Scale of the universe

Here is a totally awesome interactive scale model of the universe. It really helps you visualize the so-big-it’s-unthinkable and the so-small-it’s-beyond-our-power-to-comprehend. We here on this planet are so small and yet so big. It’s actually kinda weird when you think about it. But not so weird it implies the need for supernatural causes.

I’m going to make a point of using the word “yoctometer” in a conversation, though – just so I can tell someone to go check this out. (Click on image, then use the slide rule to pan in and out.)

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Foxfur Nebula

My 2011 astronomy calendar has an awesome image of the Foxfur Nebula (or Fox Fur). Here is another splendid image for your consideration.

“Its popular name arises because the nebula looks like the head of a stole made from the fur of a red fox.” I just love the ways in which big scientific discoveries get stuck with odd little names based on what they remind us of. Look closely and you can “see” the fox!

Further objections to astrology

Do the constellations exist? Well, yes and no. Obviously, to the naked human eye, a few specks of light on a dark screen may suggest a pattern. One sees a lion, a ladle, an archer. These forms are vague at best. At worst, they are the products of our innate ability to find patterns in everything. Here is an outline of Leo.

Now this doesn’t look terribly much like a lion, does it? But we can easily see (as long as the dots are connected for us) how the mind can make out the vague outline of some lazing animal. There are the haunches, there is a neck, and a head is suggested by the final upper curve. But why a lion? It could just as easily be a housecat, or a St. Bernard. Or nothing at all, which is what it is.

Let’s pretend we can travel across the constellation Leo to it’s far side and look at it from there. What would we see? The lion’s left side? Consider that when seen from the perspective of another part of the galaxy, any suggestion of a lion would simply disappear. What we are looking at is not a pattern of white dots on a flat black surface, but stars caught in what is perhaps a kind of four-dimensional space. The science of topology seeks to understand things like the shape of the universe. Here is an example of a topological coffee mug.

Now, I’m no cosmologist, nor am I a topologist, mathematician or even philosopher. I don’t have to be to understand the basic principle that the constellations are mere optical illusions. Consequently, so is astrology. Here is a paragraph from “Obections to Astrology,” published in The Humanist in 1975:

“In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth; they had no concept of the vast distances from the earth to the planets and stars. Now that these distances can and have been calculated, we can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures. Neither is it true that the position of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action, or that the sign under which one was born determines one’s compatibility or incompatibility with other people.”

I used to be fixated with astrology. I had a girlfriend who was into it at the time (for all I know she still is), and I came to recognize that Virgins are rather anal retentive, Cancer men are annoyingly self-obsessed, and Leos are natural-born leaders. It even appeared that facial characteristics conformed to a ziodiacal predisposition: Leos had a wide, grinning visage; Arians had a pronounced “t-zone” (resembling a ram’s horns); Sagittarians had a tendency toward red hair and freckles (think “fiery”). All of the above examples were taken from our circle of friends, and I took astrology for a kind of rough social science. I never pursued it further afield, and eventually I lost interest in it.

The zodiac is child’s play when you consider what stars are really out there. Even a weak telescope will convince you of this, but our most powerful telescopes are simply overwhelming. Here is a Hubble image worth scrutinizing.

Suddenly, in this bath of light from a million stars (no, I haven’t counted them), all hints of design simply disappear. There is no archer lost in the woods, no lazing lion, no bears or anything else here but a cluster of stars about 10,400 light years away from Earth. In our galaxy there are billions of stars. Carl Sagan’s voice ricochets down the ages, “Billions and billions.”

Yet many people speak of astrological signs as if they were an accepted barometer of social compatibility. “Oh, you just can’t get along with Libra men. Trust me, my ex-husband was a Libra.” But as the constellation of Libra is an obvious fiction, and as astrology itself has been widely discredited by actual scientific discoveries, then what can it mean to call oneself a Libra, a Capricorn or a Virgo? They are nothing but a kind of folk religion, a link to a more ignorant past when princes summoned the court astrologer for a prediction of famine, or whether or not to invade a neighboring land if Venus is rising. Astrology is on par with crystal balls, tarot cards, fortune telling and all the other types of silliness human beings should be mature enough to laugh at.

“Objections to Astrology” concludes: “It should be apparent that those individuals who continue to have faith in astrology do so in spite of the fact that there is no verified scientific basis for their beliefs, and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary.”