Transit of Venus

On June 8 Venus, as she does twice every 113 years or so, insinuated herself between Earth and Sun. Gliding across the disc of the sun like a ship on a sea of fire, she once again faithfully described her transit to earthly observers.

“The first Transit of Venus observed by humans occurred  in 1639, witnessed by one Jeremiah Horrocks in Lancashire. The suggestion that a Transit of Venus, observed from different parts of the world, could be used to measure the actual distance of the Earth from the Sun, was first made by James Gregory and Edmund Halley, (Astronomer Royal 1720-1742).

The realization that the transits of Venus could solve, what many saw to be `the last great problem in astronomy’ provoked enormous interest in the 18th century, and even countries that technically were at war (Great Britain and France) collaborated in this great international scientific experiment. Expeditions were dispatched to distant lands to observe the transits over as large a geographical area as possible. Captain Cook was sent on his first voyage to the Pacific by the Royal Society to observe the Transit from the island of Tahiti. Other astronomers traveled to Africa and throughout Europe to time the exact instant of transit. King George III built himself an observatory at Kew specifically for the purpose and Charles Mason traveled to Ireland to view the transit from Donegal.”

from Armagh Observatory’s “Story of the Transit of Venus”


I missed the transit of June 8, which is not as sad as it may seem since this part of the world only had a piece of it, and the skies of the Plains were up to their usual cloudy tricks.

This was, however, one of those odd convergences I enjoy so much. I was paying close attention to the transit, because just a couple of weeks earlier I had begun reading Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, a sprawling historical fiction concerning the exploits of Mason and Dixon before, during and after the surveying of their famous line.

The early parts of the novel (I’m still reading the bastard) are given over to a fictional account of Mason and Dixon heading down to the Cape of Good Hope to observe the 1761 transit for the Royal Society. Actually, Captain Cook was dispatched by the Royal Society to the South Pacific, where he observed and made detailed notes on the transit. But Mason himself did indeed, as the above excerpt notes, carve out another place in history for himself with his view from Donegal.

For Pynchon, the excitement generated in the 17th century over the Transit of Venus was emblematic of the age, when the mysticism and folklore of the past collided with a new spirit of scientific inquiry governed by reason and–observation.

They found their parallax view that year, and charted the distance to the sun, confirming the astronomical unit forever. It must have been exhilarating, to finally know for sure. It was an age of such times, of learning the orbits of the planets, the working of the human circulatory system, the structure and forms of matter.

Yet it was also a time of loss, when the Earth lost its place as the center of the cosmos and was unceremoniously relegated to a standard orbit around an average star in an outer arm of a run-of-the-mill galaxy. Witches lost their powers, and the elves and fairies faded into lore.

And now, as science itself has become the repository of received wisdom–and belief–the transit generates only mild interest in a fragmented society busy with its 24-hour news cycle, its frenetic work week, its American Idols. Science has done with Venus, for now, for she has told us all she can about our world.

And just last week my friends held their annual Summer Solstice party, an evening of music and beverages, with the band under the stars on a garden stage. I missed most of that, too, as I rushed from a restaurant. But I showed up, wearing a special t-shirt I had made to commemorate the occasion. It depicted the sun, with the words Solstice 2004 above and “Transit of Venus” below. I put a tiny dot on the edge of the sun to represent Venus at the end of its crossing. To me, it also represented the end of such events as occasions of national interest. I think we are done with “national interest,” at least of the non-catastrophic kind.

So Venus makes her silent transit, just as she always has, just as she always will.  And some of us marked the occasion, and some didn’t. In 2012 it will happen again, and then she will be off to her outside orbit until the next transit in 2117, when none of us will care. The serious, deliberate consistency of the cosmos goes on. The distracted attention of humanity fixes on what it will, when it will, perhaps understanding and perhaps dismissing this cosmic convergence or that. And therein, I suppose, lies the difference between the eternity of planetary motion and the immediacy of planetary living.

