine in the most rudimentary fashion the reality of deep space, but ended up describing it with a beauty in word, expressing an amazingly close reality of what we know today:

Of man, what see we but his station here,

From which to reason, or to which refer?

Thro’ worlds unnumber’d tho’ the God be known,

‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own.

He, who thro’ vast immensity can pierce,

See worlds on worlds compose one universe,

Observe how system into system runs,

What other planets circle other suns,

What vary’d being peoples every star,

May tell why heav’n has made us as we are.

by Alexander Pope, OF THE NATURE AND STATE OF MAN WITH RESPECT TO THE UNIVERSE, from The Essay on  Man, Epistle 1. 1732

21-Lutetia Close Up: An Update

The European Space Agency has released another image of 21-Lutetia taken by Rosetta at a distance (astronomically speaking) of only 1965 miles.  That’s approximately the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Indianapolis, non-stop.  Or, if you live East of the Mississippi, from Washington, D.C. to Phoenix, Arizona.

Asteroid 21 Lutetia from 1965 miles (3162 km) by Rosetta Spacecraft. Image: ESA

From Astronomy.com:

The July 10 flyby was a spectacular success with Rosetta performing faultlessly. Closest approach took place at a distance of 1,965 miles (3,162 kilometers).

The images show that Lutetia is heavily cratered, having suffered many impacts during its 4.5 billion years of existence. As Rosetta drew close, a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of the asteroid rotated into view. The images confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side around 81 miles (130 km).

The pictures come from Rosetta’s Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) instrument, which combines a wide-angle and a narrow-angle camera. At closest approach, details down to a scale of 200 feet (60 meters) can be seen over the entire surface of Lutetia.

2010–The Year We Learn That Life Beyond Earth Exists?

Dr. David S. McKay, Astrobiologist. Photo: NASA

There’s a buzz out there amongst astrobiologists that before this year is out, Dr. David McKay and his research team are going to announce that they have definitively identified fossilized organisms in meteorites from Mars that have been collected on earth.

Martian microorganisms.  Martians.  Real Martians.  That bubble of perception that life exists only here on Earth will have been burst.

The next step, of course, will be to design Mars missions to determine if any of those organisms have survived Mars’ harsh and extreme history in an environment in which only extremophiles (as we now know flourish on Earth) could survive.

That those first missions will be robotic is certain.  The opportunity that a human will ever reach down and pick up a rock from the surface of Mars that potentially carries evidence of life living or fossilized in this century, at least under the sponsorship of NASA, appears increasingly doubtful in the current political and geo-centric environment.

Although we may be witness to the extinction of the hominid drive to discover the undiscovered, life confirmed beyond the delicate bubble of rock, water and air from which we were formed, literally changes the very quantumization of life itself.  It is a change that cannot be undone. From the present into the future, what it means to be living, what it means to be human will be different.  For life, as we’ve always known it, no longer requires Earth.

Martian Metorite NAKHLA 2058. Possible Fossilized Life. Microscopy Photo: NASA

There is more, however.  All technical considerations aside, if and when this announcement comes, the theological implications, as well as our geo-centric Christology, will no longer be the topic of idle speculation but confront us with a reality that demands a response to the world.

Since 1543, when Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the

Folio Pages Showing the Copernicus' Heliocentric Model. De Revolutionbus, 1543. Photo Courtesy fotosearch.com

Celestial Spheres), we have been attempting to unify our Christology with our Cosmology.  The results have been, in my opinion, at best, mixed.

Parable of the Sower, from the Plenarium or the Evangelical Book of the Year, 1516. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Pitts Theology Library, Emory Univ.

The announcement of alien life, even microbial, requires a new conversation with a new set of rules.  It shall be a heady time, indeed.  Ours is the generation that broke the shackles of gravity and set off across the Solar System.  If, too, we are to be ones who confirm that life’s seed has been sown across the expanse of space like the Sower in one of Jesus’ parables, we have much work to do.

Here are three links:

http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1001/09marslife/

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2010/01/11/2169791.aspx

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/47114/proof-life-mars-come-year.html

Looking into the stars that seed the night will never be the same. Ever.

Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?

Part 1

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start I to which I was alluding.

Flores sapiens next to Homo sapiens. Photo Credit: National Geographic & Nature/ Peter Brown

Sometime around six thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and the Cro Magnon (Arcahic Homo sapiens) were long extinct; one hominid now possessed all that was known to exist (the earliest dating for Homo florsiensis is currently 18K years). It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that gets harder and harder to read.  So, I’ll suggest six thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

I need to, at this point, dispel one very important, misconception.   That is the

Turkana Boy: Homo erectus, 1.5 mil. yrs. Field Museum, Chicago. Replica. Your ancestor? Yes. Your intellectual equal? Nope.

fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out, or even your cousin Zeke.  All right, maybe not cousin Zeke, but that is only because he hasn’t put down the game controller or said a single word since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 113 came out.  He may be more cyborg than human after all this time.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Geese flying over the surf. Oregon Coast, Sept '07

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was a day in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing, or the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, too, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

Lunar Elipse, Feb. 27, 2007. Photo credit: Astronomy.com

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that is secondary to our discussion, as well.

Milky Way over Mauna Kea. Photo credit: Mauna Kea Observatory

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

What was the sky?

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance

Total Solar Eclipse with Diamond Ring Effect

of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine without the twinkle of all others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Five planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - gather over the ancient Stonehenge monument in England. *Image Copyright*: Philip Perkins

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and cycles.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and cycles.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them was another thing altogether.

To explain the sky, both day and night, these individuals drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of the Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels, even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.

VISTA: Celebrating First Light of ESO’s Newest Observatory

The European Space Agency and Great Britain

proudly announce the “First Light” of the world’s

newest observatory: VISTA

ESO's VISTA "First Light" Photo: The Flame Nebula in Orion (NGC 2024)

A new telescope — VISTA (the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) — has just started work at ESO’s Paranal Observatory and has made its first release of pictures. VISTA is a survey telescope working at infrared wavelengths and is the world’s largest telescope dedicated to mapping the sky. Its large mirror, wide field of view and very sensitive detectors will reveal a completely new view of the southern sky. Spectacular new images of the Flame Nebula, the centre of our Milky Way galaxy and the Fornax Galaxy Cluster show that it is working extremely well.

VISTA, located in Paranal, Chile, at an elevation of 2635 meters (8645 ft) has a 4.1 meter single mirror (unlike the Twin Kecks in Hawaii that have 36 small hexagonal mirrors to create 10 meter reflectors).  According to the VISTA website, “In photographic terms it can be thought of as a 67 megapixel digital camera with a 13 000 mm f/3.25 mirror lens.”

Congratulations to the ESO and U.K. Consortium!  VISTA: Welcome to the Universe!