Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Layman's view of the Universe

I was out in the back yard this evening looking up at the few stars I can see inside the city limits, and I remembered being a child on the farm back home in Deming, New Mexico. We lived out in the country, about eight miles from town, and it was easy on a clear night to see the froth of the Milky Way, along with what to my young mind were thousands of stars. I remember asking my father how many stars there were. He said he didn't know.

Nor did I have any concept of much more than the solar system, which we learned about in school. Keep in mind this was probably back in the late 1950s, so even astronomers could only wonder just what conditions existed on the nearest planets to us. And of course, popular science fiction of the day had Martians living on the red planet. Soon, I learned that all those stars I could see, and even the Milky Way were made up of stars, so far away their accumulation from Earth just looked like a brightly lit cloud—that is, with the naked eye.

It's difficult to believe that in just ten or twelve years, we would have a man on the moon. Even in grade school we got to watch the launch of the rockets that took our astronauts into orbit. It was the space age! One day we would go to Mars.

So, when I was a child, I understood as a child, and I asked the kind of questions a child would ask about the universe. How big is it? And if I were told that it was endless, I had a difficult time grasping endlessness. I hasten to add that as an adult, I only have a layman's understanding of the universe. But that understanding is well beyond what the Bible teaches—and that's totally understandable, because Genesis is based on man's understanding of the universe (creation) from only a few thousand years ago, when all observation was done through the naked eye; and to someone on Earth, it would appear and be difficult to imagine that the sun did not revolve around the Earth. It came up in the morning and went down in the evening, and to the ancient understanding, the morning and evening were the first day, etc., according to Genesis.

A companion understanding to ancient men was the idea that the Earth was actually flat, and it was not hard to conceive of a hades below the Earth and a heaven above the Earth. It wasn't until Copernicus in the fifteen hundreds that the Earth was displaced from the center of the universe, who also displaced the Ptolemaic system (which astrology is based upon) with the Earth at the center, and the planets, sun, and moon, and even the wheel of heaven (the stars) revolving around the Earth. It was a comforting, popular believe system of direct observation with the naked eye that made its way into the Bible, and it was a system that held sway for well over a millennia and a half. Even now, those who are fundamentally religious and believe that the Bible is the literal words of God don't question this scheme.

But what astounds me is the vastness of the "Universe." I simply cannot get into physics or even much about modern astronomy, nor the wonders of the Hubble Telescope and what it shows us, because I am neither an astronomer, nor a physicist, but as an adult with an adult layman's understanding I know this.

Our sun is but one star in the spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, and what I saw as a child out on the farm when I saw the Milky Way was a view of the center of the galaxy. I know that the sun (Sol) is at least ninety-three million miles from Earth, and it takes the light from the sun about eight light minutes to reach us. Light travels at approximately 186,000 miles per second, so in that eight minutes, with each second representing 186,000 miles, light travels ninety-three million miles in eight minutes. And yet Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun is four light years from us. That's the nearest star, and the light from that star takes light traveling at 186,000 miles per second four years made up of all those seconds, with each second representing 186,000 miles four years to reach us.

Artist's conception of the Milky Way Galaxy
100,000 light years across and 1,000 
light years thick.
Again, this is only the closest star to us, and our galaxy is made up of billions of stars. Such vastness makes me gasp. I learned that the Milky Way Galaxy is one hundred thousand light years across. You do the arithmatic. Add up all the seconds (186,000 miles) in one year of traveling at that speed and multiply that times 100,000 years. Even your handy calculator will throw that figure into something inexpressible to most of us, at least to a layman such as myself. It would be ridiculous to even try to express it in miles.

But the implications of such distances is clear. Our own galaxy is big-ass big, inexpressibly vast, but what is even more astounding, the observable universe is made up of two hundred billion galaxies. And what of the distance of interstellar space between them?

