10/21 – Making Sense of Things

I’ve been reading headlines and social media the last couple days. I don’t claim to be well informed about all the big topics, but between the big topics and the small topics, I find it very difficult to comprehend what people are thinking, or more to the point, why they are thinking it. I concluded this morning that I understand quantum physics better than what is going on in the world these days. No need to go into details, but nothing seems to make sense.

I also have been reading daily devotional emails from Fr. Richard Rohr, a popular contemplative Christian writer. The contemplative Christian tradition is also challenging to understand at times, especially for the Western thinker. We have been raised to think in categories, to separate things into “this” or “that,” and then to define our terms of “thisness” and “thatness.” We organize things and classify things and make decisions about whether a thing goes here or there. And that’s key, the word “or.” It’s a binary decision, “either/or.” But the contemplatives and mystics write about “and,” and about wholeness, and connection, and transcending “either/or” to find “both/and.” They seek after and often experience unity with God that radically changes their perception of everything around them, so that they seek and experience unity with them, too. They are not afraid to say that God lives in light and in darkness, and that we do, too. They are not afraid of brokenness, because they understand that God fills that space. They don’t have a compulsion to make everything right, because they know that God is in the midst of every situation. Things, situations, relationships, humans all become both earthy and heavenly, both broken and sacred, both sinful and redeemed, both material and spiritual, both mundane and holy.

A third stream in my consciousness comes from a book I read on my Grand Tour called Stars Beneath Us: Seeking God in the Evolving Cosmos by Paul Wallace, a physics professor who is also an ordained pastor. He writes about his own spiritual journey that started with a deep Christian faith that fell apart in the face of experience and science because it didn’t match reality as he perceived it. He went through years of agnosticism and not quite atheism, and then back to faith through the same reality and science that had challenge the faith of his youth. But when he came back to faith it was quite a different shape than that of his traditional upbringing. Any way, in the book, he points to Job as a model – the book, not just the man. Job lived a righteous and prosperous life, but God allowed Satan to test Job by destroying just about everything he had or was. Job writhed in his suffering trying to make sense of it and demanded an audience with God to get justice, or at least understanding. In the end, God shows up but never answers Job’s questions about the meaning of it all. God just leads Job on a journey, showing him all the corners of the cosmos where Job had never been, never considered, and never dared to go. And in all those place, God was there, and God delighted in what was there. God even loves the Leviathan, the mythical chaos monster of the deep! In the end, Job is satisfied, not because of logical answers, but because he realized that God is God, and “it’s not all about you.” Wallace offers, among other things, that we need to go on such a journey, too.

So as I am trying to make sense of this world, where people do absurd things for money, power, fame, rebellion, or spite, I turn to the cosmos. I think about the wonders of the universe, the really beautiful and really weird things going on in spacetime. I think about how we have come to know so much and still know so little. I have long had hopes that we would become a spacefaring species, colonizing worlds and systems and galaxies. Now I have less hope that we will achieve it and more doubts about whether we should inflict ourselves on the cosmos. I wish that more people would have a sense of the cosmos, like what Job got to see and what I think I have seen. Whether or not we ever get to Mars, God is there, delighting in its ice and dust. We may never know if there is life in the subsurface oceans of half a dozen worlds in our solar system, but in each of those oceans, God is there, rejoicing in the richness of the environment. Even if most people never know about what happens when two neutron stars collide, God is there, using dead stars to create worlds’ worth of gold, silver, platinum, and all manner of heavy elements, just to have them blown into space. We can’t see the primordial chaos right after the Big Bang from which all that we can see and experience was brought to birth, but God is there, maybe dancing and singing our universe into existence.

We are living in chaotic times, but God lives in chaos and brings forth new kinds of order. We live in a day when human affection seems to have run cold, but God promises to turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh once more. We struggle with one another about what is just, what is fair, what is right, what is kind, but God sends the sun and the rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and God will hold those with means and status and privilege to account for how they treat the poor, the outcast, and the bereft.

