“The investigations and calculations of astronomers have taught us much that is wonderful; but the most important lesson we have received from them is the discovery of the abyss of our ignorance in relation to the universe – an ignorance the magnitude of which reason, without the information thus derived, could never have conceived. This discovery of our deficiencies must produce a great change in the determination of the aims of human reason.”
– Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason
Ancient philosophers depended upon observation as chief among their tools. Ancient texts detailed night skies with remarkable accuracy and knowledge. Of course, they had much to observe in nearly complete darkness. We are hindered, perhaps, by the levels of light that now force amateur astronomers out of backyards and into remote regions. We use telescopes, cameras and laptops, whereas the ancient philosophers had none. Even with these machines, if we want to view the sky in much the same way that the ancients did, most of us must leave the comfort of our backyards. High powered telescopes, observatories and imaging technology have advanced our knowledge tremendously, but as with all technology, there may be hindrances as well. Do these gadgets change our relationship with, and perhaps our interest in, the night sky?
A debate about the movement of heavenly bodies has always existed. Aristotle’s opinion (that all bodies orbited earth) prevailed for hundreds of years. But as technology changed, so did human understanding of planets, space and stars. Beginning with Copernicus and continuing through to Newton, scientists discovered gravity, solar systems and moons, all because of an interest in the night sky.* Einstein, then, planted the idea of relativity. Taking measurements from inside our specific box (earth), time, space and mass remain the same. If we jump outside of our box (to the moon, for example), these measurements change. Extraordinary. Imagine all that we do not yet know. Imagine the possibilities. Perhaps the depth of our ignorance only grows more vast in direct correlation with the knowledge that we gain.
In the article “Falling in Love with the Dark”** about astronomer Tyler Nordgren’s push to limit light pollution, Nordgren states that earth is on the outer fringes of our galaxy, something like 25,000 light years from the center. When asked what is 25,000 light years in the other direction, Nordgren replies ‘intergalactic area’. And when pushed to define intergalactic area, he says, “Nothing. It would be nothing.” But what IS nothing? Simply put, we just do not know. We do not know what we do not know. Kant seems to feel that reason alone will not lead us to the answer.
Astronomers look so far afield now (past Saturn, for example, past 25,000 light years, past who knows what) to see the space outside of space. Maybe it does not matter if a casual observer actually sees stars from their home. Maybe only educated elite scientists need to pursue an interest in the stars so that they will continue to learn mind-boggling data. If that is the case, however, who will pay attention to the astronomers’ findings? We still do not know the ins and outs of what is beyond. Neither do we know the ins and outs of what is within. Reason alone is not enough.
If star gazing interests you, then rise early to catch a glorious view of Saturn, in close proximity to the moon. http://earthsky.org/tonight/moon-and-saturn-light-up-sky-before-dawn-january-16
* Planetary Motion: History of an Idea That Launched the Scientific Revolution: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/OrbitsHistory/
** Falling in Love with the Dark: http://nautil.us/issue/11/light/falling-in-love-with-the-dark