Saturday, April 10, 2010

Science Saturday - pondering eternity

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Isaiah 55:8-9

Is this how you imagine our solar system?

Well, it is the way I always have, and likely most of you, too. And there's good reason for this. It's really about the best we can do. But it's not good enough. The truth is, as I've quoted here again and again: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." (Ps.19:1) The more we learn about God's creation, the more awe we feel. Even those who do not believe in the Creator cannot escape the awe. It is this sense of overwhelming wonder which, in many cases drives scientists from day to day. I share their wonder, reveling with them in their discoveries, and then some, because what they discover reveals to me more and more of the divine power and eternal nature of God and renews my reverence for Him. What a Being!

Now, back to artists' renditions of our solar systems. They are helpful, certainly beautiful, but woefully inadequate, as any attempt of the finite to grasp hold of the infinite will inevitably be; but we mustn't let that stop us trying. Which brings me to the bit I wanted to share today. I'm deviating from my norm of sharing links and clips to bring you a mind-boggling excerpt from Bill Bryson's modern classic, A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he talks us through a trip to the edge of our own solar system:
"It's almost beyond imagining. Space, you see, is just enormous - just enormous. Let's imagine, for purposes of edification and entertainment, that we are about to go on a journey by rocketship. We won't go terribly far - just to the edge of our own solar system - but we need to get a fix on how big a place space is and what a small part of it we occupy.
Now the bad news, I'm afraid, is that we won't be home for supper. Even at the speed of light, it would take seven hours to get to Pluto. But of course we can't travel at anything like that speed. We'll have to go at the speed of a spaceship, and these are rather more lumbering. The best speeds yet achieved by any human object are those of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which are now flying away from us at about thirty-five thousand miles an hour.
The reason the Voyager craft were launched when they were (in August and September 1977) was that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were aligned in a way that happens only once every 175 years. This enabled the two Voyagers to use a 'gravity assist' technique in which the craft were successively flung from one gassy giant to the next in a kind of cosmic version of 'crack the whip.' Even so, it took them nine years to reach Uranus and a dozen to cross the orbit of Pluto....At all events, it's going to be a long trip.
Now the first thing you are likely to realize is that space is extremely well named and rather dismayingly uneventful. Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it - the Sun, the planets and their moons, the billion or so tumbling rocks of the asteroid belt, comets, and other miscellaneous drifting detritus - fill less than a trillionth of the available space. You also quickly realize that none of the maps you have ever seen of the solar system were remotely drawn to scale. Most schoolroom charts show the planets coming one after the other at neighborly intervals - the outer giants actually cast shadows over each other in many illustrations - but this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same piece of paper. Neptune in reality isn't just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it's way beyond Jupiter - five times farther from Jupiter than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 percent as much sunlight as Jupiter.
Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn't possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn't come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away. Even if you shrank down everything so that Jupiter was as small as the period at the end of this sentence, and Pluto was not bigger than a molecule, Pluto would still be over thirty-five feet away.
So the solar system is really quite enormous. By the time we reach Pluto, we have come so far that the Sun - our dear, warm, skin-tanning, life-giving Sun-has shrunk to the size of a pinhead. It is little more than a bright star. In such a lonely void you can begin to understand how even the most significant objects - Pluto's moon, for example - have escaped attention. In this respect, Pluto has hardly been alone. Until the Voyager expeditions, Neptune was thought to have two moons; Voyager found six more. When I was a boy, the solar system was thought to contain thirty moons. The total now is 'at least ninety.' about a third of which have been found in just the last ten years.
The point to remember, of course, is that when considering the universe at large we don't actually know what is in our own solar system.
Now, the other thing you will notice as we speed past Pluto is that we are speeding past Pluto. If you check your itinerary, you will see that this is a trip to the edge of our solar system, and I'm afraid we're not there yet. Pluto may be the last object marked on schoolroom chart, but the system doesn't end there. In fact, it isn't even close to ending there. We won't get to the solar system's edge until we have passed through the Oort cloud, a vast celestial real of drifting comets, and we won't reach the Oort cloud for another - I'm so sorry about this - ten thousand years. Far from marking the outer edge of the solar system, as those schoolroom maps so cavalierly imply, Pluto is barely one-fifty-thousandth of the way.
Of course we have no prospect of such a journey. A trip of 240,000 miles to the Moon still represents a very big undertaking for us. A manned mission to Mars, called for by the first President Bush in a moment of passing giddiness, was quietly dropped when someone worked out that it would cost $450 billion and probably result in the death of all the crew (their DNA torn to tatters by high-energy solar particles from which they could not be shielded).
Based on what we know now and can reasonably imagine, there is absolutely no prospect that any human being will ever visit the edge of our own solar system - ever. It is just too far. As it is, even with the Hubble telescope, we can't see even into the Oort cloud, so we don't actually know that it is there. Its existence is probable but entirely hypothetical."

