Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Centers

Last night, I was browsing my ancient (late 60s) National Geographic books, and in "The Amazing Universe" by Herbert Friedman I came across two jaw-droppers concerning the accompishments of astronomer Harlow Shapley:

"Moving our sun trillions of miles seems a Herculean task, but Harlow Shapley accomplished it in 1918 with an inspired assumption. Until then, astronomers guessed at the size of the Milky Way, usually placing the sun at its center..."

"...single-handedly, Shapley removed the sun and earth from a central position in the Milky Way and placed us close to its outskirts -- an almost Copernican accomplishment. In the Missouri native's words, it was 'a rather nice idea because it means that man is not such a big chicken.'"

Jigga-wha??

What we call the 'Copernican revolution' was indeed a great astronomic paradigm-shift, but is much more significant as a revolution in theology, philosophy of science, and the rest of the humanities. It means, for one thing, that we don't allow religious authority to straightjacket our investigations into the world. Even more importantly, it means that if we are to pursue meaning, we must follow other paths than cosmic centrality (or perhaps, by implication, immortality).

I can consider myself neither a scientist nor particularly a historian of science, but I am completely incredulous as to Friedman's claim: that professional astronomers in the twentieth century actually took as their default the centrality of our solar system in the galaxy, and that there was anything shocking about a disproof. Hadn't the real revolution, the conceptual revolution, already run its course? Whether an accurate depiction of 1910s astronomy or just one author's bizarre take on it, is there any limit, an existentialist might say, to such absurd goalpost-shifting?

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