Humility before the cosmos and humility before the Creator and humility before our fellow creatures are common threads I find in my (admittedly scant) study of both science and contemplative theology. Faithfulness is another; faithfulness to the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of our species in science, and faithfulness to experiencing and expressing the absolute love of God for all creatures among the mystics. So I think these will be my guideposts for navigating these days. I will try to be humble, to learn, to be faithful, to love. I will try to work for change.

 

A Sabbatical Map

Here is a map of my sabbatical journeys. It includes the trip to Green Bank, the New England swing, and the Grand Tour in chunks. The paths are approximate, especially on the Grand Tour, as they are here driving routes, and I took the train. Also, I didn’t put the exact addresses of the places I stayed. But you’ll get the idea. I think if you click on the box in the top left of the map header you’ll get the legend. Then if you want, you can turn off the driving routes, which will make it easier to see the places I visited. There are several light blue pins marking places I thought I might get to but ended up not going. This time. I worked out a rough estimate that I traveled over 8000 miles in a little over two months.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience, for the opportunity to travel to see these amazing astronomical instruments, and for the people who made it possible, namely my congregation at Catoctin Presbyterian Church, my family, and my wife Molly. I am grateful to the church for the financial means to go and for the spiritual support to send me. I am grateful to Molly for her encouragement and for her taking over many of the duties I left as I went. I am grateful to God for the privilege of this journey and for these beloved people in my life.

As my sabbatical is drawing to an end I plan still to keep writing about my experiences. I’m still processing the whole thing, what happened, what didn’t happen, what I learned and didn’t learn, what it all means. So stay tuned.

 

Not Quite an Observatory: The University of Arizona Mirror Lab

My first tour in Arizona was the >University of Arizona Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab<, and you can see my pictures and comments at >this link.<

By this point I was becoming aware of the number of places I was visiting that pushed the limits of technology, knowledge, and skill for the sake of science. The Yerkes 40″ is the physical limit for refracting telescopes. LIGO is the most precise measuring instrument ever built. At this lab they craft mirrors that are smooth to one one-millionth of an inch. Such things are staggering to contemplate, at least for me.

While this isn’t an observatory, this lab is making observatories possible. They are making mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope being built in Chile, and they made the mirrors for the two optical telescopes on Mount Graham, which we will get to in a couple posts. >Here is a link< to a time lapse video, taken from inside the kiln, of the glass melting in the making of one of the mirrors. As far as I know, this is the only place doing work like this. There are other mirror labs, but nothing making mirrors this big.

This is also about the time I brought to consciousness a thought I’d had when I was in college working in a wind tunnel lab. Science smells like oil. We tend to think of science as being clean and pristine and airtight, or at least I do, but when you go to these facilities, the labs and the observatories, they smell industrial and oily. Big science in the real world, not your classroom stuff, is much more earthy than we see in the movies, with lubrication, and metalwork, and miles of wire, and countless boxes and drawers of spare parts. It’s not all theory and math and formulas. You need those, of course, but then you have to make them work in physical space.

That’s part of why I think we should focus much more on science, and space science especially, as a national economic priority. Science needs all manner of workers to make it happen. You need theorists, sure, but also technicians and skilled labor to put the parts together; fabricators, tool and die makers, welders and builders making the parts and things that hold the parts; construction workers building the work places and labs; plumbers, electricians, and painters to make the spaces workable; maintenance crews to keep it all in shape; administrators and clerical workers to organize it all; then you have to feed all those folks and provide housing and retail for them. Every big science project should mean work for hundreds or thousands of people with all manner of skills and all for the betterment of humanity. Decent work for decent wages should mean better opportunity and improved economic justice in communities. Better work and pay should mean decreased crime and need for social services. I know I’m an idealist, but am I missing something here?

