Dogma and Reality


At one point, not all that long ago in human history, religious scholars in the West thought that the earth was the center of the universe, embedded in a series of crystalline spheres.

The Pre-Copernican Universe

The Pre-Copernican Universe

Beyond those crystalline sphere was Heaven, the domain of the Christian God. It was a comforting view of the Universe, with the Earth the center of all things and humankind – at least Christians – the focus of God’s perfection.

Galileo Galilei ‘s experiments in 1610 with primitive telescopes not only revealed that the Earth orbited the Sun, rather than the other way around; he also discovered that the Milky Way was composed of faint stars.

The Milky Way arching at a high inclination across the night sky (fish-eye mosaic shot at Paranal, Chile).Via Wikicommons

The Milky Way arching at a high inclination across the night sky (fish-eye mosaic shot at Paranal, Chile).Via Wikicommons

In 1755, Immanuel Kant, drawing on earlier work by Thomas Wright, speculated that the Milky Way might be a rotating body of a huge number of stars, held together by gravitational forces akin to the Solar System but on much larger scales. Kant was right, and by 1785 William Herschel had made a first approximation of the shape of the Milky Way, although observer bias being what it is, he had the Sun near the center of the Milky Way.

Herschel's drawing of the Milky Way, with the Solar System near the center

Herschel’s drawing of the Milky Way, with the Solar System near the center

Where before the Solar System had been unique, and the center of the Universe, now it was just one of thousands of stars in the Milky Way.

In the early 1920s, Edwin Hubble, using the Mount Wilson 2.5 meter telescope, showed that distant “nebulae” were in fact other galaxies, that the Milky Way was not unique. Herschel was also able to identify some Cepheid variables that he could use as a reference to estimate the distance to the “nebulae.” He found that the Andromeda Nebula is 275,000 parsecs from the Sun, far too distant to be part of the Milky Way. So the Milky Way was relegated to just one of many galaxies.

The Hubble Telescope, named after Edwin Hubble, has increased the viewing power of science by orders of magnitude. Now we know the Milky Way contained between 200 – 400 billion stars. Based on an admittedly small sample, there could be at least 100 billion planets in the Milky Way alone.

The Hubble Telescope has identified revealed a myriad of faint galaxies, which led to an estimate that the observable universe contained about 200 billion galaxies. A 2016 study increased the estimate of that number ten times to some 2 trillion galaxies.

Hubble Space Telescope photographs a small portion of a large galaxy census called the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey

Hubble Space Telescope photographs a small portion of a large galaxy census called the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey

There are galaxies of like grains of sand, except that there are far more galaxies than grain of sand.

Mankind had invented a myth about itself that it was the center of creation. The myth was just that; the reality is that the solar system is an unimaginably small, meaningless speck in a galaxy that is vast beyond the scope of our ability to imagine, and that galaxy itself is one among a near-infinity of galaxies.

A substantial minority of our citizens can’t cope with the reality, and have given the myth the status of dogma. “Dogma,” after all, is a strong belief that the ones adhering to it are not willing to rationally discuss. Which would be fine; the White Queen after all, was prepared to believe in six impossible things before breakfast. And turn into a sheep.

But that substantial minority, those Christianist fundamentalists, those Biblical literalists, want to force us to adhere to their dogma as well. They want us to agree to ignore reality, to disregard 99.999% of the observable Universe, 99.999% of the Universe’s history.

And this is the terrifying part: these folks are in political power.

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