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God and the Planetarium

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I have always held people who study the origin of the cosmos in the highest esteem; more than the Pope, more than Bishops and Reverends, more than presidents and bankers, more than scholars and inventors, more than Muhammad Ali, more than the richest man in the world. Astronomers, cosmologists and astrophysicists are to my mind the most important people in society. These people are involved in seeking the answers to the most central question of mankind: Is there anyone else out there? Is there meaning to our perceived reality?

neil degrasse tysonI grew up in walking distance from the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium in New York. I guess I was 11 or 12 years old when I started going to the planetarium, but let me tell you about my first impression of the place. The Space Theater is a dimly lit round room with projectors circling the central areas below the seating. The seats and the projectors all seem to be arranged in some spherical mathematical order. The spherical ceiling above is silently grey with hints of some mechanical features and seams that ascend to its apex. The seats lean back to provide a good look up into what will become a facsimile of the universe. And when the show starts, there it is, the known cosmos in all its glory – just as it would appear if you viewed it with a powerful telescope from some dark mountaintop in Peru. The place is awesome.

The Hayden Planetarium offers scientific exhibitions about the universe in 25-minute segments, in the Space Theater. The first ones I saw in my youth were about the constellations, a feature of the sky that I later came to regards as its least interesting. This was in the 1950s when there was very little national interest in space, and also before the Soviet Union’s successes with its Sputnik flights in the late ’50s triggered the space race. Because my interest in space was not nourished by the schools I attended, it lay dormant all though America’s amazing catch-up explorations that passed the Soviets and made America the leader in the field. Not even the Moon landing aroused my earlier space curiosity. It wasn’t until 1980 when cosmologist Carl Sagan made space cool with his award-winning documentary series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and his book The Dragons of Eden that my interest was reawakened.

It was at this time that I got an idea of the scale of the universe. It blew my mind that the galaxy we live in is so enormous that we could travel but a small portion of it even at the speed of light in a lifetime. Our galaxy comprises billions of stars and planets but is only one among billions of galaxies in the cosmos, and even that part of the known universe is thought to be yet just a small part of infinity. The grandeur of it all is overwhelming. But the excitement of the era of the Cosmos series soon dimmed and along with it my space inquisitiveness. There were other things competing more forcefully for my attention. My other concerns took control – writing about the Civil Rights struggles and preparing for my early retirement from the New York Transit Authority where I worked as a conductor.

Then in 1989 I retired, moved to South Carolina and started publishing my own books. Each time we visited New York City my wife and I visited the planetarium. It was some time in the 1990s that I read in a pamphlet, or perhaps in that grander pamphlet, The New York Times, the charming story of the black kid from the Bronx whose class once visited the planetarium. The class took a test on what they had learned and received certificates for taking the test. Today that certificate hangs over the desk of that young boy from the Bronx. His desk is in the office of the Director of the planetarium; his name is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the superstar astrophysicist.

I lived in the Bronx during the period when it was most egregiously maligned, so to have this titan arise from that place and that era is extremely satisfying. Tyson’s parents took him and his siblings to cultural institutions on the weekends to arouse their curiosity. They once went for a weekend in the country where there were no hindering city lights and he saw the heavens for the first time; from that moment Tyson knew he wanted to be a scientist. He did so well in his early schooling that by the time Tyson was 17 Carl Sagan himself invited him to his laboratory in upstate New York.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson drew me back into my interest in the universe. I studied him to study the universe. I spent hours at a time on YouTube learning all there was to learn about Tyson – and you can’t learn about Tyson without at the same time learning about the universe; everything about him is cosmology. The bonus in studying Tyson was that I ran into the names and achievements of other great people in the field: names like Alexei Filippenko who was on the supernova cosmology project team that discovered that the universe was accelerating; Brian Greene the theoretical physicist and string theorist who is bringing knowledge of the universe to the world through his television and internet classrooms; Lawrence Krauss, one of the first physicists to suggest that most of the mass and energy of the universe resides in empty space, an idea now widely known as “dark energy,” in his book A Universe from Nothing; and Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and professor at City College of New York with a futurist point of view projecting trends in science into the next decades and century. Other well-known names I bumped into in my research on Tyson were Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Aristotle, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Hawkins, Richard Dawkins and so many more. The point is that researching Tyson exposed me to people who provide a fuller interpretation of the cosmos and explain the great efforts to gather more data leading to a final answer.

I am presently taking a short internet course at World Science U called “Space, Time and Einstein,” a primer on the general theory of relativity taught by Brian Greene which is amazing in its simplicity. The course is three weeks long, but the student can sign off at any time and start up again as often as necessary at will. The student can also review the last material covered before continuing. This is a non-math course taught using charts and special effects. I’m a non-math kind of guy.

Two other optional courses are “Science Unplugged,” which gives answers to hundreds of questions about space, and a university level 8-10 week course where students with math abilities can explore the beauty of the universe through mathematical equations. I study at home on the computer, in bed with my iPad, or at the YMCA on the cardio machine with my iPhone. Any of these devices makes me an astronomer wherever I am.

The one thing that sticks out from studying all of these great minds is that they try to leave religion out of their inquiries. They take a purely scientific approach – they can see how everything from the Big Bang on could have happened without the existence or assistance of God. One of them has stated that to credit the creation of the universe to God is a lazy explanation and hinders further questioning. Lawrence Krauss points out that the Big Bang was the result of the explosion of a tiny atom and in the tiniest fraction of a second the universe expanded creating galaxies of stars, planets, asteroids and space dust. Alexi Filippenko proved that the universe is expanding, which suggests a state of incompleteness. The universe was once smaller by many, factors of 10. All the mass and energy of the entire universe squeezed into such a tiny volume would have been much hotter and denser. Then, as the universe expanded over time, the energy density went down, so the temperature cooled. This Big Bang idea implied that cool relic radiation should be visible today. All this is learned by looking back in time towards the Big Bang with telescopes that have been exploring outer space for decades. These telescopes have detected radiation waves and light waves that have been traveling out since the Big Bang.

Whenever I’m in a conversation about the planetarium I like to make people laugh (and think) by telling them that from the looks of the real night sky, I think that God must have been to the planetarium too.

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About Horace Mungin

  • bliffle

    Excellent article! Illuminating and fun, just like most Cosmologists. Like you, I thought the constellations were mere classifiers and rough guides to the interesting stars and planets in the universe. As scientists explored the universe they always presented pictures, artists renderings and sometimes math data of extreme objects and extreme actions that stretched physics and chemistry. The best data came from unmanned space probes occupied by judiciously chosen robots that embodied the instruments that a human, too, would need on those trips. Very early I subscribed to the NASA CDs that were shipped out periodically with sensational pictures from space. Tysons “Star talk” programs are available as podcasts on the internet and I have a backlog to hear as well as some ‘keepers’ for re-listening.