Thursday, December 22, 2011

Astronomical Perspective

Flying to or from the island of Hawaiʻi is made much more interesting on days with moderate cloud cover by the sight of one or more of the volcanoes that make up the island rearing its massive bulk above the clouds. I've been walking, climbing, and driving on Mauna Kea for over two years now, and I'm still staggered by its gargantuan size every time I see it from the air.

The first time I saw it like that, I gained a measure of insight into Hawaiian culture; I like felt I could better understand the thought processes of people whose ancestors had for centuries lived on and around these voluminous volcanoes. This time, however, I was struck by an entirely different kind of realization.

You see, for all their bulk, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are absolutely minuscule when compared to the size of the Earth. If the Earth were the size of a basketball, you wouldn't even be able to feel them with your fingers. In fact, not even the Andes or the Himalayas would protrude enough to be tactile. One concept that astronomers and physicists have to handle, perhaps more than any other people, is a sense of scale for things that are inconceivably beyond our human experience, both incredibly tiny and fantastically large. It's one of the reasons I created my picture showing the relative sizes of the Sun and planets. Seeing those volcanoes provides me an invaluable opportunity to refresh and recalibrate my sense of scale. If you ever have the pleasure of traveling to Hawaiʻi and the ability to see those beautiful mountains, take a moment to reflect on their size in the grand scheme of things. The act of gaining an increased sense of perspective never, in my experience, fails to bring amazement and a heightened sense of wonder at our amazing universe.

1 comment:

  1. Yesterday I was talking to an undergraduate who is joining our research team about all of this. She had worked for twenty years in graphic design before she realized that her interest in physics and mathematics is too important to just dabble in. She had spent last summer at CERN, and told me that particle physics is too dry, too stressful, and too full of big egos for her. Astronomy to her seems more important because, as she succinctly put it, "You can actually look back in time billions of years at the first galaxies forming, and there's nothing that compares to that." Indeed. I offered that astronomy possesses a sort of poetry that is sometimes swept under the rug in other fields. It is a romantic idea, being able to fathom the depths of the universe. My attraction to astronomy comes from the perspective gained, as you have pointed out so well. It is the Cosmic Perspective. It is a perspective that, I feel, is extremely important for humans as a species. I think that a lot of the problems humans face are due to a lack of perspective. How could one hold onto nationalistic or racial zeal when looking at the Earth, with its curious lack of borders, from afar? How could one find comfort and satisfaction in material possessions when one truly comprehends the infinitesimal nature of their life? I think that humans, if we so choose, have a future in space. We are a rare, precious instance of a sentient, tool-making being with the capability, limited though it may be, for abstraction. This capability means that we have the rare opportunity to truly comprehend the universe and thus our own existence. If we would only put aside our differences, put aside our penchant for laziness and greed, we could more fully take up the task that is our birthright. In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera around and took a picture of the Earth from a record 3.7 billion miles, revealing the Earth's true size as a barely-registered speck floating in the enveloping vastness of space. Upon seeing this photograph, Carl Sagan offered some reflections that I think everyone should keep in their thoughts:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nl5dlbCh8lY

    Happy holidays!

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