Thoughts on Carl Sagan, Astronomy and more

📝 From my inner Depository, Friday, January 20, 2012

Inspired by a fellow human being who visited my site here, I recall some thoughts I wrote for the drawer in January 2012. Now I have been inspired to develope my thoughts a little, so I will publish them now, thanks T.E.

”—We on Earth have just awakened to the great oceans of space and time, from which we have emerge. We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice; we can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us or we can squander our 15 billion years of heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year, depends on what we do, here and now with our intelligence and our knowledge of the Cosmos”.
– Carl Sagan ”Cosmos – A Personal Voyage”

”- We humans appeared on the Cosmic calendar so recently that our recorded history occupies only the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st in the waste ocean of time which this calendar represents. All our memories are confined in a small square. Every person we ever heard of, lived somewhere here. All those kings and battles, migrations, inventions, wars, everything in our history books happens here, in the last ten seconds of the Cosmic calendar.”
– Carl Sagan ”Cosmos – A Personal Voyage”

Ever since I was a child, I have been interested in Cosmos. As a kid, I took many evening walks with my dog. Looked at the sky and saw the Milky Way, constellations, and I saw the northern lights burning.

”—For as long as there has been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. This perspective is a courageous continuation of our penchant for constructing and testing mental models of the skies; the Sun as a red-hot stone, the stars as a celestial flame, the Galaxy as the backbone of night.”
– Cosmos. New York. Random House. 1980, p. 193

”—The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge; it has no place in the endeavor of science.”
– Cosmos. New York. Random House. 1980, p. 91

”—The major religions on the Earth contradict each other left and right. You can’t all be correct. And what if all of you are wrong? It’s a possibility, you know. You must care about the truth, right? Well, the way to winnow through all the differing contentions is to be skeptical. I’m not any more skeptical about your religious beliefs than I am about every new scientific idea I hear about. But in my line of work, they’re called hypotheses, not inspiration and not revelation.”
– Carl Sagan ”Contact: a novel”. New York. Simon and Schuster. 1985, chapter 10, p. 162

He was so right, seeing religious problematics and questionings in the light of science. In what way have religious theorists approached the eternal questions of our origin and our way forward in the development as human beings? How do we handle our heritage? Does anyone have the answer to all the riddles of life? Is there anyone at all who for certainty can say that “this is the absolute truth, it is unequivocally!” Perhaps that is not what’s all about. Why are the answers so important? Why is it so hard to ask questions, to question G-d? Is it just a lack of knowledge or plain fear to asking the right questions, perhaps? Even as an omnipotent G-d, He still has given us… curiosity, so, start asking!

”—You see, the religious people—most of them—really think this planet is an experiment. That’s what their beliefs come down to. Some god or other is always fixing and poking, messing around with tradesmen’s wives, giving tablets on mountains, commanding you to mutilate your children, telling people what words they can say and what words they can’t say, making people feel guilty about enjoying themselves, and like that. Why can’t the gods leave well enough alone? All this intervention speaks of incompetence. If God didn’t want Lot’s wife to look back, why didn’t he make her obedient, so she’d do what her husband told her? Or if he hadn’t made Lot such a shithead, maybe she would’ve listened to him more. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why didn’t he start the universe out in the first place so it would come out the way he wants? Why’s he constantly repairing and complaining? No, there’s one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He’s not good at design, he’s not good at execution. He’d be out of business if there was any competition.”
– Carl Sagan ”Contact: a novel”. New York. Simon and Schuster. 1985, chapter 16, p. 285

Well, mr. Sagan, I think I understand now, having been lumbering along the theosophical backwaters of fallacies myself, I know how easy it is to get lost. G-d could of course have made a perfect world in His very first attempt of creation, we know that He regretted his creation as the sinfulness spread, and later destroyed everything in the flood. But He could have made it right the first time, with a perfect order, where every man, woman, animals and other entities, followed exactly His way. Just to spear us the sufferings we see all around the world, that will say, if THAT is the reason for wars, famine, hate and lack of empathy. But that was not the case here. We are just but humans. Born free with a free will, we were created that way with all our faults and shortcomings so that we should not be too exalted. Errare humanum est! It is human to make misstakes. The story of Garden of Eden shows clearly how it went. But I don’t think that the fall of man was because the first humans were attempted to eat a stupid fruit. The reason to this is because the first man had not yet gained knowledge of other solutions. He had not yet learned to ask the important questions in life. The first humans in the Garden of Eden, did not experience any inconsistencies, they experienced no external threat, all was peace and perfection and even G-d saw that everything He created was good. It was not the fall that gave man all knowledge that was attainable. Because that would mean that all knowledge is evil! And that is a stupid thought. The knowledge to distinguish between good and evil, for example, was a quality that humans already possessed since the day of creation. That trait is god-given! The demonization of the first man is not possible because the creation was perfect in the eyes of G-d. The idea of the “Original Sin,” that sin is inherited, is probably a Christian construction, it is not a Jewish concept. So, I believe we had all knowledge we needed back then to survive the first time as humans. Let’s read more from Carl Sagan.

