TOLFA Segment 17 Astronomy

Clear nights, with or without a moon, can be a bit chilly in these latitudes so be sure to wrap up; but those provide the occasions that best help us consider the universe and our place in it - so why not take time, when next it's clear, to gaze for half an hour or so at the marvel of the night sky? At the head of Segment 17 comes the children's poem about stars: "How I wonder what you are." Especially after the transition to a free society, let's hope we each never lose that sense of childlike wonder. It's a central part of human life.

The science of astronomy, or cosmology, is mind-blowing in its complexity and majesty. It promises many lifetimes of discovery and excitement, yet it's all there when we look upwards on that clear night, and see the magnificence of what appears to be a moving screen infinitely high above the Earth. Before the ancient Greek scientists and mathematicians got to use the scientific method of observation and deduction, it was quite understandable to suppose that the night sky was some kind of backcloth to the stage of life, which some divine being had used to surround the earth. That such a myth should revive and survive until the 1500s is less excusable.

Its survival was achieved by force. Nicolas Copernicus in the early 1500s built on the work of Aristarchus and Ptolemy in antiquity and established sound theory that the planets revolve around the Sun, rather than that the universe revolves around the Earth. By mid-century others had joined him but this offended the Roman Church, which burned one scientist (Bruno) at the stake and forced another (Galileo) to renounce his reasoning - then kept him under permanent house arrest. So does Authority try to perpetuate its power; not by reason, but by gagging dissenters. It's the same today. In the new, free society it will be different tomorrow. Nothing, then, will hold back further, groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

Man as sailor soon noticed that the moving curtain wasn't moving everywhere; that it seemed to rotate around one particular star, in the Northern hemishere; later in his explorations, a similar one was found in the Southern one. This and other observations gradually led to the conclusion that it wasn't a curtain at all and that the planet, not the backcloth, was the element in motion. The star seemed still because it lies on a line projecting the rotational axis of the earth, and so is positioned "above" the North Pole. The sailors used it to identify North, and used it for navigation. They still can.

Carl Sagan, author of Cosmos, was teased for his frequent use of the phrase "billions and billons of stars" in reference to the universe. He was right, of course; each star being an object similar to our sun, sometimes smaller and sometimes far bigger but always consisting of a vast nuclear reaction that converts hydrogen to helium and releases massive amounts of energy in the form of heat, light and other radiation. Many of those billions and billions are presumably surrounded by planets, some of which may have ages and temperatures similar to ours, suggesting a high probability that life evolved elsewhere in the universe as well as here. The (disputed) fact that no traveller from any of them has ever bothered to stop by is one of the great mysteries of life; it would be statistically amazing if our own was the most advanced civilization.

Though there again, somebody has to be first. Perhaps we really are! More cause for wonder.

The night sky has given rise to many a myth, and in TOLFA we have rightly been very hard on myths, to the extent that they are used actually to guide the big decisions in life. But there's no harm done by fairy tales and flights of fancy, as we look at the amazing sight of more bright spots than anyone can count. Some seem to form patterns, and get names like the Big Bear and Leo. The moon itself has been supposed female, as if that desolate sphere of rock had human traits; such tales may enhance poetry and courtship and do no harm - unless they get taken literally. But if someone says there's really a bear or lion out there, we rightly say he is... loony.

And of course the realization of the immense vastness we can see when looking up suggests that we are so tiny in contrast that there must be some kind of powerful Creator, to have put it all together. That myth we exploded in Segment 5 - but is it appropriate to write and repeat myths, that maybe there is some unknown, un-knowable maker of it all? - so long as it's kept in the same category as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, probably not. Those pleasant stories can comfort children and inspire poetry; all part of the rich quilt-pattern of life.


There's more mystery in astronomy than anywhere. If solving mysteries is your thing, this is the hobby or career for you. Example: is this vast universe expanding or contracting - or neither?

