Following is the Preface to a book I wrote almost a decade ago titled, The Handyman’s Handbook on Cosmology.
I was born in May, 1927. Apart from a few family members, especially mom and dad, the event was barely noticed.
But there were several events that were widely noticed that year. That is the year in which Lindbergh was first to fly across the Atlantic, a widely noted event occurring during the same month and year of my birthday. In the fall of 1927, Quantum Theory was formally introduced to the world of science, an event that shook the foundations of classical science.
In that same year, there was another event widely noted: Edwin Hubble announced that ours is not the only galaxy. Suddenly, there was a universe. Prior to that time, the Milky Way was thought of as the whole universe.
I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood. It wasn’t exactly Our Town. It was more like Our Ghetto. But life was good. Certainly it was simple. Most of us on the ‘block’ were of Italian descent. Each of us was sure that mamma made the best sauce and, in defiance of the law of non-contradiction, each of us believed that the supremacy of mamma’s sauce was an absolute. Yes, Italian-Americans had a quantum view of sauce, logic notwithstanding. We still do.
There was so much to love in my childhood-the smell of the obligatory Italian backyard garden of tomatoes; the sweetness of its ripe figs (especially the white ones) that I could pluck off my grandfather’s lush fig trees dripping with nectar all through late summer and early fall; the fragrance of fresh garden flowers; the aroma of an exquisite dinner being prepared by mom and grandma.
Yet, despite that celebration of life, at nine or ten years old, I found myself pausing for moments of intense feeling about the world. That feeling might best be described as a tragic sense of life-not only, as might be expected, a feeling about my life, but for all humanity. I vividly remember the first moment I was fully conscious of that feeling. I was shaken by it. I knew it would never be cured. The wisdom of age has since deepened that sense. But I can handle it much better now.
At twelve I decided to become omniscient. Well, not exactly that. But it occurred to me that I wanted to know as much as possible about the world. Since knowledge very slowly trickled down to my neighborhood, and because I thought schoolteachers and my parents were not exactly leveling with me about life, I decided to educate myself-a process that continues to this day.
I began my study with astronomy. I enjoyed reading about the solar system and made frequent visits to the New York Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was especially exciting to visit the Planetarium’s breathtaking sky shows and to stand on each of the scales designed to show how much I would weigh on each of the planets from Mercury to Saturn, and the moon.
One otherwise dull day, alone in a tiny alcove of a neighborhood library, I was astonished when I read that our galaxy was not the universe. That was just 12 years after Hubble announced that momentous discovery. I remember reading that passage over and over again. At twelve years old, the impact of that information was tremendous. I was hooked on the new science of modern cosmology. I still am.
Another experience that made a lasting impression occurred while I was gathering information about the solar system. The facts about Pluto were interesting enough, but none of them was as significant as how Pluto was discovered.
Percival Lowell had predicted Pluto’s existence when he observed a perturbation between Uranus and Neptune that could be explained only by the existence of an unknown planet. He searched for ‘Planet X,’ for years but died in 1916, never having found the planet he knew must exist. Following Lowell’s footsteps, Clyde Tombaugh found ‘Planet X,’ Pluto in 1930. That story introduced me to inference, a major tool in the study of cosmology.
At that time, astronomical facts were clean-cut gems: “The sun is a star; nine planets revolve around it; they have specific periods of rotation and revolution; their diameters, moons, and relative distances are known to be…,” and so on.
For most of us in the ‘40s, time and space remained solid concepts despite Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity. To whatever extent we understood them, they were within the bounds of reason even when contrary to intuition. The curvature of space and relativity of time (space/time) did not jolt us from our rational perception of the universe. For me, that is still so.
Uranus is still there, having churned along its orbit for little more than one revolution around the sun since I was born eighty-eight years ago. In this last stage of my life, astronomy and cosmology continue to fascinate me and I am still spellbound by the incomparable and overwhelming physical beauty of the universe.
Science and art blend well on the palette of my life. For example, Greek mythology permeates the nomenclature of constellations, stars, planets, and their moons. There is an appealing tradition that assigns Roman names to planets and Greek names to their moons. The two moons orbiting Mars, the Roman God of War, have Greek mythological names, Phobos and Deimos (fear and terror). About a dozen of Jupiter’s moons are assigned names that correspond to Greek mythological figures associated with Zeus, the Greek equivalent for the Roman Jupiter. Many names for the moons of Uranus are drawn from a source other than the Greco-Roman classical period. But much of the names of solar system bodies remain elegant. Several Uranian moons are named after Shakespearean characters. The name of one of those moons, Sycorax, is justified by the mere mention of the name of Caliban’s mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest!
When I was twenty-one (1948), this classic nomenclature tradition continued with the discovery of Miranda (Shakespeare’s The Tempest). When I was fifty-eight (1985), an additional Uranian moon was revealed by Voyager 2 and named Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tradition of naming Uranus’ moons after the names of Shakespearian characters appears to be alive and well. I like that.
Charts of stars often include constellations, giving us Orion, Cassiopeia, and Hercules. Greco-Roman mythology and Shakespeare’s plays have been a significant source of artistic inspiration in the art of Western Civilization. Even our twin galaxy, Andromeda, owes its name to classical mythology.
At the beginning of this century there began a redefinition of the solar system occasioned by the discovery of “exo planets,” i.e., planetoids similar to Pluto in size and other characteristics (e.g., an exclusive ellipsoidal or circular orbit around the sun). The redefinition determined that Pluto would no longer be classified as a planet, but as one of hundreds (and potentially thousands) of TNOs (Trans-Neptunian Objects). However, in sentimental homage to Pluto, formerly considered the planet at the edge of our solar system, the planetoids are also known as Plutoids.
