Years ago I had an opportunity to visit the historic Grucci fireworks factory on Long Island. Artisan chemists there were hard at work crafting reactions that would detonate with just the right color and just the right shape; the whole place was surrounded by a high berm to contain any accidental explosions. Yet I couldn’t help thinking–the universe creates even more spectacular colors, on a far grander scale, with no guidance and no effort. All we have to do is look in the right location.
So yes, I’m planning to gather with my family tonight and watch traditional 4th of July fireworks, but I’m also holding on to that bigger thought. There are images of the cosmos that are far more stunning than anything Macy’s can launch into the sky. These marvels celebrate the greatest kind of freedom, the one that allows the human mind to break free of this world and reach into the far depths of space and time. Here, then, a few of my favorite celestial pyrotechnics, many of them not yet widely seen. (If you enjoy this collection you can follow me on Twitter, where I pass along new science images all the time as they come in: @coreyspowell)
If there is any superhero who qualifies as a nerd icon, it is Spider-Man and his alter ego, Peter Parker. His powers depend one half on scientific experimentation, one half on his own research and innovation. But unlike other comic-book inventors like Batman or Iron Man, he has no personal wealth or corporate connections to draw on. Unlike hero teams like the X-Men or Avengers, he has no support network of colleagues. He is an intellectual and emotional outlier, a character who could have been lifted straight from the psychological profile of The Drama of the Gifted Child.
At least, that is how I see the character, and that is how a lot of others do, too. Now I know the actors and producers behind the latest series of Spider-Man movies feel the same way.
I recently participated in a set of roundtable interviews with key members of the team, including Andrew Garfield (who plays Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy, Peter’s oft-estranged girlfriend), Marc Webb (director), and Avi Arad and Matthew Tolmach (producers). I got to ask them pointed questions about the scientific spirit behind The Amazing Spider Man 2; they had genuinely thoughtful answers, including insights into their own interests in science and technology. It’s enough to make me forget–almost–a key plot point revolving around the nonsense concept that a magnetized nail can hold a limitless amount of electric charge.
As the human mind and human senses reach ever-farther out into space, we keep encountering new things that require new objects that require new names. Some of these have ancient origins; some (like “black hole”) have effectively crossed over into modern pop culture. But even those of us who, like myself, use them all the time rarely stop to think about where the terms come from.
Today I’m taking a step back, looking at the people and stories behind the cosmic buzzwords. For those of you who enjoy reading about the universe–or those of you who are encountering the buzzwords through the popular Cosmos television show–this is a chance to join me in a walk through the history of science.
Astronomy. Let’s start all the way at the beginning. Honestly, I never thought much about the meaning of “astronomy,” assuming it simply means “study of the stars.” Close, but no cigar. It comes from the Greek words astron and nomos, which literally mean “law of the stars” or “custom of the stars.” The distinction is significant. Originally the purpose of astronomy was not to understand the construction of the universe, but to make sense of the ways that the stars affected life here on Earth. Astrology was not recognized as a separate term until the 14th century; until then, astronomy and astrology were one and the same.
Tonight when you look up at the sky—and I strongly urge you to do so—you can participate in three different kinds of amazing alignments.
One will produce a total lunar eclipse, as Earth’s shadow sweeps across the moon. One will produce the best view of Mars in more than 6 years, as the Red Planet makes its closest approach to Earth (technically that moment happened at 8:53AM EDT, but you couldn’t have seen Mars then anyway). Both of these are beautiful celestial events with some unusual details.
But there is also a third kind of alignment at work, one unlike any that has happened before. An alignment that does not depend on nice weather, clear skies, or any kind of specialized equipment. More on that in a moment.
The new Cosmos show is doing an inspirational job bringing the wonders of science to a mass audience. There was one segment of the first episode where I thought the writers went off-track, however. In an earlier post I described my concern about how that episode depicts philosopher Giordano Bruno and his role in the discovery of the infinite universe. My column prompted a reply from Cosmos co-writer Steven Soter, along with my further thoughts.
Now, the third and final round: Soter offers some closing commentary on the matter, which appear below.
Inevitably, this dialogue has grown increasingly detailed, focused on the thoughts and actions of men who lived more than 400 years ago. To some readers the whole discussion may seem like nitpicking (a few have said as much in the comments), but I think it is greatly important. It offers a rare opportunity to debate the evolving relationship between science and religion. It is a window into the dramatic ways our conception of the universe has changed in modern times. And I must say, it is a tribute to Soter–and the whole Cosmos project–that he is taking the time to respond and share these ideas with the whole world.