Probably the most important discovery of the 20th Century was that of the "red shift" by Edwin Hubble, after whom the space telescope was named. He noticed that the spectrum of radiation emitted by hot hydrogen (the stuff of stars, and which is well-known to physics) was observable in any star, but that each component frequency was shifted slightly to the long, or red, end. He concluded that, just as a train changes its sound as it passes us by (the so-called Doppler effect) and light suffers such a change if its source is moving fast enough, so everything in the universe is moving away from everything else - that the universe is expanding.

The implications are immense. It suggests there was a moment when the universe started expanding, and that if we know the speed of expansion now and the approximate mass of everything in the universe (we do) then we can estimate how long ago that "Big Bang" took place. It was about 15 billion years ago, and creationists have grabbed hold of this scientific theory with all the intensity with which a drowning man clings to a lifebelt - after denying and ridiculing for over a century the entire scientific method that produced it. And then, just as the mystery of its origins seems tidily settled, we have to ask "Wait: what was it like at that moment, and at the moment before?" Answer that one, earn a Nobel Prize.

The question has gotten even more profound as the Century turned; recent observations of the expansion speed say that it's not slowing down (as we might expect, as stars and other objects exert gravitational forces upon each other) but speeding up! If true, that means gravity is being offset by some presently unknown, repellent force between all those objects. Find that force, earn another Nobel.

Further regarding the Red Shift, yet other cosmologists have disputed Hubble's findings altogether, saying his observations have some other explanation than expansive motion and that in true truth objects in the universe are not generally moving away from each other at all - that it's in "steady state." One reason is that the implication of an infinitely dense, infinitely hot, infinitely heavy universe compressed to the size of a pinhead stretches reason beyond twanging point; that it's literally incredible and that though the red-shift observation requires explanation, Hubble's cannot be valid. One such hold-out was Fred Hoyle of Cambridge, and as he was a bit of a curmudgeon (not unknown among academics!) his reputation suffered some. But in the end, he could be proven right.

One way or the other, it's hard to think of a more exciting intellectual challenge than cosmology. A great field for free people to explore.

Space Travel

This has long been the topic of fiction, and of course the 20th Century saw it happen for real. The 21st and subsequent ones may see it develop far, far more.

Those early journeys were marred by the fact that they were controlled by governments, using money stolen from people who would probably have spent it differently, and carried out less in the spirit of scientific exploration than in that of rivalry between governments. It was vital to the Feds to prove in the 1960s that they were more macho than the Soviets; so once they had reached the moon and proved that point, their interest waned and NASA has been struggling since. The error was not in the later cutbacks but in the initial motivation, funding and control.

As the 21st Century dawned, an incredibly exciting development took place, which may well set the standard for space exploration after E-Day (the day government Evaporates, see Segment 18) - a vehicle entered space that had been funded and developed without a dime of stolen money! The Spaceship Company was formed in 2005 after Scaled Composites had successfully flown its "Spaceship One" into space; the venture was initially funded by Paul Allen, of Apple Computer fame, and later by Sir Richard Branson, of Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines.

Engineer Burt Rutan was the genius behind the project, which used the amazingly simple concept of launching the spacecraft from a high-flying carrier airplane, designed for the purpose. Later, the spacecraft landed like a glider. Signs proclaimed: "Spaceship One, Government Zero!"

The key to building on this initial success and exploring space using voluntary funding in a free society will be to offer something valuable in return (see Segment 3.) The intention of The Spaceship Company is to sell seats to passengers. So elegantly simple, it's the kind of solution that government engineers would never consider; indeed, one rich American did buy a ticket on a Russian space flight (for $20 million!) but only by repeatedly requesting it, and only when the Russian program had run out of money!

Rutan's company, and in due course no doubt many competitors, will in such ways make space travel a reality for large numbers of people, with scale and engineering improvements lowering ticket prices over time as they always do. Barring accidents and government interference, this fledgling industry will introduce that reality at about the time the new, free society is finding its feet. What a marvellous future we have; exploring the cosmos not only in imagination and with telescopes but with any reasonable luck in person also, and within the lifetimes of most of us!

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