The stars our destination: astronomy and faith

SGU-Scorpius-50mm-V2-Stars-MS-cp8I’m interested in astronomy but know little about the subject. Two books and one TV series have made all the difference there is in my knowledge. The books are The Sleepwalkers (1959) by Arthur Koestler, and The Soul of the Night (1985) by Chet Raymo; the series was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980). I found all three extremely beautiful and moving.

I watched a NOVA episode recently called Runaway Universe. I found out that astronomers, in order to explain the results of their observations, have posited the existence of two factors, dark energy and dark matter, which together make up 99% of the universe we inhabit (dark as in unknown, like the Dark Ages, not as in colour). The observable universe, the stars and galaxies and planets and people and birds and trees, make up the other 1%. The laws that govern the universe, the product of observation and theories of scientists over a 2,500 year period, only affect the observable 1%.

Great. So I live in a universe consisting of millions of galaxies. The one I’m a part of, the Milky Way, contains an estimated 200 billion stars. The number of planets that might support life there, not necessarily carbon based life, is unknown but might well be in the millions. This universe is expanding and whether space is expanding too is also unknown. What if there are other universes, differently constituted to this one? It’s quite clear that if god said, “let there be light”, he (it really but habit rules) wasn’t talking to man when he said it.

Now I find I live in a universe where there are no known physical laws, no way of observation and experiment, no conclusions possible to be made, for 99% of its content.

It makes me think a lot about faith. How much of our information we take on faith.

We believe the news because someone on TV tells us it’s happened. We believe in the law of gravity and the interaction of chemical elements because we are told about these things in school. We believe in the scandalous behaviour of our neighbour because he’s been gossiped about. That god is good because the good book tells us so. What do we directly know? Probably only about 1% of what we believe to be true.

So this is just as much an age of faith as any previous century. We’ve just changed the matter in which we have faith. Heisenberg’s well known uncertainty principle for subatomic particles, energy and time etc has replaced the scholastic philosophers’ debate on the number of angels who can dance on the head of a needle.

Of course everybody needs faith in order to survive. Starting with the brain’s astonishing ability to create a meaningful world out of the millions of bits of data it receives from the senses, each person’s primal act of faith, we go out each day and interact with many different people, and receive the data they send us, a secondary act of faith. We’re not too good on direct observation, as Sherlock Holmes was fond of pointing out (notice how many people have no idea of what’s behind them when they’re walking in the street, for instance). We don’t have the skills to carry out direct examination on all the matters we need to know about, nor the time to do so.

Science, the habit of testing behaviour against accepted principles by an attempt at detached observation and measurement and recording the results according to an accepted formula, may well be a minority occupation. Just as thinking, the attempt to look rationally at matters without being influenced by the powerful emotions we are all subject to, may be a minority occupation. 99% of us are driven by emotion clouds, led by faith, not unlike that 99% of the universe of dark matter and dark energy.

From the Columbia Encyclopedia:
dark energy, repulsive force that opposes the self-attraction of matter (see gravitation) and causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The search for dark energy was triggered by the discovery (1998) in images from the Hubble Space Telescope of a distant supernova that implied an accelerating, expanding universe, which in turn required a new cosmological model (see cosmology). Although dark energy is predicted in particle physics, it has never been directly observed. It is generally agreed, however, that dark energy dominates the universe, which is projected to have a composition of c.70% dark energy, c.30% dark matter, and c.0.5% bright stars.

dark matter, material that is believed to make up (along with dark energy) more than 90% of the mass of the universe but is not readily visible because it neither emits nor reflects electromagnetic radiation, such as light or radio signals. Its existence would explain gravitational anomalies seen in the motion and distribution of galaxies. Dark matter can be detected only indirectly, e.g., through the bending of light rays from distant stars by its gravity. Dark matter may consist of dust, planets, intergalactic gas formed of ordinary matter, or of MACHOs [Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects], nonluminous bodies such as burned-out stars, black holes, and brown dwarfs; these are the so-called hot dark matter and would be dispersed uniformly throughout the universe.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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