Apr 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – April, 2017

Science as a Candle in the Dark*

Holland (the country, not the city) has a rich history when it comes to science, especially astronomy. In 1600 the Italian Roman Catholic scholar, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for his beliefs, among other things, that the universe is home to an infinite number of worlds, some of which may harbor other lifeforms. A few years later Galileo suffered brutality and was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life for his discoveries and speculations concerning the solar system.

Meanwhile, in Holland, the astronomer Christian Huygens, who held similar beliefs, was showered with honors. The country was an intellectual and cultural center as well as an exploratory power. Improved sailing ships encouraged technology of all kinds and inventions were prized. Light was a topic of universal interest, from the art of Vermeer to the microscope of van Leeuwenhoek and even Huygens’ own wave theory of light. Holland was a leading publisher of books and new ideas led renowned thinkers to reconsider long held beliefs. This was made possible in part by the fact that, while kings and emperors ruled much of the world, the Dutch Republic was governed, more than any other nation, by the people.

One could argue that it was here that the scientific revolution really began, with advances in communication, transportation and medicine vastly improving the well being of billions of people throughout the world in the centuries to follow. The lessons of history have a lot to teach us about the value of scientific inquiry as a way of understanding reality.

It is for this reason that many in the scientific community are greatly disturbed by the growing lack of understanding of how science works. It is not a matter of opinion. It is not up to a vote. It is not what is most popular or even what seems to make the most sense. Many scientists have suffered ostracism and ridicule for their discoveries. Rachael Carson was lambasted by the pesticide industry for her suggestion that DDT was harmful to the environment. Clair Patterson had his funding cut by the petroleum industry for his assertion that people were being poisoned by the lead in automobile exhaust. But today both DDT and leaded gasoline are banned substances.

We did land on the Moon, vaccines do not cause autism, and climate change is real and caused by human activity. We must not pick and choose what scientific theories we accept based on anything other than valid data and its proper analysis. We must not bury our head in the sand by cutting funding for science that is deemed inconvenient, unpopular, or threatening to the status quo. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” And it all started with our desire to understand what’s up in the sky.

*from The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan, 1995

This month in history:

April 2: First photograph of Sun taken – 1845
April 9: NASA selects original seven Mercury astronauts – 1959
April 12: Yuri Gagarin becomes first human in space – 1961
April 12: Columbia is first space shuttle to be launched – 1981
April 17: Apollo 13 returns to Earth – 1970
April 24: China becomes the fifth nation to launch its own satellite – 1970
April 25: Deployment of Hubble Space Telescope – 1990
April 28: Eugene Shoemaker is born – 1928