Our Earth is an outpost planet on the outer band of the Milky Way Galaxy, just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. I therefore find it a lot more likely than what the Bible teaches that we mammalian humans on this planet are just aliens from outer space, and it's very likely that there are trillions of planets in the observable universe in those hundreds of billions of galaxies that have evolved intelligent life.

I say...bring 'em on!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Change is the Only Constant, Part 2

Change is the Only Constant
Part 2
In the earlier post, I said that change is the only constant, and yet it is what people fight the most. We become comfortable with the status quo, even with our grungy little apartments and walking the same routes to work, going to the same theaters, cafes, and having the same discussions with friends. We like settling into our couches and don't want to trade them in for spiffier models—that is most of us. There are of course those who need constant change, different friends, different places to live.

I'm of the first type. I really don't like too much change too quickly, and yet I am also a first adapter of new computers and software, but not so much new phones. At any rate, to make this more personal, this is what I miss in the way things used to be...

If I could go back in time and could tarry awhile, I'd go back to the farm in Deming, New Mexico, when I was sixteen years old. I thought nothing would ever change back then. I was stuck on the farm, stuck doing chores, like coming home from school and immediately having to jump in the pickup and check on the irrigation, maybe even move the syphon hoses to the next "set" and start those up. Then I had to head to the cow pens, or behind them to last year's mountain of dried field corn and strip the kernels off the cobs and fill two, five-gallon buckets with corn. One to be filled with water to let it soak for the pigs and one for the milk cow. But during those times between school and supper, coming on dusk, it was a time of dreaming of what would come in my life. At sixteen, I only had two years of high school left, and out on the farm, I was lonely and dreamy, and couldn't wait for things to change. Dusk seemed to last hours instead of minutes, and yet, when I look back on those days, I wish I could have that same sense of security, the sense that Mom would always be getting supper ready—a supper of cornbread, "goulash" (not really what is meant by that), pinto beans, and salsa, polished off with a glass of iced tea and for dessert peach cobbler—that Dad would be watching the news, drinking a cup of coffee in the living room, would always be there on the farm, his age frozen in time, younger than I am now.

By age sixteen, my two older sisters were already married (a change that had taken place only two years before) and were living on other farms. My sister Libby and I and our younger brother and sister were all that were left at home. Libby had her friends and was dating, and I had mine. I liked the high school dances, the ball games, and as I look back on it, the sweet ache for the guy I had a crush on, who sent me into a state of nervousness whenever we were in close proximity.

Even that uninitiated longing for something from him, some way to actually go out with him, to share my feelings and not be rejected—even that is frozen in time, but I'm no longer there in high school, except in my memories, and life and I have moved on.

Those last two years in high school were gone so quickly that, two years later, I was in college, loved it, felt like I was on top, but that went quickly by, as well. Change...the only constant.

It also seemed back then that the United States was the moral center of the world, to which the rest of the world looked, the good guy, the country that had taken the right stand in WWII, but with more perspective, I just have to remember the 55,000 young American men dead in Viet Nam. The average age of the Viet Nam soldier was only nineteen; 1961 to 1973. I only served in the last days of Viet Nam, never got out of Texas, tested urine for drugs that the soldiers were using, but if the soldier smoked or drank a lot of coffee, the test results were ruined, just a long brown streak up the glass plate sprayed with silacagel. Heroin would have shown a light lavender streak up the plate, but that was covered with the coffee and the nicotine stains. Later, after I left the service, they began to use electronic equipment, like the colter counter. Back then we tested 30,000 samples a day, from all branches of the service, every soldier. It was an ambitious program—and utterly deficient. That's one situation I was glad to see the end of.

