Saturday, March 01, 2003

Every time I re-read Pamela Dean's Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary (a book that defies reviewing--you simply must read it), I am inspired, if not actually to be an astronomer, to learn more about the heavens and all the wondrous mysteries that encircle our small globe. This is why I have a number of books pertaining to astronomy scattered throughout my library; sadly, however, I have managed to read very few of them. Like most branches of science, astronomy fascinates me to frustration--I can almost understand what's going on, but the facts refuse to stay in my head long enough for the big picture to become clear. I did get all the way through Seeing and Believing, by Richard Panek, recently, in part because it is a narrative rather than a technical tome. Also, being a history of the telescope, it doesn't reach the modern day (and the really incomprehensible stuff) until the last few chapters.

I was pleased to realize, in my own eccentric way, that with the discovery of all that really incomprehensible stuff, the adventure and excitement of the previous centuries waned. It may indeed be more comfortable to observe astronomical wonders with the click of a computer key, but it decidedly lacks the thrills of Galileo changing the world by overturning the Copernican system, of Huygens holding his breath as he constructed longer and longer telescopes and consequently solved more and more riddles of the universe, or of William and Caroline Herschel slogging through mud and snow to record observations of new comets (one of which turned out to be the planet Uranus). To these brave souls the universe was astounding; to us, today, it seems pretty neat. Because so much has already been discovered, I think the tendency is to become blasé in an assumption that someday we'll have it all figured out.

This is not Panek's conclusion, but it is how I felt what he praised the progress of modern technology in astronomy. I have nothing against technology in its place, but I can't help noticing the difference in perspective it has created. To astronomers in the 17th century, new discoveries were sources of sheer wonder and amazement. I have no doubt that modern astronomers get excited by every advancement, but there can no longer be the life-changing experiences that Galileo lived through. If humanity has changed over the years, the difference seems to be that lack of wonder caused by the comfortable, shock-free, technologically-padded cell in which civilization now rests. We are moved only by tragedy; we have lost our innocence.

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