Monday, July 30, 2007

On the First Day

Dear Sam and Aidan,


As I write this, Sam, you're almost 5, and Aidan, you're just above 3. It's hard to believe that (assuming you'll go to college at 18) Sam's time at home is almost 1/3 done already. Thirteen years from now you'll be more or less on your own, and I can already tell that you both will face many of the same questions and challenges I did growing up. So I want to write you these letters for you to read someday, for that day when you're at college and learning new things left and right (maybe even some of them in the classroom).

Some of what you learn will challenge and surprise you. It wouldn't be much fun learning if it didn't. You've already found out that many people "don't believe in God" anymore, although I don't think you've heard that at the moment I'm writing this. I don't think you know just how strange your Dad is. (You'll find out in a few years, don't worry.) A lot of people don't think faith and science can even be in the same room, much less in the same head. What I want is for you to know why I believe what I do, in the hopes that you'll be able to take some of it along yourselves. I don't know as much as I want to about most of these things, but I'll tell you what I have heard, and what I think right now. Some of it will change or become obsolete or embarrassing over time, but some of it is true with a capital T.

And this is not to assume you will be interested in science. Sam, just the other day you told me you wanted to be a scientist. Of course, since then you've let me know you changed your mind and want to work in a balloon factory. If you're saving up for that factory down payment now, let me tell you, balloons do have something to do with this. In fact, everything has something to do with this. But balloons are specifically important.

This is on the level of most blogs, that is, one person's perspective unimpeded by the constraints of editing or grammar. I think of it like the bulletin boards for "Lost" (oh, let me tell you about the television show Lost sometime, because you're not allowed to watch it yet) or "Harry Potter", where people spout their crackpot theories about how everything fits together, and eventually the show or book, if it's any good, explains everything in a way that's somewhat predictable and somewhat surprising. I wouldn't have an unfolding narrative of mystery turn out any other way. I think the world is a little bit like "Lost," with an underlying narrative and mystery about free will and fate, and that's one of the reasons why I spend about an hour a week on it.

I want to pass on what I see, so you can absorb it in a single chunk, not as occasional questions over dinner or during commercials. I know of no better, more lasting way to make a complex argument than in a letter. So happy high-school graduation (plus or minus ten years) and here's part of what I have to tell you about the world.

(Just a side note before we start: If you're choosing between two colleges, look at the "tuition" line and pick the one with the smaller number. Just an idea.)

So what do I want you to know about this world we live in? Everything takes place between two simple, pliable phrases: at first, it was "Let there be light." Later, it's "Fear not." These are two points on a line that define everything inbetween. It's not a straight line ... in fact, if I continue to describe it as a line I'd have to say it's multi-dimensional and sometimes hidden from sight. But it defines everything else. And it doesn't start with you, or with me, or anyone, or everyone. It starts from somewhere else entirely.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth / The earth was without form, and void / and darkness was on the face of the deep / And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters / Then God said, “Let there be light” / and there was light / and God saw the light, that it was good / and God divided the light from the darkness / God called the light Day / and the darkness He called Night / So the evening and the morning were the first day.

There's a lot of things that you just can't know. The size of the universe is one of them. You might be able to calculate it, but what you get is only a number with a lot of zeros behind it. How about 28 billion light-years? That works if you have a good intuitive sense for the speed of light, but, well, I don't. Trying to fit that number into my head gives me the same sensation as standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and trying to drink it all it. It's too much for these neurons. If the concept of the Trinity is hard to fit in your head, well then, so is the distance to the Orion nebula.

More on the size thing in day two, but for now, trust me, the universe is big. About a hundred years ago scientists knew the universe was really big, and really old. (Now we can put a few more reallys on there, but they were basically right. Really.) There was so much stuff and it had been around for so long that they assumed that it had always been this way, that we lived in a static, flat universe of rocks and gas clouds and comets running around, occasionally smashing into each other and burping out small life forms or whatever, but essentially What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get for the big picture. The Creation Myth of science was that there had been no creation. They were very comfortable with that idea.

The problem is, they kept collecting data, and they found out they were wrong.

The first hint of trouble came when galaxies were discovered. All astronomers knew from looking at the sky that stars are sharp points of light, but if you look hard enough you find many blurry clouds of light, the photogenic nebulae, which are glowing poofs of dust. Some astronomers thought that a few of these nebulae could actually be clouds of stars that were so far away they looked like dust. Other astronomers thought the Milky Way was already so unimaginably big that it was unreasonable to imagine that the universe was too much bigger. In the mid-1920's, the biggest telescope yet opened at Mount Wilson in Arizona, and this was so powerful you could look at some of the closer galaxies and make out the individual stars in them. The first person to do so was a former track star and Rhodes Scholar named Edwin Hubble. That effectively settled the debate: the universe had galaxies upon galaxies. Now we can make out clusters of galaxies, and maybe even clusters of clusters.
Here's one of Hubble's original photos, so you can see for yourself. It's a negative, so the stars appear black:
(photo from http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/lectures/galaxies.htm)


Hubble was in the right place at the right time, and for this and other accomplishments (see below), he got a space telescope named after him. Do you ever wonder what would happen if you took the most powerful telescope we have and trained it on the same blank piece of sky for a long time, letting it soak up more and more light and look deeper and deeper into the universe? Here's what you'd see:


(photo from http://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/hubble_UDF_prt.htm)

This what NASA calls its Ultra Deep Field experiment, and just in that one "blank" speck of sky near the Big Dipper, they found 10,000 very distant, dim, and old galaxies. 10,000 star-clouds like the Milky Way. Before the original Deep Field experiment, some people thought that you wouldn't be able to see anything and it would be a waste of money and time on the telescope. Now, no one thinks 10,000 galaxies was a waste of time.

Did I mention the universe is big?

Edwin Hubble's job wasn't done yet. He had seen lots of stars in other galaxies, but just from that it's not clear how far away the galaxies are. Obviously tape measures aren't much good -- but Hubble figured out a way to use the light from these galaxies as a cosmic tape measure, and when the numbers came in, the scientific community was in for a fundamental shock.


To be continued ...

3 comments:

Nate said...

Seem's like a good start. I'm looking forward to reading the rest when you have time to write it. Thanks for doing this!

JimMc said...

Dear Ben,
What a thoughtful gift for your boys! We are enjoying reading (and digesting) it also. love from Florida....Mom and Dad

Deanna said...

Hey, you're making me look bad. I thought I was doing pretty well just by introducing Sana to Star Trek now!