Inuit mythology has been added as a source for naming some of these recent discoveries, e.g., the plutoids, Sedna (goddess of the sea) and Quaoar, (a transformer of chaos to order). The blend of art, culture, and cosmology is exquisite. In addition, the images of the Hubble telescope are an art form in itself.
Of course the rapid discovery of dozens of moons in our solar system has made it impossible to thoroughly continue the nomenclature traditions of the past. Alphanumerical labels for heavenly objects are becoming the rule as the rapid proliferation of new discoveries continues at an ever-increasing rate. But then, that is true of so much of life now. Most of us have become just numbers in a world that crunches individuals into anonymous computerized beings.
I enjoy the casual terms created by the men and women who are professional nuclear physicists and cosmologists. As you have probably noticed, scientists have largely dropped the tradition of assigning profound titles to discoveries and theories. The frantically sought ‘Theory of Everything’ (TOE) is ponderous compared to much of the jargon of the current scientific community. For example, gluons are quantum particles that ‘glue’ quarks together. The word, quark, is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Even the well-known term, black hole, is a simplistic description for an entity that is often referred to as a ‘rip’ in the fabric of the universe. Following their example, I’ve privately come to think of a ‘rip’ as ‘Rest In Peace.’ I think that is apt for a star that has disappeared into a black hole. And how about WIMPs for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or GUT for Grand Unified Theory, or MACHOs for Massive Compact Halo Objects.
About four decades ago I read about the term, GOOGOL. That term was coined by a nine-year-old nephew of an American mathematician who asked the boy what he would call a very large number (100100). The child answered, ‘A googol.’ The term entered the sophisticated world of mathematics. I suppose I might have titled this book SLAM, for Small, Large, and Medium, size being a highly significant factor when discussing fundamental physical reality.
“We are stardust,” is an excellent metaphor that encapsulates a profound literal truth, genomes notwithstanding. But, I feel. I think. Stardust does not do that-at least, not without me, albeit that my brain and heart are made of stardust. But, unlike stardust, I am animate. Unfortunately, many people believe that what we call ‘life’ is an illusion. “An ‘illusion’ of what?,” I ask them. They have no answer. Or, they claim that we are part of a hologram, an illusion. But an illusion is something of which it is an illusion. So, I ask them, “A hologram of what?” Their answers are less substantive than the shadows in Plato’s cave. To deny existence and the consciousness that perceives it is in and of itself an unequivocal confirmation that thought and life are real.
We are somewhere between ignorance and omniscience. We are compelled to seek an ‘explanation’ for the universe and the existence of life. For those who are deterministic, the ‘explanation’ is simple: “The earth is in a Goldilock Zone, a zone that is within the bounds required for atoms to link into complex molecules for life to form.” That concept is sound, of course, but it just tells us where life can exist, not why we are the progeny of bubbling amino acids.
There is a theory that posits the universe is trying to ‘understand itself’ through the use of genomes which are currently in an evolutionary stage that includes humans as vehicles toward that end. It strikes me that this premise basically suggests ‘something’ other than human is on a cosmological trip towards omniscience.
As you know, many scientists of all stripes genuinely believe that the line between life and matter is fuzzy at best. Artists know better. So do people who think as artists and not as genetic automatons. I neither am nor have ever aspired to be a scientist, but I know that although our physical beings came with the primordial package we attribute to the Big Bang, there is a profound difference between inanimate matter and life. The division between them sharply differs in kind, not merely degree. It seems to me that among other things, life is a counterforce to universal entropy.
Yes, out of the stars came physical life. But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michelangelo’s Pietà, and Einstein’s equation E=MC2 came from them-not ‘randomly’ or by ‘predetermination,’ but from ineffable creativity. “Ah,” one might say, “I thought you said that artists ‘know better’…Einstein was not an artist!” To them I reply, “Yes he was!” Science at Einstein’s level is an art. All creative thought is art as distinguished from sheer instinct. It comes from us, not the stars. Life itself is an art open to anyone who desires and strives to practice it.
To paraphrase Charlie Chapman, “All the stars do is sit on their axis.” Of course this book is testimony to the fact that stars do much more than that, but they don’t laugh, make music, or love. Humor, art, and love are not-as scientists might put it-’properties’ of hot stars or cold stones or neurological systems. It takes a sculptor to transform stone into a masterpiece like Michelangelo’s David. And our unrequited love for the stars is in itself testimony that animated stardust fundamentally differs from its physical genesis. When I contemplate the origin of the universe and life, life is the greater mystery of the two. I love cosmology, but I don’t look to the stars to understand life.
I have learned to weave the absolute, the relative, and the speculative into a tapestry free of contradictions. It’s not too difficult to distinguish which of those three possibilities is applicable to a specific cosmological issue. Mastering that technique has enabled me to enjoy cosmology as a whole and not be confused by the oscillation amongst absolute precision, militant relativism, and irrational speculation.
In that spirit, this book has been designed merely to whet your appetite for cosmology. I hope it will make you more aware that the universe is happening in your living room 24/7.
The universe is often depicted as violent. The Hubble telescope has shown us that it is also breathtakingly beautiful. When I gaze at the Hubble photo of the “Ultra-Deep Field” the stars and galaxies look like brilliant gems set in rich black velvet: Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful!
And now an apology. Being a part of what is euphemistically described as ‘the lower middle class,’ I do my own marketing, housekeeping, and put out my refuse. In addition, keeping pace with bills and alternate side of the street parking doesn’t leave much time for impeccable research. Besides, cosmology is a study that is rapidly updated and is filled with contradictory data and theories. Accordingly, and as I’ve occasionally explained in my book when necessary, a part of the book’s content is not-and may never be-precise anyway. But the book’s primary purpose is to whet your appetite for cosmology. I hope I have succeeded in doing that.
But I must stop now-I have to do my laundry.