Update: The breathtaking announcement that cosmologists may have found the gravitational fingerprint of the Big Bang adds a lot of support to the theory that the universe began with a runaway phase of expansion known as “inflation.” That theory builds on the idea that empty space is full of intense energy fields–an idea that in turn traces its roots back to a factor that Einstein called Lambda in his pioneering cosmological explorations from a century ago. It is one more illustration of Isaac Newton’s famous quote about standing “on the shoulders of giants.”
You would think by now we would have exhausted the mysteries of Albert Einstein. As perhaps the most famous scientist in history, nearly every idea he expressed and every thing he did has been studied, commented on, written about. Yet on his 135th birthday (born March 14, 1879) there are still new details coming out–details that offer insight both into the workings of Einstein’s mind, and into the biggest mysteries of the cosmos.
One big Einstein shocker was unearthed recently by Irish cosmologist Cormac O’Rafferty while digging through the Einstein Archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There he found a completely overlooked manuscript–undated, but probably from 1931–that showed Einstein trying to create a model of the universe that satisfied both his scientific insights and his philosophical inclinations. The manuscript, entitled “About the Cosmological Problem,” envisioned a universe that expands but that (through a clever trick of physics) never really changes.
My recent post questioning the Giordano Bruno segment in the first episode of the new Cosmos has attracted a gratifying amount of attention, both on this site and elsewhere around the web. It has also prompted a heartfelt reply from Steven Soter, a resident research associate at the American Museum of Natural history and Cosmos‘s co-writer (along with Ann Druyan).
It is very much in the spirit of Cosmos, and of the scientific process in general, to engage in debate in the search for deeper truths. It is also a powerful tribute to the new series that so many people are now discussing Bruno, Thomas Digges, and the intertwined relationship of science and religion during the 16th century–not your usual day-after TV conversations. In that spirit, I am pleased to present Steven Soter’s essay here in full, followed by a response from me. Soter, in turn, will soon provide some additional closing thoughts.
UPDATE: Cosmos writer Steven Soter responds to my critique here.
The first episode of the ambitious reboot of Cosmos, which debuted last night, closely follows the template of the first episode of the original. It also differs in some important ways–most of them right on target, but one of them unfortunately off the mark.
Special effects have advanced greatly since Carl Sagan’s 1980 original; the new visualizations are both more dramatic and more realistic. Science has advanced greatly as well. The updated Cosmos discusses free-floating planets between the stars, shows real images of Uranus and Neptune, and gives a precise age to the universe (that would be 13.8 billion years). All of these things were unknown 34 years ago.
In overall content, the new series introduces two major innovations. One is a tribute to Carl Sagan, a moving segment in which host Neil DeGrasse Tyson recalls his teenage encounter with the revered astronomer. The other is an extended tribute to the 16th-century Italian philosopher and theologian Giordano Bruno.
Here is where Cosmos 2.0 runs into its big problem, missing out both on a chance to set history straight and to embrace the generous, forward-looking spirit of Sagan.
Last week’s discovery of 715 planets orbiting other stars was more than just a remarkable piece of astronomical detective work. It was also a bold confirmation that we have entered a new era of cosmic exploration. Sara Seager of MIT, one of the scientists leading the search for other Earths, beautifully expressed this sentiment to me in a recent interview: “For exoplanets, I see ourselves like the generation of Christopher Columbus. We are leaving a legacy in terms of us as a generation, and as a society.”
Often it is hard to recognize a revolution while you are right in the middle of it, but that is what I believe is happening right now. When future generations look back, as Seager suggests, I think they will recognize this time as the fourth great era of exploration, comparable to…well, let’s go back and look at the previous three great eras of exploration for context.
Earlier this week, two NASA-affiliated teams announced the discovery of 715 new planets around other stars. I have to pause on that number for a moment. From the dawn of Mesopotamian astronomy around 2000 BC until 1992 AD, astronomers discovered a grand total of three planets: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. (I’m still counting Pluto as a planet. So sue me.) Now, in a single data release, scientists have found 715, bringing the total number of known alien worlds to 1,750.
And the news is even more amazing than the raw numbers convey. Through almost all of history, our solar system contained the only real estate that we knew about. Yes, astronomers studied other stars and nebulae, but they knew nothing of planets–the only places where life can exist, so far as we know, the only places where humans might set down and explore. Now we know that other planets exist, and that they come in a wide variety of exotic forms never before imagined. Read More