Monday, December 26, 2011

It's Time to Measure the Marigolds

I don't usually respond to poems or songs, but being the kind of killjoy that I am - that is, the kind of heavy scientist who sees no beauty in the world and wants to crush all your romantic but ultimately "frivolous" approach to reality because growing up sucks and you have to be mature and that means breaking out the slide ruler every time you see a flower (I don't even know how to use one - but they'd take away my Enlightened card if I didn't at least pretend to) - I felt driven to respond to this particular poem.

It's called "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomy" by Walt Whitman.

And yes, it will be crushed. And blown to the wind.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
I hear a similar sentiment a lot, mostly from people who's romantic understanding of the world hinges on their ignorance of it.

Let me make this very clear: Ignorance =/= Beauty. Ignorance = Fear.

Why do you think that the Right is so vocal about doing bad things to these Muslims that don't exist in the real world? They're ignorant about what real Muslims are, and about Islam in general, and draw generalization based on what they hear and see, rather than actually going out and exploring. And that leads to fear. Rather than reading those facts and charts ranged in columns before them, they'd rather go out and stare at the pictures, and draw their own (faulty) conclusions based on that.

Why do you think society is distrusts atheists like they do? Because rather than go out and find an atheist, and look at the charts and the data, they'd follow their "intuition" and jump to conclusions.

Okay, so I can get the point here. Looking at stars are prettier than than listing some old astronomy talk. I'm probably inclined to agree; you can go on at length and you'll lose me. However, because the only astronomers I've ever heard talking are men like Neil Tyson DeGrasse and Carl Sagan, who are excited and passionate about their field and their science, they're not boring. They can present you with these charts and this data and it becomes interesting. Take futurist and scientist Michio Kaku; the man gets excited. He's fun to watch. I learned a lot about biology by reading the blog of PZ Myers, because he makes it interesting. He's a teacher, he knows how to do that. I learned about law from Ed Brayton, because he's funny and it's interesting. So I have a hard time understanding this business about growing "tired and sick." It doesn't ring true for me. I could read their blogs or listen to them talk for hours and not feel "tired and sick."

Especially when you leave a presentation about the nature of the stars to just look up at the stars, rather than go find info on your own. I don't find beauty in saying "Okay, don't care. I'm going to go off and just look a these things that I don't understand now." I don't see how any does.

This business of anti-intellectualism is based in the Romantic movement, which Whitman was a member of. The poem is a very thinly veiled critique of how the scientific method works and misconceptions based on how understanding things is done; things should be best left unexplained, says Whitman, so a century or so later, Republicans can demand Muslims be exterminated or deported, that we teach the earth is 6,000 years old, and that we remain trapped her on this pathetic little planet, relatively stupid and sick form here until the sun explodes - which we don't even know it will do, because we never bothered to study those stars. It's a tantalizing position to take; why, he almost had me at "a century later." Almost like I'm experiencing the after effects of his irrationalism in a society that seems enraptured by it, y'know?

Intuition is fine if you're trying to solve day to day problems, but human intuition is prone to human biases. You can make educated guesses about things and you may even be right, but unless you actually test those guesses, you'll never know. And hey, when you start formally testing stuff, and then letting your friends test it with you to double check, what's that called?

Oh yeah. It's called the "scientific method." Or a rudimentary version thereof. It's the only rational way to understand the world that we live in - no other tool so beautifully helps us get a solid grip on things. When the light goes out, you don't go all romantic and say "oh, well, I'd rather just stand here and look at this light bulb" - you figure out why it's not working, and replace it if necessary. Why should trying to understand the stars be treated any differently? Figure out how they're working; make the net knowledge of humanity increase.

I see no beauty in ignorance. I derive no pleasure from "because it does, okay?". Understanding how something work doesn't make it any less beautiful - in fact, it can make it even more awesome.

For instance, we know that stars don't last for ever. In fact, stars die, just like they're born. As the star consumes the last of it's hydrogen, it starts to fuse heavier elements like iron. Because iron actually takes away from the net energy that the star produces, it begins to expand to try and produce more energy. This expansion is eventually finished when gravity wins the tug-of-war at the center of the star - a star's entire life is spent fighting against the inward pull of gravity - and the star sheds it's outer layers in what's called a supernova, often times creating planetary nebulae. Because Sol is rather isolated at the moment, the closest of these nebulae are emitting light that takes hundreds of years to get to us, so when we look into our telescopes, we see these nebulae as they were hundreds of years ago, not as they are today. Knowing this, does that take away from beauty presented by these?:

 This is NGC6543. It's a planetary nebula, like I was talking about above. It's also called The Cat's Eye nebula. At it's core, it's 2ly across, and the exact mechanism that creates the ejections is unknown at this time, although I suspect it might have something to do with the way the star moves, or the presence of a second star in there that we haven't detected yet. The inner star is an O-type star with a surface that burns at roughly 80,000K (79,727C, 140,540.6 F for you Americans out there who are still stuck in the dark ages and don't know Metric. Libya used to be the only other nation on the planet that still used the Imperial System, and then we Americans went and killed Gaddafi, so it's likely they'll join the 21st century and learn metric, too). The nebula itself is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, which shouldn't be a surprise, as they're the two most common elements in the known universe. There are small traces of heavier metals too, like carbon. Does that make it any less beautiful, or did that just enrich your understanding of it and, knowing how hot it was, make it that much more awesome?
 Say hello to NGC 4414. This is an unbarred spiral galaxy some 62 million light years away, so when we look at this picture, this is what the galaxy looked like 3 million years before the dinosaurs were killed off by the K-T event. There's only been one observed supernova so far in the galaxy, and the reason the outer stars are blue is because they're newer stars - the galaxy halo is home to the creation of new stars. It's got a red shift of about 716 +/- 6 Km/S, meaning that this beauty is actually moving away from us at a between 710-722 km/s. Now, if you figure the math, and you look at this picture and realize that's how it looked 62 million years ago, and it's 62 million ly away moving at 716km/s away from us, how far has it gotten in the intervening 62 million years? Would we even be able to see it? Not likely. Again, does knowing this take away from any of the majesty of the galaxy? Not at all. It's still remarkably beautiful (and really 'effin' huge. Seriously, that picture is big. NASA is nothing if not thorough with their pictures).

And this one is NGC 1300. It's a special type of galaxy; what they call a "barred spiral," because it has that clearly defined central bar connecting the two galactic arms. It's 61 million light years away, meaning this picture was taken of this galaxy 4 million years before the dinosaurs went extinct, rather than 3 million, as is the case with NGC 441. It's redshift is 1577 km/s, +/- 4. So it's moving away from us even faster than NGC 441. This spectacular galaxy shows the grand structure of a spiral galaxy really well, and it's central bar is some 3,300 light years long. It's some 10,000 light years across.

Last one.

This isn't just one galaxy - this is six. And they're all really close to one another, too - far closer than the Milky Way to the Andromeda galaxy. They're some 190 million light years away, and the images in the back are actually separate galaxies not included in the sextet. They consist of NGC 6027, and 6027a-e. They remain one of the most closely compact groups of galaxies; in fact, they're sharing their galactic halos. The brightest of the members is 6027; that's why all of the other galaxies are named after it. They're not likely a compact group anymore, though - they have variable redshifts, with the fastest one of them moving away from us at 19,890 km/s, +/- 50km/s.

Redshift - I've used this term a lot and I don't think I've really explained it, so let me give it a shot for those who don't know or never heard the term before. A redshift is the measure of how red incoming light is, due to the Doppler effect. A useful way to imagine this is to think of a train whistle; the further away the train is, the quieter the whistle. The closer it is, the louder the whistle. This is because the whistle is a sound wave, and the further that wave travels, the more it stretched out and quieter it becomes, until eventually it becomes inaudible all together. Light is a wave, too; like sound it's "nosier" the closer you get to it's source. In this case, light coming in from a source that's moving towards is going to be "bluer" because blue light waves are more compact, and will be red the further away it is, because the light has to stretch out further. Redshift, then, is the shift in the red light, used to indicate how far and at what speed an object is moving away from us or moving towards us. 

So, you tell me? Did I take anything away from these pictures by explaining them to you?

Aha, but there's one more point. See, these are "false color" pictures.When you look at these images, some are achieved by layering different pictures taken across the spectrum over one another. Humans can't see infrared or ultraviolet light, but that was used to help add the color to some of these pictures. Thus, while they're absolutely gorgeous as photographs, they don't look like that in real life and they wouldn't look like that if you were standing outside looking down at them. In fact, you likely wouldn't be able to see them at all (this is especially true for the nebula. I'm not sure how true it is for the galaxies; you'd likely be able to see them, but they'd be a lot less colorful).

So there. Science made something that wasn't beautiful to begin even more beautiful. I'd like to see Mr Whitman try that with just his naked eye look up at the night sky.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Beautiful Galaxies are beautiful. Science IS awesome :)