”—I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.”
– Carl Sagan, ”Billions and Billions”. Ballantine Books. 1998

Even if Carl Sagan was born Jewish, coming from a Ukrainian Jewish family, he was not explicit religious. He wrote several times about religion and science and the relationship between them. He was sceptic about the ordinary picture of G-d as an omnipotent being. As he writes in his book ”Broca’s Brain”:
”—Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.”
– Carl Sagan, chapter 23, ”Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science”. Ballantine Books, 1986

”—Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
– Carl Sagan, ”The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”. Ballantine Books, February, 1997

Faith and science are not opposites. On the contrary, they complement each other, maybe even interdependent. Even if Carl Sagan did not speak of having a religious belief, he denied that he would be an atheist, as he was quoted in a Washington Post article:
”An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”
– ”A tribute to Carl Sagan: A Sagan File” by Joel Achenbach. Washington Post April 23, 2006, p. 15

”—I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men.”
– Essay as Mr. X, written in 1969 for Marihuana Reconsidered (1971) by Lester Grinspoon

In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, -”I’m agnostic”.
– Tom Head, ”Conversations with Carl Sagan”, University of Mississippi Press, 2005

”—How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ’This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?’ Instead they say, ’No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way’. A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
– Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space”. Ballantine Books, September, 1997

I agree fully with Carl Sagan’s words, I am even aware of the fact that Astronomy was the beginning of my search for spirituality. To see the magnificent in Creation, both as G-d given but also as made possible to scientifically discover, to learn more about our environment, gives us knowledge about G-d and ourselves. Perhaps Carl Sagan finally have established a Contact with the primordial force, who started it all, from the “Big Bang” and further on to the development of the Universe and humankind. I can sense in Carl Sagan’s books and television series ”Cosmos”, that there is an ounce of humility, awe and a sense that he leaves the question open whether there is a G-d or not. Who knows, maybe he was pleasantly surprised when he came ashore on the other side…

ASTRONOMY

My interest in Astronomy was awakening early in life. As a little kid I used to go out with our dog in the evenings. Because I grew up in a family where my father hunted Elk along with several others in my native village, the dog was and is a natural family member. On my walks on the empty road, I often looked up at the night sky. My weekly allowance was often used to buy books on Astronomy and star maps. I was lucky to have both a librarian and a bookseller as neighbors, that I could ask about new books. Equipped with star charts I took those lonely walks in the winter night with my dog and I soon learned to recognize Big Dipper, Orion’s belt, the Pleiades, and Cassiopeia. I even discovered two strange stars at the edge of the Big Dipper.

The central five stars of the Big Dipper, plus Alcor and Mizar and several other stars, consititute a group called “Ursa Major Cluster”, also known as Collinder 285. There are around three light-years between Mizar and Alcor. They are 78 respectively 81 light years away from us. There has been some sayings in acient cultures about these twin stars. I especially remember a passage I once read in a book about the astronomers in ancient Rome, who were able to distinguish the double stars Alcor and Mizar in the Big Dipper. If you had lived in the time of the Roman Empire and could see Alcor, you would easily have become an archer in the Roman army.
Another saying is that the ability to distinguish these two stars was considered a test of good vision and was called the “Arab Eye Test”. Another saying from ancient time is that “even if you can’t see the moon, but still can see Alcor, you still have the eyes of a hawk.”

FACTS ON BIG DIPPER

The Big Dipper, also known as the Plough or the Saptarishi (after the seven rishis), is an asterism of seven stars that has been recognized as a distinct grouping in many cultures from time immemorial. The component stars are the seven brightest of the formal constellation Ursa Major.

The North Star (Polaris), the current northern pole star on Earth, can be located by using it. Polaris is part of the “Little Dipper,” Ursa Minor.

Other names for the Big Dipper:
The Plough
Sapta Rishi (Hindu, “The Seven Great Sages”)
The Samantha formation (some parts of India)
Ursa Major (Latin for Big Bear)
Northern Dipper (“Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper”, Eastern Asia)
Buruj Biduk (The Ladle, Malaysia)
Großer Wagen (German, Great Cart)
Grote Beer (Dutch, Big Bear. Even “Steelpannetje,” saucepan)
The Seven Gods (Долоон бурхан; “doloon burchan,” Mongolia)
The Great Wagon (Romanian, Slavic)
The Plough (England, Ireland)
The Starry Plough (Ireland)
The Butcher’s Cleaver (northern England)
Charles’ Wain/wagon (from Scandinavian Carlswæn. Also Karlavagnen, Karlsvogna or Karlsvognen, even Stora Björn/Big Bear.)

Some traditions say that the word derives from the English Charlie’s Waggon, named after Charlemagne, other explanations say it comes from common Germanic name meaning “the men’s wagon” or “the churls’ wagon.”
[Source: Wikipedia]

MUSIC INSTALLATION AND INTERPLANETARY PICTURES

Later, as a church member, I became a friend to the son of one of the pastor’s. He was interested in photography as I was, and he used to show his pictures in the church with nice music. I told him that it would be cool if we could take photos of the stars. We soon hanged together to develop this new genre of “prayer meetings.” Many nights we took our cameras and a telescope out in the fields and recorded everything we could use. We imagined how this picture or that music could fit together visually and spiritually. Those thoughts followed us during our work with the images. We discovered that there was a great spiritual value in these photo sessions, very much so for ourselves. So this inspired us to have photographic experience meetings in the evening worship services with our pictures and beautiful music in the background. It was much appreciated among the churchgoers.

Nowadays, I do not have a telescope, but I still use my star charts when I use to go to a high place in the outskirts of the city. With current technology, we have practically the whole world (and the Universe) in our pockets! If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can download some really neat Astronomy apps; “GoSkyWatch”, “Distant Suns” and different NASA apps are available for free. Just point your device against the night sky, and it will show you the names of what you see in the sky! The beauty of these techniques is that they use GPS and built-in gyroscopes in your device. So now you just have to go out and explore the world with a new approach, it might give you a deeper sense of reverence for the creation and humanity. Good luck on your life’s journey.

© 2012 Jonathan Axelsson
אתר הבית של יונתן
Twitter @tzedaqyal

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About Meadow of Tzedaqyal

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955)
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