Sammi’s Weekender #213 (galaxy)


On the Edge of Forever

Words of uncertainty apply.
Probably, and maybe perhaps,
as proportions with numbers
inconceivable and unimaginable,
describe vastness where nearby,
local galaxies, about fifty-one,
are or were within a mere
three megaparsecs. So close.

Suicidal giants like Tadpole, Black Eye,
Sunflower, and Cigar. Our nearest
neighbor, Andromeda, plans to crash
our party in four or five billion years.

Like the cosmos,
this Milky Way is mostly nothing,
toying with conversions of
angular momentum, universal
collisions of astronomy’s galactic
darlings. The realm of nebulae,
halfway to the edge of the known
universe, whatever that is.


Look both ways to search for a “small, quaint, tidy universe.”
But science “never ends.”
Mind the gaps for a “single ultimate truth.”
(Quotes from Cosmos by Carl Sagan)

Essay: Ya’ Know What?

My morning means coffee. As I listen to the Keurig groan to push water through that little plastic cup, I ponder the cosmos. Then, I’m off to my room where, with the help of Lappy the laptop, I investigate the inworld of cyberspace and contemplate the secrets of the vast physical universe. I wouldn’t want to have some cosmic detail wrong.

I sit at my desk and prowl through blogs and respond to comments before flipping to Facebook. After typing a few comments, and some likes or loves, I click to email. And behold: there is the prompt for this week’s essay.

Galileo was put on trial and spent the last years of his life in prison for suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun. We think we have a pretty good idea of how the universe works now, but what if we don’t? What if we’re wrong? What if…??

(Good grief!)

Galileo was on house arrest and ordered to deny the heliocentric heresy, which he did before recanting his denial. The sun-center working of the solar system had been around, but the question for him was whether he agreed with it. This was during the reign of Pope Urban the 8th and when the phrase, don’t piss off the pope became popular. It was bad for Galileo. It was worse for others. In the 400 years since, there has been no Urban the 9th.

The rest of the prompt is figuring out the universe and what if we are (or I am) wrong. The universe is one of my favorite topics and being wrong is something with which I am quite familiar. Just ask my wife or kids. The last part asks, what if?

I like to quote phrases that make me feel smart when they affirm what I have supposed. This phrase is credited to Zen:

‘If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.’

Galileo and Pope Urban lived under the same sun and stars within the same solar system. One was right, and one was powerful. But another phrase is might makes right. It did in this case, but not in the long run.

The universe did whatever it did without the help or knowledge of either man. To navigate by celestial means, one assumes that the sun, moon, stars, and planets move across the sky. To the observer, that is what appears to happen, but things are not as they appear.

If we’re wrong, nothing changes. For now, we know what we know, and we look for more answers or corrections.

In time, we’ll correct our errors. Learning is endless, and science has gaps everywhere. Even if we had the cosmos accurately mapped out and understood all the chaos, the potential for more knowledge exceeds the spatial vastness of the universe itself.

And as for the we part; some of ‘we’ think the earth is flat, some of ‘we’ believe some of us are alien creatures; some of ‘we’ deny lunar landings. Too many ‘we’ think Hubble telescope scenes and Voyager photos are fake. Far too many of ‘we’ think science is nonsense, and that it was all created by one supreme deity. Regardless of the signs and clear evidence, some of us will always go the wrong way.

What if is the wrong question. Let’s try what if not? Consider some possibilities.

First, try to imagine this world without science. It is easier to envision a world without humans or any intelligent life. Now, with a twist of the cranium, imagine what John Lennon suggested.

Imagine a world without religion. It’s easier than it was to extract science and learning from history. We’ll always have both, but now we can ask the what if question.

For over 65 years, no one asked me to explain the universe or how it came to be. People were willing to explain it to me in terms of what they thought. Then, a few years ago, about the time I started mumbling the word atheist with personal pronouns, I was suddenly cast into the academic role of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson all rolled into one. I was charged with explaining not only how the universe works, but how it came to be. I was also challenged to explain the source of all life on earth, the details of evolution, and to fill-in any scientific gaps. Perhaps the inquisitors thought I would be enlightened.

I not only don’t have all the answers to such questions, I don’t need to have them. Nor do you. None of the seven billion people alive today, nor any of the 100-billion who have ever lived had all the answers or needed to know them.

If the question is what if we are wrong; the answer is of course we are. We do not have all the right answers and that is exactly what all the excitement should be about. Are we willing to learn? It’s why we are here: to always wonder. As Galileo said,

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

***Bill Reynolds***

As you wander, look both ways.
Remember to look up.
Mind the gaps. As you learn, fill in where you can.