Monday, January 23, 2012

'Hubble moments' and their consequences

My feelings on negotiating various 'Hubble moments' that I had mentioned in my previous post are captured in a couple of passages in The Age of Wonder. The first is a description of how Keats combined science and poetry in an exciting way:
Keats likens his own discovery of Homer’s poetry to the experience of the great astronomer and the great explorer finding new worlds.

....Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like Stout Cortez when with wond’ring eyes
He stared at the Pacfic – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent upon a peak in Darien.

Both comparisons turn on moments of physical vision – watching, staring, looking with ‘wondering eyes’. (This was the original manuscript reading, although Keats later changed it to the more conventional ‘eagle eyes’.) Physical vision – one might say scientific vision – brings about a metaphysical shift in the observer’s view of reality as a whole. The geography of the earth, or the structure of the solar system, are in an instant utterly changed, and forever. The explorer, the scientific observer , the literary reader, experience the sublime: a moment of revelation into the idea of the unbounded, the infinite.
The second is poet Thomas Campbell's impressions on meeting the astronomer William Herschel:
Campbell recalled that he felt he had been ‘conversing with a super natural intelligence.’ Finally, Herschel completely perplexed the poet by remarking that many distant stars had probably ‘ceased to exist ‘ millions of years ago, and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts. 'The light did travel after the body was gone.’ After leaving Herschel, Campbell walked onto the shingle of Brighton beach, gazing out to sea, feeling ‘elevated and overcome.’ He was reminded of Newton’s observation that he was just a child picking up shells on the seashore, while the great ocean of truth lay all before him.
I saw a quote by Steven Weinberg that I liked in this nice post - 'The effort to understand the universe is one of the few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy'. I fall into the following category of people mentioned by Jonathan Rée in Varieties of irreligious experience:
The most important force pushing people away from religion has always, I suspect, been what you might call the problem of scale. The Copernican revolution in astronomy – the celebrated transition from “closed world” to “infinite universe”, and the demotion of the earth from a commanding position at the centre of the cosmos to a supporting role circling one of the less distinguished of millions of stars – dealt a prodigious blow to human self-esteem. But even without the benefit of modern cosmology, our earliest ancestors must have been able to sense the paltriness of their hopes and fears compared with the colossal indifference of everything else. Most of us, in the course of growing up, will have been transfixed by the thought that we ourselves, together with parents and all the other figures who stride like giants through our lives, are of very little interest to the rest of the human race, and of no consequence at all to the ambient natural world. I remember, as a devout schoolboy, being halted in mid-prayer by the thought of my minuteness: God in his greatness was not going to spare a thought for little me or anyone I knew, and was probably bored to tears by the whole human fandangle.
Analysing God's utility function, Richard Dawkins says in River Out Of Eden:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it:

For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither care nor know.
It may be argued that it would have been helpful to have some belief in the sense that I would have had someone to blame. But now fulminating about the capriciousness of an invisible omniscient entity seems infantile. 'Stuff happens', as Donald Rumsfeld would have said. Richard Feynman explain things nicely.

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