AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Saturday, 31 December 2016

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” (Carl Sagan)



by Todd Duncan, Science Integration Institute


Science has had an uneasy relationship with the human desire for personal meaning and significance to our lives. It is sometimes tempting to conclude we’d all be better off keeping the two topics confined to separate categories  that  make contact only if absolutely necessary.
But science and meaning are connected in a  fundamental way, which artificial categories can never completely keep  apart. This connection is forced upon us by the remarkable success of the scientific process in uncovering new information about the universe in which we are immersed. We want any meaning we construct for ourselves to be on solid ground, to be based on the “real world.” Science has worked so well that it is difficult to deny it a central role in telling us about how the world really is. Even if we sometimes don’t like what we think science is telling us, because it may conflict with some ideas on which we happen to base our current sense of meaning, we feel obligated to pay attention and look to it as a source of information about the meaning we seek.
Evidence that many people sense this can be seen both in our fascination with science and in our reactions against it. What are millions of people looking for in such science books as Stephen Hawking’s amazingly popular A Brief History of Time, and in other similar works of popular science? Many intuitively sense that science must have an important impact on the search for meaning, which may be why they turn to such books for answers. Most, I suspect, are disappointed in one way or an- other. Abstract approaches to “theories of everything,” while certainly important in the search to understand the universe and ourselves, have a hollowness to them that always leaves us wanting. In one sense they profess to  offer the  whole story. But in another, more intuitive sense, we know they can never  be the whole story because they leave out  what  is the  very stuff of life to us. These descriptions of the universe seem too far removed from our experience, with nothing that brushes against the universe as we experience it in everyday life, the one in which we make choices and seek meaning and a place for ourselves and our thoughts. Science provides a mental map of the universe, but it is in many ways an unfamiliar and unhelpful map, without clear connections to the concepts  we  operate with in our immediate experience. Most glaringly, it seems to lack a clear “you are here” marker needed to place ourselves within the framework of the map and use it as a guide to the choices we face in life.
This situation may explain some of the vigorous resistance to scientific ideas and the continued popularity, despite strong evidence against them, of so-called “pseudosciences” such as astrology, creation science, psychic phenomena, or quantum healing. They address directly the daily concerns of life, and thus offer something we have a deep and real need for, which science seems not to provide.
We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.
We all operate within a framework of concepts that make sense of the world to us, which we use to formulate our goals, hopes, and dreams, and to seek ways to overcome problems  and obstacles as we build our lives. Certainly the universe out there has much to say about all this, but it’s hard to figure out what it says when our scientific description exists for us as a remote framework without clearly articulated connections  to the concepts with which we operate in daily life. So we live in a disconnected state: abstract and evolving knowledge of the grand universe on one hand, and the immediate need for a guide to our individual choices on the other hand. How do we bring these together, so that we can guide our immediate choices from a perspective that is informed by and connected to the big picture?
These connections exist, but they are easily disguised, lost in the abstractions. The links are difficult to maintain even for sciences that specifically describe us, our bodies and mental processes. In some way we remain detached from these descriptions, still not quite feeling they tell us much about the essence of the world as we experience it. For sciences that describe distant places and distant times, the links can seem almost impossible to maintain. The connections must be consciously made, the insights from science explicitly appropriated into our day-to-day awareness of who we are and how we interact with the world. We can learn to think not of  the scientific universe out there, far away and long ago, but  right here, where we live and experience the world. The big bang, for example, happened here, in the little region of space we can now hold in our hands, as well as out there in regions that are now 10 – 15 billion light years away. We are just now receiving the glow from a condition once experienced billions of light years away, but that condition was also experienced right here, a long time ago. Bizarre properties of electrons and atoms and photons described by quantum theory can seem abstract and detached, until we realize we’re talking about us, too—our atoms, the air we breathe, the sunlight which sustains us. Many of the remarkable insights from science remain abstract, disconnected from our personal worldviews which are the maps we use to guide our choices and our lives. But this need not always be the case.
I suggest that the meaning behind our individual lives, which science can help us uncover, is not to be looked for only in regimes where our current scientific understanding is stretched or incomplete—in exotic theories of the early universe, in black holes and warped spacetime and the arcane mathematics of grand unified theories. It is found, rather, in the “ordinary world”—the world in which we live every day, but  which really is so full of mystery and wonder that it seems inappropriate to call it ordinary. Once we learn to live with a full awareness of our connections to the universe we are a part of, I think it’s safe to say the world will never seem ordinary again.
  • The author then defines his intent and goal in writing this book:
My goal in this short book is to illustrate that the seemingly opposing aims of “personal meaning” and “consistency with science” need not be in conflict. On the contrary, the process and insights of science can act as a valuable filter and guide to developing our sense of being part of a bigger context, within which our lives have meaning. We live our lives motivated and guided by a set of beliefs about how the world works and how we connect to it. These connections are all around us, in every action and every assumption about what is important for us to do. And science, while certainly not capable of providing all the answers, has a great deal to say about these assumptions. We just need to be aware of how to use the science, and what to look for.

