Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Seeing Is Believing

My grandpa decorated his personal observatory in Pasedena with a series of hand drawn pictures coupled with photographs, all of them were of Mars. Very carefully, for years and years, at Lowell Observatory and Mt. Wilson, he would patiently sit in the cold thin air in the open dome and draw patiently the Canals of Mars.

Everyone believed in these canals. There they were! Plain as the nose on your face! Books were written, speculating about the water ways and who might have built them. Everyone wanted to believe in them and did.

But then, younger astronomers like my dad, shattered this illusion when they improved optics and were able to see Mars much more clearly. There wasn't even the slightest sign of any canals there.

My grandpa kept the pictures up for a reason: to teach us and anyone who wanted to learn the lesson, what happens when you want to see something badly. Humans will see it. This is one of the basic fallacies of science. That it won't be deluded.

Yet it can and is. Not to fault anyone, my grandpa was awesomely intelligent and had great eyes, it was just the desire to see something overwhelmed everyone's good sense about drawing conclusions from the visual data. Human nature is a stubborn thing. It never really changes. We live and learn and we see more and more, better and better as computers and optics and transreceivers improve and extend out ability to see, we still live in the realm of our wishes and dreams and desires and illusions. This is why mere calculations are not sufficient to penetrate the veils that conceal reality from our minds, we have to carefully choose our words and the images these words project.

"String" for example, makes us think of items like a necklace. Whereas, "folds in space" causes quite a different mental image. "Waves and swells over the surface of the space/time continuum" is again, quite different. All describe the same data.

The mind processes information and the changing stations in the mind are linguistic/cultural constructs. People who learn things in school as adults think differently from children who learn the same information using different code words or overhearing conversations of adults arguing about cosmological data. When I talk to my siblings, for example, we lapse into code language about time and space that could appear rather spooky to outsiders. To us, it is simple, understandable. It irritates us to reset our minds to talk with outsiders about these matters. This is why I struggle to explain what seems to me to be painfully obvious.

There is no mysterious dark matter tearing apart the universe. Unless you want to call "the side effects of gravitational pools" "dark matter". But then, everyone would have to face up to the horrible fact that our tiny little galaxy is doomed to be sucked down the maw of the Great Attractor who isn't pretty at all but scary as all heck! Rats! Who wants that!

So to preserve the illusion that the univese will expand forever, "dark matter" has been called to save the day. My grandpa was trained to be an astronomer during the 19th Century. He started his first job at Yerkes observatory when it was brand new. He rode mules up mountains and was one of the first to say, Meteor Crater was from a meteor. He did this on horseback. Long ago.

He remembered pre-Einsteinian physics.

To explain how light traveled, while discounting the effects of gravitational pools and relative time/space curves, to explain light, scientists came up with the "aether" concept. The universe was surrounded by this invisible gas that caused all the odd things astronomers observed as they analyzed light.

It was all bunk. When Einstein proved this, it was resisted. But some, like my grandpa, suddenly understood its import and began to excitedly review past data and rearrange the furniture in the mind, dumping all the learned material, putting it in the junk bin. And it took thirty long years for him to do this, along with everyone, and he was never happy about it, or comfortable.

My parents took it for granted.

But when the Hubble started to overturn the apple cart, doubts arose. Just last year, my father said to me, "You may be right, you make sense, I can see in my mind your picture but the whole thing makes me sick". I said, "Why?" Truly puzzled. What is wrong with the idea that all things will loop back upon themselves because space/time is folding thanks to the gravitational weight of the greatest globular galaxies? This is no worse than the other possibilities!

Indeed, when I chat with astronomers from India or China, they are not nearly so disturbed, indeed, this is the best outcome of all! Eternal rebirth! Over and over again!

So I decided, the roots, as always, lie in the religious scrim we use to set cosmological matters in, namely, the belief system set up by ancient astronomers holds steady in our minds for it is embedded in the very words we use, the Indo-european root words that expressed the moon and stars and sun and earth all in this vast, linguistic net that vibrates with life because we use it every day and can't escape it.

Which is why, thinking "out of the box" is so dangerous.