The years flew by, and it seemed that the changes came faster and faster, relentlessly, from one national crisis to another, from one personal crisis to another, from one lover to another, from one job to another, and bam! I'm now on social security, as well as retirement from my last job. The only constant...change.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Change is the Only Constant

Change is the Only Constant

If you have any perspective in life at all, you will know that the only thing we can count on is change; but if you know anything about human nature, it's that we fight change more than anything else. That's pretty generalized, I realize. But pick any subject. Let's say how long does a country last? And how much does a country change throughout its history? A quick and easy example is the Roman Empire, which spanned a few hundred years before Christ and a few hundred years after Christ...some say it lasted a thousand years. But the early Roman Empire was hardly like the Holy Roman Empire. I don't know how many Caesars there were, but Rome went from being a country that conquered the known world, to one that persecuted Christians, to one that became Christian and persecuted non-Christians.

Again, this is all very generalized and oversimplified. But eventually Rome fell to the newest barbarians, and when it did, boy did the world go into a tailspin! Along came the dark ages (the middle ages) and over the centuries, people forgot about ancient Rome, lost all track of the prior great civilizations, and soon knew nothing but the life of serf and master and the Church.

It really wasn't until the printing press that a glimmer of light shone in the darkness. The printing press was invented in the Holy Roman Empire by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 a.d. That's one thousand, four hundred, forty years after the death of Christ. Since then, only 571 years have passed. But look at how much things have changed since then. Countries formed in Europe out of the ancient tribes. In fact, countries rose and fell. Britain ruled the world at some point during this time, when it could be said that "the sun never set on the British empire," but in the measurement of time, it ruled a very short time. The New World was discovered in the fourteen hundreds, but by the early 17th century, Europeans began settling the new world, led first by Spain in the late fourteen hundreds, followed by France and England in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, and in the new world (mainly North America) we had a period of colonization that lasted from 1607 (Jamestown) to the late seventeen hundreds, when part of North America lurched into a country. The colonial period lasted about three hundred years—longer than the United States of America, which is now considered to be about 235 years old.

Long introduction, but the point is the United States of America is a toddler by world country standards, and yet it is changing rapidly. America's century was the nineteen hundreds, which followed the westward expansion in the eighteen hundreds. Our Constitution is only from May 25, 1787 till today, makes it only 224 years old. And yet, in the twenty-first century, there has been a nefarious movement by mainly fundamentalist Christians to claim and teach that the Constitution is a Christian-based document. There are even those (sorry to say) that claim that the "Constitution" under glass in Washington, DC, is a forgery. There is a movement to undermine this greatest of all man-made and conceived documents, to muddy the history of the Constitution, to claim that, of all people, Thomas Jefferson was a Christian. While it is true that he was a Diest and no doubt nodded respectfully to Christ and Christianity, the whole point of the religion-based colonies was to escape religious persecution in Europe, and the founding fathers were adamant about framing a document that separated Church and State. 

So we only got a couple hundred years of our unsullied Constitution before its very founding principles are being systematically used to tighten a religious grip on it.

And in our 225 year history, we've gone from holding slaves to freeing slaves, and in just the last fifty years, we've gone from being an industrial nation to being a non-industrialized nation. We've gone from importing our goods to making our own, and back to importing our goods. Everything, it seems, is made in China and, now, we can't even make our own toothpaste. Oh, we can, but we've gone from having American companies based in the United States to global companies, with some based in the United States but no longer beholding to the United States. These global corporations have become "too big to fail," too big to be loyal to the United States, alone; and if they don't like the labor climate in the United States, they simply shift their work to cheaper markets elsewhere. We invented television, but we no longer have an American television manufacturer—unless it is a foreign-owned company with a factory in the United States.

So, if someone has enough perspective, it is easy to see that what made America, America, is not what it is today. And it is not inconceivable that a great convulsion can make the United States come to an end. No country is immune from falling. If you have enough perspective, you have to realize that there might come a day when what was the United States splinters into regional countries, as the Soviet Union did. Let's see, Rick Perry could become President of Texas, Michelle Bachmann could become President of the United Midwest States...New Mexico could be reabsorbed into Old Mexico (that's not a very far leap of imagination, since most people in North American think it's not part of the United States, anyway). And for sure, Alaska could become it's own country. It certainly has enough resources to industrialize.

And as Linda Ellerbee says, "And so it goes..."