My hope is that someday science will play a much more central role in our varied individual efforts to construct an overall context for our lives. I hope we will learn to see new discoveries in basic science not as detached and esoteric curiosities, justified by the vague possibility of technological spin-offs, but as crucial pieces or steps in the process of uncovering humanity’s role in the cosmos. My aim is to help bring this day closer, by offering a point of view from which science can be seen as an important tool in your personal search for meaning in your daily life. Along the way, I also present some concrete suggestions for putting it to use for yourself.
And here is Carl Sagan (1934-1996) with his famous sentence, in fact his most powerfull sentence from the scientific serie Cosmos : "The cosmos is also within us, We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

...and another video about Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Arthur C. Clarke - God, The Universe and Everything Else (1988):

Musings on the Universe

The beep beep sound of Sputnik (mp3)

There is something indefinably magical in space. Mankind has looked upwards for centuries, always wanting to know more. Where did we come from? Why does the rain fall? What Gods make lightening? What have we done to make the Gods angry? What are stars made of? How did the universe begin? How will it end? How can we see further and further into a mystery always just beyond reach?
Ancient civilizations had cause to fear the sky. In the modern world, however, we have lost any sense of fear and wonder about that which suspends our tiny planet in the vastness of space and time. The ability for the majority of us to experience the universe first hand is small. Astronauts are heroes because they dare to step into the vastness that has frightened and awed and puzzled mankind since our first ancestor rose onto two legs and looked towards the sky.
Did dinosaurs ponder the wonders of space? Fish? Lions? Horses? Even the small one-celled amoeba? The creatures of this world don’t need to ponder space because they are space. Instinctively, they know their connection to the universe, something we forgot long ago when we chose to divide and accept ‘he’ is different than ‘me’.
So why does the sound of a machine beeping in space open up such a vast emptiness inside me? Awe that, even though the sounds were recorded over 40 years ago, makes me shiver, forces me to admit I, too, am part of the wonder of the universe. Sounds which make me feel something opening inside me in a way I have never experienced before;  connects me to the universe in a way I never imagined possible.
I am, you are, every living thing in this world and beyond, not to mention rocks and chairs and books, and computers are made of starstuff. We see solids when, in reality, the atoms  from which we are made are simply gathered together and pretending to be the solids called ‘me’ or ‘you’ or ‘Fido.’ The same as a star 40 million light years away is pretending to be the solid called ‘star.’  I am ‘me,’ but I am also Sputnik, forty years ago, sending the sounds of infinity back to the’ me’ on earth listening this very moment.
What awe would fill this world if we all understood, down to the tiniest particle of our being, that we aren’t different.  We are all made of the same stuff as the stars. We all feel that deep instinctive pull towards knowing, understanding, who we are and where we belong in this infinite universe.
Perhaps that is what the beeping of Sputnik reminds us. Somewhere out there, beyond our sight, in the blackness both outside and inside us, there is an emptiness we all understand – loneliness, fear, death –  but we do not need to be afraid. We are one. No matter the vastness between the stars, or between two neighbors, there is always a bridge, always a connection of starstuff binding us together.
  • This video shows the launch of Sputnik 1 - October 4, 1957:

  • From Wikipedia:
Sputnik 1 (/ˈspʌtnɪk/RussianСпутник-1 [ˈsputnʲɪk] "Satellite-1", or ПС-1 ["PS-1", i.e., RussianПростейший Спутник-1 "Elementary Satellite 1"])[3] was the first artificial Earth satellite. The Soviet Union launched it into an elliptical low Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. It was a 58 cm (23 in) diameter polished metal sphere, with four external radio antennae to broadcast radio pulses. It was visible all around the Earth and its radio pulses were detectable. This surprise success precipitated the American Sputnik crisis and triggered the Space Race, a part of the larger Cold War. The launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments.[4][5]
Tracking and studying Sputnik from Earth provided scientists with valuable information, even though the satellite itself wasn't equipped with sensors. The density of the upper atmosphere could be deduced from its drag on the orbit, and the propagation of its radio signals gave information about the ionosphere.
Sputnik 1 was launched during the International Geophysical Year from Site No.1/5, at the 5th Tyuratam range, in Kazakh SSR (now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome). The satellite travelled at about 29,000 kilometres per hour (18,000 mph; 8,100 m/s), taking 96.2 minutes to complete each orbit. It transmitted on 20.005 and 40.002 MHz,[6] which were monitored by amateur radio operators throughout the world.[7] The signals continued for 21 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on 26 October 1957.[8] Sputnik 1 burned up on 4 January 1958, as it fell from orbit upon reentering Earth's atmosphere, after travelling about 70 million km (43.5 million miles) and spending three months in orbit.[9]
Sputnik 1 in space