Mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam

2014-03-04T10:53:00Z Mote of dust suspended in a sunbeamDR. ALAN SCOTT For THE NEWS Chippewa Herald
March 04, 2014 10:53 am  • 

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking declared “there are no black holes” in a recent paper playfully called “Information preservation and weather forecasting for black holes.” I was flabbergasted at the statement since I’ve been teaching about black holes and their existence for several years.

A funeral for this cosmic guzzler of all things in the universe may be premature. Hawking was not really suggesting that black holes don’t exist but that the normative description -- or the detailed mechanics surrounding them along with their evolution -- needs refined.

Let’s step back for a moment and enjoy the grandeur of the universe. Few topics evoke such awe and wonder as the cosmos with its unfathomable size, age and variety of content – including us and, perhaps, other sentient beings. We are the universe’s way of knowing itself. Philosophers throughout the ages have pondered the meaning of it all while looking up.

Isaac Asimov once stated, “Out beyond the farthest stars, where the cold of space spreads thin, we endeavor to look out, while they are looking in.” Adam Frank, from the 13.6 Cosmos and Culture NPR blog, whimsically proclaims that from the “grace of spiral galaxies to the water spinning down your toilet bowl” the same laws of fluid dynamics drive a choreography of matter and motion repeated throughout the cosmos. The writer Walter Maunder affirms that “The oldest picture book in our possession is the midnight sky.”

The great popularizer of the cosmos was Carl Sagan, and he has said “The Cosmos is rich beyond measure – in elegant facts, in exquisite interrelationships, in the subtle machinery of awe.”

Sagan was a prolific writer and received a Pulitzer Prize for his book Dragons of Eden: Speculations of the Evolution of Human Intelligence. His other books include The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness, Cosmos, and Contact. He was also arrested protesting an underground nuclear weapons test by the U.S. when the Soviet Union had unilaterally stopped such testing.

Back in 1980, Sagan hosted a television show called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. This show was the most widely watched PBS series in the world and won many awards.

The show is getting rebooted with an extreme make-over. The new version is called Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. At the helm of this juiced-up adventure is Neil deGrasse Tyson. The documentary will begin airing on March 9 on Fox television. Executive producers of the show include Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow.

It comes at a needed time since one in every four Americans think the Sun goes around the Earth. Then again, those who think the Sun goes around the Earth won’t likely be watching the show.

The new show will certainly include the puzzles of dark matter and dark energy. A dollop of black holes, pulsars, and gamma-ray bursts will be served-up alongside observations of more than 1,700 exoplanets (i.e. planets outside our Solar System) with many being earth-like! Experts believe our galaxy is teeming with about 40 billion planets in the habitable zone surrounding stars. And there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.

As the Voyager 1 spacecraft was making its exit from the solar system in 1990, NASA, at Sagan’s request, commanded the ship to turn towards Earth to try and capture an image of the planet 3.7 billion miles away. Earth appeared as a pale-blue dot only 12 one-hundredths of a pixel in size surrounded by rays of light created by the sun and the optical system of the camera.

Sagan shared his reflections on this astonishing image in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. These reflections rank among the most poignant writing ever by a scientist.

Search for Sagan and Pale Blue Dot within YouTube videos, and you’ll find Sagan’s full reflection in his own voice. Here is an excerpt:

“Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of ... every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. ... Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. ... To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

Sagan had his critics. Some academics viewed his appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as weakening his scientific credentials. And he would occasionally be politely critical of religious philosophy and was a professed agnostic.

The earth is facing some difficult times in resolving such issues as climate change, terrorism, war, emerging pandemic threats, energy resource depletion, pollution, environmental degradation, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, overpopulation, etc.

These challenges necessitate we look beyond the tawdriness which often accompanies debates about religion and atheism, gay or straight, racism and prejudices, economic policies, and political posturing to build a more just, peaceful, and sustainable future. Such that, to cherish the pale blue dot.

Dr. Alan Scott is a professor of physics at UW-Stout.

Copyright 2015 Chippewa Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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