Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A scientist's Christmas

Last night I was walking through Harvard Square and noticed these awesome Christmas lights hanging above the street:

Here is a spiral galaxy, complete with blue "star-forming regions"

Here, a neutron star with its "cometary knots"

Ok, so maybe the cometary knots take a bit of imagination. But actually I see a lot more than that.

In those twinkling lights I see purely rational, purely natural reasons to love thy enemy, to do onto others, cherish life, teach peace, and practice compassion - you know, all those Christmassy ideas.

When I look up and see these lights I get a warm, fuzzy feeling... Because to me, these secular decorations are the expression of a community with something grander and more beautiful to celebrate than bronze-age myths. They recognize and respect that our origins are tied to cosmic events much longer ago and further away - but still very much ours.

I have to wonder, is this what the so-called culture warriors are worried about? That people like me will see these non-religious displays and...well and what? Are these lights, these ideas, the "War on Christmas?"

I see them as an acknowledgment that our natural heritage extends the story and values of Christmas with an additional 14 billion years of meaning. Meaning that even its namesake could not have appreciated given the knowledge of the day.

These decorations tell a story that still allows a covenant - a covenant with mystery. A scientist's Christmas has humility and dignity both. It is humble enough to admit that our knowledge of the sacred will always be incomplete, without the need to declare "war" on anything but ignorance. There is plenty of mystery to celebrate and plenty of ignorance to fear - Merry Christmas.


Reposted for Christmas

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What Carl Sagan gave us


11th anniversary of
Carl Sagan's death post

Whether you know it or not, everyday you use what Aristotle, Hypatia, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, etc. gave us. They gave us knowledge.

Carl Sagan stood on the shoulders of these giants of science and saw further. He gave us much more than knowledge, coalescing their science into one inescapable result; love. Do you use it everyday?

Sagan’s legacy is a love unadulterated by dogma, superstition, authority, and fear. It is literally Universal; accessible to anyone who opens their eyes, heart, and mind.

If you think of the relentless advance of science as a “great human demotion,” please, think again. Through science, Sagan courageously revealed an overlooked but wonderful paradox of humility. One that turns the "demotion" upside down. By taking us out of the center of the universe, Sagan put us back in - for truer reasons. He showed that our value is intrinsic to the universe, and that our story, is the universe’s story.

Sagan lit the way to a love rooted in truth, even if some of those truths hurt at first (which is the reason some find it difficult to accept). But the reward for courage is a new way to love ourselves, our lot in life, our planet, our place in space and time, and perhaps most importantly, each other. Sagan showed us that love does not come from outside this universe, it comes from within - from within the youniverse.

As the battle between religion and science rages on, why isn't it clear that love without knowledge is lame, and that knowledge without love is dangerous? Alone they are equally meaningless. It's such a shame that science and love are divorced in the minds of most. As a scientist, I know how gushy and sentimental this sounds. So let me try to express it in a way you critical thinkers are accustomed to:
Knowledge is power.
Love of knowledge.
To know the power of love.
I’m not sure if this is a formally valid syllogism. But no matter your stripe, that’s what Carl Sagan gave all of us; truthful, transcendent, pure, poetic, powerful, love. I'd say he gave more, but how could anyone give more than that?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Andromeda moment

I have a moment to report. Unlike the bitter-sweet last time, this Andromeda moment is purely sweet.

As you might know, I’m in the process of establishing a community-class astronomical observatory down in the Caribbean. It is to be an observatory to enhance an existing eco-camp program for kids, and get the island public involved in amateur astronomy. So while I’m stateside, I’ve been doing a lot of research, visiting planetariums, observatories, astronomy classes, etc. Tonight I went to Boston University Observatory’s public viewing night. It’s held every Wednesday, clear skies permitting, and I go there just to get a sense for how a public program works. Folks head up to the roof of the science center, where a volunteer astronomer runs three 8” reflector telescopes. On this clear and very cold night, there was a chatty crowd of about 25 people. The volunteer was busy.

Long Exposure Photo: Andrea Baird, BU Parent magazine

One of the scopes was aimed at the Andromeda Galaxy. Through an 8” scope, Andromeda appears like a faint milky sphere. To someone unaware of what they are looking at, it’s decidedly unimpressive. It looks something like this.

After I had taken a peak at Andromeda, I stepped aside just to take in the scene; people huddled around on the cold steel catwalk, the skyline of Boston as backdrop. While I was standing there beside the scope, two women and 4 kids stepped up to have a look. First up was the littlest one. In the darkness, and all bundled up in a snowsuit, scarf, hat, and mittens, I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. All I could tell was that this kid wanted to see! As the child climbed up the little white plastic step stool, I could tell neither he or his mom knew where to put their eye. I stepped in to help.

As I repositioned the step stool, I began telling this kid about the Andromeda Galaxy; that it was a lot like our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and that it was the biggest thing we humans could see from earth. I told him how far away it was and showed him where to put his eye.

That’s when the moment happened.

As he pulled his scarf aside, and leaned forward to look through the eyepiece, a faint white light flooded though the lens and onto his face. Time stopped and the chatter fell silent as I realized that this ancient light had traversed two and a half million years of cold vacuous void, only to land on the warm, wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked, snotty-nosed face of this tiny child. I could feel a lump in my throat as everything I know about the cosmic story - from the big bang, nucleosynthesis, evolution, and the dawn of consciousness - distilled down to this one precious moment. It was clear and vivid. Here was the universe looking at itself in a two-way mirror. Kid and cosmos, saw each other and I heard them say in unison - wow!

I don't know where the kid might take this experience. I like to think he'll develop an appreciation for a universe that's vastly bigger, but at the same time intimately connected with himself. But I do know this; that Andromeda moment confirms that I’m on the right path.

We look at the stars with such awe and reverence. But, don’t you think that if they could, they would, be looking at us instead? But of course they don’t, they cant, and that is precisely my point.