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Science/Fiction Part 2

In yesterday’s paper there was an article about an anthropologist who argues, “Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than to gorillas or other apes and probably should be included in the human branch of the family tree.” There followed the obligatory conflicting opinions of various leaders in the field regarding  genus and family designations that illustrate the basic truth here: that anthropologists don’t agree on who goes on what family tree. In fact it’s rather arbitrary.

So, as with Elmer’s Bible of yesterday, we are constantly reminded that the Book of Knowledge is also open to interpretation, with these interpretations all too often colored by human limitations: desire for fame, professional competition, hidden agendas, outright mistakes, and the myopia of pride. But we find dogma in science, and like that of religion it can take a mountain of evidence and a new generation of thinkers to alter it.

So what do we know, and how do we know it? The other adherent, to the other Book, would appear to have a view of the universe that is less fanciful, grounded in fact, and supported by evidence. The scientific method, it is assumed, is the best and most reliable means toward knowing anything worth knowing. We examine the available evidence related to a known phenomenon, we create a hypothesis, and we engineer a series of tests to attempt to disprove this hypothesis.

In this way we arrive at “facts,” or those hypotheses that are not disproved. Some are easy – the Earth revolves around the sun – but some are not so easy. The Scopes trial illustrated that–until last year we still had school boards prohibiting the teaching of evolution in schools. And come to think of it, the heliocentric theory took centuries to nail down. So the process by which we arrive at facts, sometimes even the most obvious of them, is in fact an evolution of its own. We “believe” one thing, only to have further study and refinement of methods show us, a few years later, that we were completely wrong. As a result, we alter our belief to fit the new evidence. A good example is our vast universe itself. In the past, various facts were presented about the known universe based on available observations that have since been greatly modified. For example, is Pluto a planet? It used to be, but now we’re not so sure. Uranus didn’t have rings before, but now it does. And beyond simple definitions of characteristics, we have the fate of the universe itself. Will it continue expanding forever until everything is a million light years away from everything else? Will it stop expanding and begin contracting into the so-called “big crunch,” followed by another Big Bang? Did that already happen? Will the universe “hit a wall” at some point and simply waver back and forth along a semi-permanent boundary? Did the Big Bang actually occur? The answers depends on what year it is and whose “prevailing theory” is in favor.

Science finds its limitations most readily in matters of great scale. Right now astronomers are attempting to look to the farthest reaches of the universe, back into time to the very moment of creation. Let me predict right here that they never will reach it. At the same time, they look deep into the atom to find smaller and smaller structures. Who will find that smallest of sub-atomic particles, and how will they know it is the smallest? My prediction: no one will, and they won’t know. Not all things can be revealed to the scientific eye. In fact, much of what it sees at these extremities of scale may be illusion. As Mr. Heisenberg so aptly pointed out: “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known, and vice versa.” In other words, absolute precision in sub-atomic measurements is not possible, because the thing being measured at such extremities of scale will not sit still for it. And for large scale structures such as the universe, we can never be certain of what we see beyond what we call the “known universe.” Some theorize, for example, that our known universe, with its billions of galaxies, may be one of billions of such universes. Fine, but how will anyone ever know for sure? No one ever will. But some, insulated in their laboratories, will believe it is so–or not so–and accept the idea as an article of faith–faith in the evidence derived from their observations, which themselves are derived from the imprecise human eye and interpreted by the fallible human mind. Yet without belief how can facts exist?

Even setting aside all of that, there remains an entire sphere of human experience that goes unaddressed  by the Book of Knowledge. This is the sphere of spirituality, of questions dealing with the purpose and  meaning, as opposed to the history and mechanics, of life. Here we have the very questions which all of us wonder about all our lives, and yet the accepted methodology for endeavoring to answer questions with a universal authority–science itself–will not even attempt an inquiry. Why? For the best of reasons: it is not equipped even to explore the question, let alone answer it. Science would sidestep the question and say, “There is no answer. It is a question all must answer for themselves.” But if there are any facts about the human condition as opposed to the human body – and I believe there are – then it is not that there is no answer but simply that science as devised by man is not able to provide one. It does not have the tools to measure and test the evidence in support of any theory. The evidence is in our minds. It flows among the living community. It is in the very force of life itself, the force behind every spring and every birth. It is unknowable as an observable phenomenon because it is beyond the physical world.

