Monday, July 20, 2015

The wonder of it all

We've expressed our skepticism about aspects of the Pluto mission, as well as many other aspects of our own science (genetics and evolution).  Still, there's the wonder of it all, and two verses come to mind, that you may have been assigned to read in school: 

The World is Too Much With Us  (William Wordsworth)
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.


When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer (Walt Whitman)
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


.....And I guess we'll finish with another by Wordsworth, a more contemplative view of the subtleties involved:

What crowd is this? what have we here! we must not pass it by;
A Telescope upon its frame, and pointed to the sky:
Long is it as a barber's pole, or mast of little boat,
Some little pleasure-skiff, that doth on Thames's waters float.

The Showman chooses well his place, 'tis Leicester's busy Square;
And is as happy in his night, for the heavens are blue and fair;
Calm, though impatient, is the crowd; each stands ready with the fee,
And envies him that's looking;--what an insight must it be!

Yet, Showman, where can lie the cause? Shall thy Implement have blame,
A boaster, that when he is tried, fails, and is put to shame? 
Or is it good as others are, and be their eyes in fault?
Their eyes, or minds? or, finally, is yon resplendent vault?

Is nothing of that radiant pomp so good as we have here?
Or gives a thing but small delight that never can be dear?
The silver moon with all her vales, and hills of mightiest fame,
Doth she betray us when they're seen? or are they but a name?

Or is it rather that Conceit rapacious is and strong,
And bounty never yields so much but it seems to do her wrong?
Or is it, that when human Souls a journey long have had
And are returned into themselves, they cannot but be sad? 

Or must we be constrained to think that these Spectators rude,
Poor in estate, of manners base, men of the multitude,
Have souls which never yet have risen, and therefore prostrate lie?
No, no, this cannot be;--men thirst for power and majesty!

Does, then, a deep and earnest thought the blissful mind employ
Of him who gazes, or has gazed? a grave and steady joy,
That doth reject all show of pride, admits no outward sign,
Because not of this noisy world, but silent and divine!

Whatever be the cause, 'tis sure that they who pry and pore
Seem to meet with little gain, seem less happy than before: 
One after One they take their turn, nor have I one espied
That doth not slackly go away, as if dissatisfied. 


As these verses suggest, regardless of any other issues, there is no mistaking the wonders of Nature out there, or up there, and thinking about what it all is, and means.


David Evans said...

I've never liked that poem of Whitman's and I like it less now.
I was thrilled to be (along with millions of other people!) among the first to see those high-resolution pictures of Pluto and Charon. I rather hope that Whitman would have been too, if he could have been there. What we can see of the stars with our unaided eyes is beautiful and inspiring, but I want to see more and to know more.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, David, we wouldn't expect you to like it. I am sure that Whitman would have been awed by the experience, but I believe still bored by the lectures. Personally, I find the pictures and the possible explanations interesting. The question we have raised is about the hype and the cost relative to other priorities, not the inherent interest.

In that context what we have expressed is the view that space ventures are often as much entertainment as they are deep new science, and that therefore they should be supported by the private sector because there are too many serious human needs for public resources to be used. Fortunately, a Russian plutocrat has promised $100M for SETI, the search for ETs. That's how it should be. If that silly venture were somehow to succeed, that would be very interesting, but not something we should pay for until or unless it seems less silly than it currently does (to me). If the entertainment industry, which has the bucks, paid for space ventures, the way entrepreneurs set up public telescopes and other science-entertainments in the past, they could sell tickets or subscriptions for access to the results. Downloadable Plutoscapes and stories would likely, and properly, make a nice profit.

David J. Littleboy said...

I'm reminded. Buddhist temples in Japan often have a glass-fronted bulletin board at their entrance with announcements and the like at the left and a short homily sort of thing at the right: two short clauses with a religious message. Written in Japanese calligraphy, they are, unlike most things written in Japanese calligraphy, actually intended to be read. The other day when I was taking my camera out for a walk, I came across one, and stopped to read it.

The moon and stars are beautiful,
But so is the spirit that recognizes that beauty.

Kewl, this temple's dedicated to the patron saint of photographers, I think to myself. But it's also appropriate for your Pluto series.

(FWIW, I don't mind the money spent on unmanned space science. It's chicken feed compared to the hundreds of billions we've wasted on the shuttle and the ISS.)

Ken Weiss said...

I agree about the shuttle and ISS, and I think we've posted about that. The research agencies, NIH and NASA, and probably DOD and maybe Ag and to a lesser extent NSF, are not under enough accountability, and universities are acting as if they run on entitlements. That means inefficiency and waste, and I'm not referring to the necessary waste in science, since science at its best is about tough problems for which answers can't just be ordered up, not even by cash. And the spin-doctoring is part of the process.

To be fair, it's how our country (and those we influence by being so competitive) runs and science isn't any more guilty of self-promotion than other areas, I think.

The Pluto pictures are indeed very impressive and there's no taking away from that. And this was started 9 years ago and I don't remember what relative conditions were like then, in terms of likely new knowledge. But there is a lot of, yes, individual chicken-feed that is nurturing the big agencies, so dismissing each bit of it is one way to miss the overall tab. At the very least, there should be some serious discussion about priorities, about projects too large to end, and so on.

And a discussion about where and how the very best actual science is likely to be stimulated.

Holly Dunsworth said...

This has no bearing on whether or to what degree I agree with Ken's Pluto sentiments or otherwise... but "we" has reached a frequency that urges me to inform MT readers that Ken's not including me in "we." Cheers to Ken and all.

Anne Buchanan said...

(Ken uses the editorial 'we' by default.)

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, that's right. We don't claim to, nor need to, agree on everything posted here. I can't speak for Anne or Holly, and since I'm no more consistent than anyone else, I probably can't speak for myself, either!