The aesthetics of science (i).The starry heavens without.

We are approaching the peak of the geminids, one of the best meteor showers of the year.  Surprisingly modern in origin (they were first observed only 150 years ago) they are consistent and strong performers that seem to be getting better through time.  At this time of year, one needs to be fairly committed to sit and patiently watch for them (very few "showers" actually produce the popular idea of floods of meteors of course).  Even worse, the level of light pollution we now experience means only the brightest can be seen.  Still, in a truly dark sky location, with the winter Milky Way blazing across the sky, the passage of these meteors is still a wonderful sight.  As they are so unpredictable, every one seen gives a little thrill of the unexpected; and although one somehow imagines they should be accompanied by fizzing or crackling noises, their uttermost silence raises their appearance to the level of the majestic. 

The geminids seem to have the peculiar 3200 Phaethon object as their parent body.  It shows no signs of being a comet, except that its orbit is far from normal (it plunges perilously close to the sun at its closest passage, yet can also pass worryingly close to the Earth).  Furthermore, its orbital elements match those of the geminids.  However, geminid meteoroids are dense like rock, not light like comet debris, so their origin is not easy to explain.

What a pity it is that we no longer see the night sky in all its glory.  It was not just Kant who was inspired by it, but early humans, as their reasoning consciousness evolved must also have been deeply affected.  Is it really so surprising that so much time and effort was put into such monuments as the great henge circles, which seem to have at least some astronomical import? 

The centre of the galaxy in Sagittarius (principal stars marked in red: all you are likely to see in a bad viewing site)

Despite our loss of the vision, our theoretical understanding of the heavens above has of course been transformed.  And furthermore, the loss is offset somewhat by our ability to produce images of the skies that are far more spectacular than anything our ancestors could have experienced.  Still, one wonders if it is the same.  Seeing a picture of the sky is not the same as seeing the sky; and further more, does not inform our everyday life.  Living under dark skies would add a constant subliminal aesthetic component to life that would surely enrich far more than a Google search for Hubble Space Telescope images; and far more democratically too.  On the other hand, people who live in such conditions today are often living in extreme poverty, and one can reasonably doubt if the noble vision of the centre of the galaxy in Sagittarius is really a comfort to Aids orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.  I do not wish to romanticize poverty, but perhaps there is something here even so; we pay a penalty for living as we do, with all of modernity literally blazing around us.  A topic, again, to return to.

Meanwhile, let me try a tentative stab at political activism to urge you to consider supporting a campaign for dark skies such as this one.  Street lights are ridiculously inefficient and send about 30% of their light up rather than down, with concurrent costs in energy, carbon dioxide emission and so on; not to mention private lighting on houses.  One might argue, there are more pressing political issues to worry about than this; but my whole point is that the aesthetics of human experience is really what needs fixing.  Poverty, pollution, war, there is nothing of beauty here, only harsh ugliness.  Perhaps the night sky is a comfort after all.


Kommentera inlägget här:

Kom ihåg mig?

E-postadress: (publiceras ej)



RSS 2.0