et tu, Neal?

Cosmos 2.0 has begun, and like the Olympiad, it heralds a new dawn of entertainment.  Whether it also ushers in understanding is another question.  On this day that we celebrate and respect religious worship, does it seem odd that Neal deGrasse Tyson should appear just before the altar?

Now that 34 years have passed, Dr. Tyson is taking up the mantle of Carl Sagan and teaching us about the wonders of the cosmos.  In so doing, he’s touching upon some significant events in our intellectual history.

A tragic character chosen in Episode One is a priest named Giordano Bruno.  Now poor Mr. Bruno didn’t do well as a priest, ostensibly because he had a great revelation about the infinite cosmos.  He tried to tell others, but the Catholic church took offense.  Somewhat unwisely he returned to Rome where the church gave him a warm welcome – and goodbye.  They burned him at the stake.

It’s not quite true, unfortunately.  The stake part is, but let’s say that the show took poetic license in telling the story.  You can read the details here.

The details aren’t quite important for today’s post, because my question is this; why do you think the Church felt threatened by Bruno’s crazy ideas?  That they were crazy is beyond doubt, because any idea that isn’t shared by more than “a lot” of people has to be crazy.  That’s the whole definition of crazy.  The fact that he would eventually be proven right, centuries later, isn’t important.

There’s a good chance that you, too, have a deeply held model of the universe.  It might have a god, or a GOD, or a whole pantheon of gods.  For all I know it may center around a black hole.  However, I ask you, why is it that (for most people!) it’s such a sensitive topic?  If someone comes along and says “Your view is wrong!” what does it matter?  Why do you care?

Why DO you care?



Under the Influence of the Stars

Neil deGrasse Tyson has reanimated “Cosmos” in the spirit of Carl Sagan.  One of the phrases that the late great Carl popularized was this; “We are made of star stuff.”

You, me, and all the heavy elements around us were born deep inside the belly of a star.  That star died, setting those elements free.  As free elements, they have been collected together by the process of life and formed into you, and me.

Wouldn’t you think that there would be a some kind of ancient, formal recognition of our relationship with these stars?  Perhaps a large organized “thank you” party?  As far as I know, there is no special day that we set aside for this special relationship, no equivalent to Valentine’s or Columbus day.  Certainly nothing that gives me a day off work.  Or is there?

In fact, there are several days we celebrate our relationship.  And today is one of them.  For today, our Earth spins in such a way that our Sun (the adopted Mother of our heavy elements) is in the sky for exactly half the time.  Equinox – equal night, and day.  Today, the 20th of March 2014, it happens at 1657 UTC.

We also celebrate the solstice, longest day, when the sun appears to hang in the sky the entire day.  Solstice – Sun stops.  We find evidence of these celebrations in art, in calendars, in writing, and in architecture.  Entire cities have been arranged so that their main axis aligns with these celestial orientations.  Cities, designed by people, behaving is such a way as to honor our elemental nature.

We are star stuff.  Not only physically, but in some fundamental behavioral ways.  Biologists have learned that the magnetic fields of our planet can be sensed by certain bacteria, birds, and perhaps other animals.  What about man? Electrical fields can also be sensed by many animals, sharks for one.  What about man?  These are all fundamental natural phenomena, and we are part of that great universe.

Celebrate the day.  After all, it’s all about where you came from!