Through a Scanner Darkly: Odyssey looks back at the short season of lectures on cosmology and astrophysics at the BIS.
“To me there has never been a higher source of Earthly honour or distinction than that connected with advances in science.”
- Sir Isaac Newton
“As irrelevant as the fate of a distant star.” That figure of speech has stayed with me long after the context has been lost. On the one hand the epithet is accurate. Who cares about the fate of an exploding supernova on the other side of the universe? On the other hand, it seems to evoke contempt not just for astronomy but for all knowledge and learning. The fate of that star matters because one day it might just be the fate of our own star that we care about most, as it begins to transform into a red giant. Provided humanity survives that long, and it won’t unless we can understand not just our own planet, but the star which makes life possible on that world. In short, astronomy matters. Every time we study another star we are studying our own sun; every time we look out into space seeking knowledge and understanding we are gazing back at our own planet.
Human history is inextricably linked with a desire to comprehend the night sky, a curiosity which dates back to the earliest civilisations; and perhaps even father back to individual campfires which offered warmth and protection to small groups of humans (or even further back to their ancestors). The development of ever-more sophisticated methods of studying the heavens has only served to heighten that curiosity. And the “long perspective of the stars and galaxies”1 is, in the end, as valid a viewpoint as any which deals with the more immediate demands of everyday existence. To put it another way, which is more important: an on-going attempt to map the stars, or the weekly shopping list?
In metaphorical terms, the BIS offices in Vauxhall have always been as much an observatory as a launch pad, and we are proud to include perhaps the world’s most famous living astronomer amongst our membership – Sir Patrick Moore. Astronomy and spaceflight are opposite sides of the same coin, a currency which can purchase, through the commitment, perseverance and diligence of its adherents, views that no other discipline can offer; a currency which has allowed humanity to exchange ignorance for knowledge, darkness for light.
It may seem strange but in a sense astronomers and palaeontologists share a similar endeavour; both are trying to uncover secrets locked away in Deep Time, to penetrate nature’s time capsules. Both look to the past for their answers; one sifting fossilised silts and clays, the other searching amongst the remnants of an altogether different, and far more ancient, record for clues and knowledge, looking out into space and back into time. So perhaps the palaeontologist’s excavating brush and the astronomer’s telescope are not so dissimilar. Each is designed to uncover a little more truth, grain by grain, star by star.
Some of that truth recently came into sharper focus at the BIS. Today’s “Big Questions” in astronomy and cosmology are perhaps amongst the most fascinating (and baffling) ever posed, and several of these were tackled in a short series of intriguing lectures at the BIS in May, June and July. What is dark matter? What is the origin and fate of the universe? Is there such a thing as a multiplicity of different universes? Just what is going on at the Large Hadron Collider? And just how do you go about mapping one billion celestial objects?
Some of those questions remain impossible to answer (at least in full), while others are now falling within our cognisance. And sometimes half the fun lies in asking the question, even if the answer is as yet beyond our grasp.
The British Interplanetary Society would like to thank Professor Jon Butterworth, Dr Meghan Gray, Victoria Hodges and Dr Hiranya Pieris for illuminating the night sky, and the mysteries of particle physics, with their expertise and knowledge.
Mark Stewart, FBIS. Editor (Odyssey)
1. Enduring Love, Ian McEwan