Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Lens

 The Pillars of Creation
     Take a good look at the picture just above this paragraph. Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s one of the more famous Hubble Space Telescope images, commonly known as the “Pillars of Creation” within the Eagle Nebula (Messier 16). But funny thing about this beautiful picture – it’s a fraud! The so-called “pillars” look nothing like that. What you are looking at is a 100% artificial construct, in which NASA engineers have arbitrarily assigned different colors to various emission spectra (i.e., the “Hubble Palette”), and then tweaked the resultant image for maximum clarity and “eye-catchiness” for public consumption. The human eye would not perceive anything remotely resembling this image.

 The Andromeda Galaxy in visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet

     But does that make the image fraudulent? Is what the human eye sees somehow the arbiter of a thing’s “real” appearance? In astronomy, we’re used to seeing images of various celestial objects in non visible wavelengths, such as infrared, or X-rays. Each of these views, when combined, tell us far more about a star, nebula, or galaxy than could ever be gleaned from studying visible light photographs alone. But are any of these alternate perspectives more or less “real” than the others?

    And then there is the matter of what my telescope sees, versus what I can observe by naked eye. Through the magic of πr2, my largest telescope can deliver more than 212 times the amount of light to my retina than my night-adapted, dilated pupil alone. This translates to a field of view strewn with inconceivably faint stars that would otherwise have remained forever invisible and unknown to me. So which view is “real”?

     One of the greatest disappointments in my life (astronomically speaking, that is) was when I realized that all of those amazingly beautiful images of the colorful nebulae that adorn our galaxy will remain forever invisible to the naked eye. I had always had the impression that our Solar System simply happened to find itself in a particularly dull neighborhood, with no bright, splashy gas clouds nearby to light up the night sky and delight the eye. So I just assumed that one fortunate day, once we had mastered the secrets of faster than light travel (that, by the way, was the second of my Great Disillusionments – coming to terms with the fact that FTL spaceflight was intrinsically impossible), future astronauts could cozy up to the Great Nebula in Orion, or the Horsehead, or the Veil, and drink in their awesome grandeur.

     Not gonna happen. Turns out that the closer one gets to a nebula, its light just gets spread out over a greater and greater portion of the sky until it fades into invisibility. We can see the Orion Nebula by naked eye only because all of its light is concentrated into an area not much larger than the apparent size of Jupiter. But take that same brilliance and distribute it over half the sky, and… well, you get the picture. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful phrase, it would be “too little butter over too much bread.”

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand 
     Now I don’t often meet anyone insisting that the infrared view of Messier 42 is its “real” appearance, whilst what I can see through the eyepiece is nothing more than an illusion. It’s generally accepted and appreciated that they are both equally valid ways of portraying an exceedingly complex object. Not so when it comes to differing perspectives of size, however. I can’t count the number of times that some smartass clever person has tried to convince me that what I perceive as a solid object (such as this chair I’m sitting on) is in reality mostly empty space occupied by countless atoms. Similarly, one often finds a fellow star gazer declaring that (once again) in reality, given the immensity of the universe, the Earth, the Solar System, even the Milky Way galaxy, is nothing more than an insignificant dot “in the Cosmic Scheme of Things”.

The Earth, as seen from the Surface of Mars
     The operative phrase here is “nothing more than”. All too often, we fall into the trap of regarding one perspective as more valid than another. Yes, to a man standing on the seashore the ocean is vast indeed. But as seen from Mars, all the Earth’s oceans together make up less than a dot in the sky. Which perspective is “real”? They both are!

     Now please, please, please do not for an instant imagine than I am promoting some sort of relativism here. Nothing could be further from my intent. What I am calling for is an understanding, an admission even, that we do not always (or perhaps even ever) have the Full Picture. Our knowledge is of necessity partial (“We see as through a glass, darkly.”), and muddied with misconception and downright falsehood. As Will Rogers said, "It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so." I might add here Donald Rumsfeld’s unfairly maligned comment about the “unknown unknowns” imperiling us the most.

     And as far as perspective goes, I particularly love the fact that way back in the 19th Century and as recently as 1960, there used to be on display in Paris a metal bar, which by definition was one meter in length. If anyone wanted to know exactly how long a meter was, one could point with absolute confidence to that bar and say, “That long!” because a meter was defined by the bar’s length. (Nowadays, a meter is defined by the distance that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second. Science ruins everything!) But we have no such standard by which to measure perspective. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, I find airline seats to be cramped and confining, while the 5 foot 2 inch tall woman next to me has legroom to spare.

     So as long as we all have our facts straight, there can quite legitimately be two equally valid opinions about many things. I can (rightfully) regard E.E. Smith’s Skylark novels as the greatest space opera of all time, whereas another reader may (again, rightfully) believe that his Lensman series is the superior work. We’d be working from the same texts, but interpreting and evaluating them differently. Where we can go off the rails is when we make up our own facts. One can legitimately believe the Moon landings were faked, but nothing could ever make that belief objectively true. Two people may disagree passionately about whether or not global climate change is a reality, but only one can be right. It’s either happening, or it isn’t. I may loudly assert (and I do) that the Baltimore Orioles are the best team in baseball, but unless they win the series this year, I would be wrong. These are not matters of perspective, but of knowing (or not knowing) the facts.

     OK then, what about the Big Questions? Do we have the equivalent of that standard meter against which to measure our deepest beliefs, our most fundamental principles, our bedrock of faith? As a Catholic Christian, I can state with confidence that we do. Although it is outside the scope of this blog to demonstrate the historicity of the Resurrection, it ought to be nevertheless beyond dispute, even to an atheist, that were one to be satisfied by reason and evidence that Jesus the Christ actually did rise from the dead on the 27th of March, A.D. 33 – literally, physically, historically, in all truth… then one would by necessity have to come to terms with this event. Either we measure all that has occurred before and after, (not only in history but also (and far more urgently) in our own lives) by it, or we must reject it utterly. If true, then nothing else matters, except in its relation to that One Great Fact. If false, then we are wasting our time by even thinking about it.

     I have elsewhere discussed the utility of a lens, by means of which all comes into focus. The Resurrection of Christ is that lens. Seen in its light, everything makes sense – nature, history, the universe itself, and my own life (and yours, too). Absent its diamond sharp focus, all is a blur of unresolved, meaningless data.

Jesus said to Philip, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father."
(John 14:9)

1 comment:

  1. "Turns out that the closer one gets to a nebula, its light just gets spread out over a greater and greater portion of the sky until it fades into invisibility. We can see the Orion Nebula by naked eye only because all of its light is concentrated into an area not much larger than the apparent size of Jupiter. But take that same brilliance and distribute it over half the sky, and… well, you get the picture"
    Interesting thought, it would make a cool subject for a space travel simulation. Is that where you got the idea from?

    I'm not convinced your analysis is sound, however. As one approaches an object of course its apparent angular displacement increases, but so does its brightness.

    As an extreme example consider our star, the sun. What happens as we approach it or move further away? Does it fade to invisibility as we approach it? No, of course not. So is there some fundamental difference between the surface emissions from the sun as compared to a nebula?