Monday, April 23, 2012

It's About Time

I've just recently completed Adam Frank's About Time, and while I intended to write a full review, instead I feel that I must share with you two important stories recounted within its pages.

I will say this: I found the book a fascinating, enjoyable and well-researched read. I was disappointed to see no mention of some of the newest cosmological theories, which, as they include information theory (the entropy of a black hole being connected with how many bits of information it has inhaled, for instance), seem inextricably connected to the current cultural zeitgeist - the basic thesis of the entire book being the "braiding of science and culture." But it's no great loss. There is plenty already.

The two stories I wanted to share begin with Georges Lemaitre. Lemaitre was an astronomer and physicist, the first to suggest a "Big Bang" (expansion) model for the universe, but also a Catholic priest. Lemaitre was thus more-than-averagely equipped to understand the connections between science and religion, and the dangerous weight that they could impress on one another. When Lemaitre learned in 1951 that Pope Pius XII gave full endorsement of the Big Bang cosmological model (as presented in the combined work of Lemaitre himself, Gamow, Alpher and others), his response is telling: he was "horrified." The pope proclaimed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that "present-day science... has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux.... Hence, creation took place.... Therefore God exists."
Lemaitre, understanding that any scientific hypothesis could be overturned if the data disagreed, traveled to Rome and "counseled the pope against linking the faith to any contingent scientific hypothesis" [pg 202]. Both science and religion were important to Lemaitre - so important, in fact, that he would not allow either one to direct or support the other. There's something to be learned here, even if the fans of Intelligent Design (and, in ironic fact, those vehemently opposed to ID) refuse to learn it.

The second story is about homeland security - long before the term "homeland security" existed. In the early 80's when Reagan was president, a burgeoning network of Earth-orbiting GPS satellites was finally coming into its own. More satellites were being launched throughout the 80's, but, at the time, GPS technology was limited to those with a security clearance: before 1983, GPS was entirely a classified military effort. But what happened next should be a lesson in how to correctly deal with international threats.
On September 1st, 1983, Korean Air flight 007, on the final leg of its journey from New York to Seoul, veered off course and strayed into Soviet airspace. Crossing over the Kamchatka Peninsula, the passenger plane was shot down by two Soviet fighter jets. All 263 passengers aboard were killed, including a US Senator. Reagan responded first with horror and outrage at the Soviets, but then did something which seems almost the opposite of his Republican legacy George W: he declassified GPS [pg 240]. Instead of responding to the perceived Soviet threat by tightening the leash on "secure" information (such as we do now, after 9/11), he made it openly and publicly available. And now, the Cold War is over and GPS is one of the most successful technologies out there. Perhaps we could learn by example and try opening up our files on nuclear energy.

I leave you with this thought from the book.
Rather than make claims of final theories, perhaps we should focus on our ever-continuing dialogue with the universe. It is the dialogue that matters, not its imagined end. It is the sacred act of inquiry wherein we gently trace the experienced outlines of an ever-greater whole. It is the dialogue that lets the brilliance of the diamond's infinite facets shine clearly. It is the dialogue that instills within us a power and capacity that is, and always has been, saturated with meaning.... With each step we gain a deeper sense of the awe and beauty that suffuse the universe's essential mystery.


  1. Replies
    1. I do highly recommend the book. It's still pretty new so may be hard to get hold of one at a library, but well worth it.


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