And that may be as it should be. In matters of the spirit we often come up against the idea of the ineffable. That which cannot be fully known or expressed in earthly terms.

The mistake of the Biblical literalist is to believe that an old book can provide all the best answers to life’s questions, and that anything it does not address is not relevant . The mistake of the scientist is to believe that if there is no way to answer a question with present science, then the question is not relevant.

Science/Fiction Part 1

Among the press there is a time-honored query applied to presidents and other wielders of power who may have an interest in appearing ignorant of “certain deeds,” who committed them, and the like. “What did he know, and when did he know it?” was, I believe, first asked of Richard Nixon (Watergate), then Ronald Reagan (Iran/Contra), then George Bush 1 (ditto), then Bill Clinton (Whitewater/Monicagate) now George Bush 2 (9/11). The press love these stock scandal-mongering sound bites, because they bestow years of precedent, context, and therefore meaning on otherwise simple statements that mean nothing below the surface.

I think we can assume, for example, that they all knew all of it as soon as anyone else did. These are presidents, after all.

But hearing it again the other day from some talking head reminded me of a more significant phrase that does occur to me so often: What do we know, and how do we know it?

The quick answer from the true believer of either stripe is, “from the Book.”

On the one hand we have the newly revived Biblical literalist. In decline for some time, they are experiencing a resurgence of power and influence due to a number of factors. Chief among these, I think, is what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock,” which, briefly, is the effect on the mind and society of technological and cultural change that far outpaces the mind’s ability to adapt to it. As an example, consider the small-town old-timer, raised in the 1940s, Korean war veteran, in his overalls and seed cap, encountering a tattoo-covered, nose-ringed, green-haired modern primitive wearing a Charles Manson t-shirt (for purposes of irony, let’s say, not admiration). What does old Ernie think of this youngster? Does he consider that the young man is simply adhering to the latest fashions and cultural expressions in an attempt to appear hip and stylish? No, he figures the guy is either insane, a devil worshiper, or both. The pace of change has exceeded Elmer’s ability–or willingness, if you like–to understand and adapt to it. For slightly different but equally compelling reasons, Elmer distrusts the Internet, cell phones and gene therapy.

Anyway, a common reaction to a culture that appears chaotic, out of control and quite likely insane is to cling to simplistic notions of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. Gray areas are simply not tolerated. The Bible serves this purpose well. And, especially these days, there is no shortage of “evangelists” ready to tell you, the confused one, what the Bible thinks of modern society and what it wants you to do to avoid falling into the pit of depravity that is 21st-century America.

So what does Elmer know, and how does he know it? He knows that he didn’t evolve from some damned ape, that abortion is wrong and should be illegal, that a woman is subordinate to her husband, that prayer should be put back in schools, that death is better than godless communism, that adherents to all other religions besides Christianity are misguided at best, that Hollywood and academia are full of amoral hedonists, that promiscuity is ruining the American family, that network television is a cesspool of sex, violence and blasphemy, etc. But he also knows that we should love our enemies; that the meek shall inherit the earth; that blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven; that Jesus loves him.

It’s a hard mix. I’ve often wondered how people merge the angry and vengeful Old Testament God with the kinder, gentler Jesus version. It’s tempting to quote Voltaire here, but for now I’m sticking with an examination of what Elmer knows. And though what he knows is conflicted and contradictory, it is at least authoritative. One can invoke the Bible to justify almost any truth. And such a truth, backed by the power of faith and the communion of millions of like minds, is difficult to assail. Just ask Copernicus.

Next: Science/Fiction 2: the Other Book