Sunday, 12 January 2014

Universal Truths. How looking at the stars put me in my place.

Despite knowing that Patrick Moore wasn’t just the guy from Gamesmaster I’ve never actually done any real star gazing. Sure I’ve drunkenly looked up on a walk home and said “Wow” but actual telescope/ binoculars/doing it on purpose? Nope.  So, even though the most amazing comet I would ever get to see melted before it got here, 2014 was the year for  me to look up and mean it.

24 hours after my first experience and I’m still giggling about how beautiful, exciting and easy it was.  With a clear sky and a fairly normal pair of binoculars I can, like Dave Bowman, declare that “it’s full of stars”. The fabulously named Red Giant Betelgeuse really is red and the M42 Orion Nebula is…well a smudgy bit that I thought was a mark on the lens…but it’s a real life nebula…like in Star Trek!
Jupiter on the left, Orion between the trees.

 Most impressive was how simple it was to see the Galilean Moons of Jupiter.  There they were…the first, best evidence for a heliocentric view of the cosmos, right there. All I needed was a back garden, a pair of Binoculars and whiskey aided steady hands.

Through a telescope Jupiter was transformed from a big star to a striped humbug with 4 points of orbiting light all in a row.  My mind was boggled that light had travelled 500 Million kilometres all the way from Jupiter to my friend’s garden, down a telescope and into my eye…just to make me giggle. It was awe-inspiring and made me realise just how BIG space is and just how small I am. 

I didn't take this pic

All this and I was expecting it.  Imagine the effect it must have had on Galileo the first time he pointed this new-fangled looking glass to the heavens. What did he expect to see? The Cogs of an Orrery? Angels? God?

As I day dreamed about Galileo it suddenly dawned on me how frustrating (and dangerous) the Church of his day’s reaction to his discovery must have been. ”But look” he must have wanted to scream “just look for yourself…it’s all there, it’s all true!” Sadly they didn’t have ears to listen and didn’t look upon a wonderful and natural truth.

Which all makes me wonder why even today, science is considered unnatural, when compared to religion or magic it is entirely natural?  There is simply no room for the supernatural or anything that we can’t look around and see and measure.  The simple method of “Have an idea…compare it to nature…does your idea fit with what you see?” couldn’t be more dependent on nature and “real“ life if it tried. But still the popular image of science being man-made and alien chemicals being created in labs persists.

Scientific research can use specific language and some pretty esoteric concepts…but so do the Arts, Darts and Pilates. I find it difficult to comprehend that scientific language can be criticised as obscurant while post modernism still exists.

Thankfully, there has never been a better time for science communicators trying to connect and describe how fantastically amazing the universe is to ordinary people.  Which is lucky for me, as otherwise it might well have slipped by, camouflaged as the most boring thing in the world by a succession of science teachers at school.

However, is the same true of other areas of peculiar expertise?  Could there even be a philosopher who can strip away the pretence of Foucault and illuminate the powerful truths hidden by the seeming gibberish?

That's no Moon, it's wait it IS a Moon.

Endlessly curious I once shared a drunken idea.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if someone actually followed up on that silly idea that came to them after a couple of pints? Wonder no more and come to a Pubhd meeting where at each event, 3 PhD/EngD/EdD students, and post-docs, from any academic discipline, will explain their work to an audience of laypeople in exchange for a pint or two.  It might work, it might be chaos but it will be fun and some-one will learn something.
What a wonderful modern age we live in. Now when people have a new idea, instead of imprisoning them or torturing them to recant, we buy them a pint to tell us about it. Now, THAT is enlightened progress ladies and gentlemen.

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