Infinity in reverse?
Much as space would appear to be a lesson in the infinity of expansion, or, I guess you could say of "bigness", it would seem we can also look within, or downward, or in the reverse scale and see another lesson.... All these years later I remember that day in elementary school, though I can't remember the grade I was in, when the teacher first introduced the idea of negative numbers. My logical child brain revolted. Impossible! There's nothing less than nothing, much less an infinite amount of less than nothing! This was crazy-talk!
I was well into adulthood before I began to recognize or get the slightest hint of understanding as to why early mathematicians tended to also be philosophers.  Mathematics accompany all of creation in a way which I, being totally mathematically disinclined, find profoundly mystical - and I'm no mystic either. Let me see if I can explain what I'm getting at. For every scientific phenomenon, there's an equation. We know many of them. Beyond that, with the help of computers, we've (us humans, I mean, not me personally) been able to produce equations which work but are so complex, and so beyond our ability to comprehend them, that we don't know what they mean. We just know that they work. They explain what they are meant to explain and are able to predict what they were designed to predict. The problem with them is that what they explain is beyond the limits of our human brains' ability to comprehend. What I'm getting at here is that the existence of mathematical possibilities beyond our human capacity for understanding parallels a corresponding existence of realities which also extend beyond our reach. Think of the number zero representing a point in time and space through which infinity goes from larger to smaller, from past to present. As numbers travel from zero infinitely in both directions, it is "conceivable" that so does reality. Which brings me to the following graphic, as mind-blowing as the expanse of the hugeness of outer space is, consider the expanse in the opposite direction - the infinitesimal. Don't skip this. It will only take a moment. Drag the knob at the bottom of the graphic for a peek at the other edge of infinity.

Odds and Ends

Which plate are you seated on?
"This figure shows the boundaries of the tectonic plates that cover the Earth’s surface. A new model from University of Wisconsin-Madison geophysicist Chuck DeMets and collaborators at Rice University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes the movement of nearly all Earth’s tectonic plates with an unprecedented degree of precision."
Beyond taxidermy and mummification...

You may have heard about his controversial Body Worlds exhibit (and for the sake of not drudging up this controversy on this day, I won't link to it). Now Hagens is up to something just as astonishing, but perhaps a bit more appropriate for the masses:
"The controversial Body Worlds creator Gunther von Hagens opens his latest anatomical exhibition at the Neunkirchen Zoo in the state of Saarland, Germany. The 'anatomical safari' contains over 100 animals in various degrees of dissection showing von Hagen's famed plastination process. Presented as a holistic and sculptural anatomical menagerie, the display features the most revered species in the animal kingdom..."
 Read the rest of the story and view a few pictures from the exhibit here.

Do you love Dr. Who? Ever dream of being a Time Lord? Well apparently there are some of his second-cousins walking among us: 
Time Lords walk among us. Two per cent of readers may be surprised to discover that they are members of an elite group with the power to perceive the geography of time.
Read the rest here.
Finally, take a somber trip back in time, back to Pompeii,  August 24, AD79.
Find the story and video of ongoing discovery and preservation of the remains of the victims of the history cataclysm here.


E. A. Harvey said...

When I was a kid, my brother and I always tried to outdo each other: "Infinity plus one!" "No, infinity plus a hundred!" "Infinity plus infinity plus INFINITY!"

Needless to say, I couldn't grasp it then, and it continues to boggle the mind now. I love watching PBS shows on space, because the things scientists are discovering in the deep recesses of the great unknown are just mind-blowing. Some parts of creation we start to take for granted and others have become so mundane to our dull senses we no longer praise the Creator for them. Thanks for the reminder to "consider the heavens" and to give praise.

Anonymous said...

Blind follower...
Mindless Hanger-on.
I fell sorry for you.

Maybe you can one day get rid of the shackles of christianity.