But I digress. Here they make mirrors the size of swimming pools so we can see the farthest stars.

 

This is tough

Just a quick note to let you know I’m still alive and well and on the trail. It’s August 27, and I’m in Tucson, AZ. Since my last post I have seen:

  • LIGO, the Laser Interferometry Gravitational wave Observatory, in Livingston, LA
  • The University of Arizona Steward Observatory Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, where they cast, form, and polish the largest telescope mirrors in the world
  • Kitt Peak, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, southwest of Tucson
  • the Heinrich Hertz Sub-millimeter Radio Telescope on Mt. Graham, Sufford, AZ
  • the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (yes, THAT Vatican) on Mt. Graham
  • the Large Binocular Telescope, also on Mt. Graham.

Today I’m driving to Flagstaff, AZ, to tour the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered, among other things. I’ll return to Tucson tomorrow to catch the train to Los Angeles.

It’s a lot of travel, a lot of telescopes, a lot to take in, a lot to arrange, and a lot to write about. Guess which of those things I haven’t spent much time on? I promise to give you full coverage of all the events, complete with pictures – eventually. I may have more time on the train to catch up a bit, and maybe in L.A. and on from there. I can see the end of pilgrimage on the horizon, and I’ll definitely be able to do more writing once I get home. If I remember where that is.

Observatory 5: Yerkes, Part 1 – The Tour

[Ed. note – Yes, I know I missed writeups for Observatory 3: Holmdel and Observatory 4: Allegheny. They appear in my post >Picture this…<, and I will try to give them the full treatment eventually. For now, enjoy Yerkes!]

 

Written at the Green Grocer deli in Williams Bay, WI, on Monday, August 13

So I’ve just come from the >Yerkes Observatory< tour. Wow! What a beautiful place. I made the 12:30 tour, which starts with the history and the architecture o the observatory by a fellow named Robert who is writing a book on the subject. The 1895 building has a number of stylistic elements that remind me of Stewart Hall at PTS (c.1893?). It also has very many quirky symbols, faces, and pseudo-gargoyles to keep your interest for days. From there it was up to the main dome (of 3) to see the 40” Clark refractor. The setting is very similar to the Allegheny 30”. Similarly massive pier and mount and scope, similar elevator floor and dome track and such. Yerkes host Richard didn’t activate anything as Kevin (?) did at Allegheny, though. But, I’ll be back tonight to see it all in action! So excited! And even though I have no room for such, I bought 2 t-shirts. Because SO EXCITED! I’ll use a couple to wrap my icon to ship home tomorrow.

It is tragic that Yerkes is facing closure w/o funding. I don’t know how you find $20M to buy such a facility or the $500k/year to keep it up and open. I mean, that’s a lot of change, but to let such a resource for public science outreach languish seems unjustifiable. The location is too cloudy and light polluted for actual science, and the scopes are too small for cutting edge, or even dull edge science I suppose. It is 120 year old tech, after all, from the steam era. But photons don’t care. There must be some way to use the equipment for good. Then again, nothing lasts but the earth, and that one for another 4B years. You can’t keep everything. Where would you put it? But if you can make a museum out of a singer’s house in Memphis or even Winchester, VA, can’t we preserve such an important scientific site?

Meanwhile, I met another interesting person yesterday at the Meli Diner and Pancake House beside the Comfort Inn where I am staying. He was in the next booth and saw me writing in my journal. As I got up to leave, he asked if I were a journalist. Well, I mean, I was journaling, but I said no. A podcaster, yes, journalist, no. He asked about the podcast, so I told him it was religious stuff…. Pastor… sabbatical… blah blah. Well he was interested in it all, at least for the moment. Then I said, “I assume that you are a journalist?” Yes. He is working on a book about people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. Apparently, WI is a good place to find such. Also, being Paul Ryan’s districted added extra interest. So we talked politics a little. He gave me his card – Ben G_______ / New York / Beirut. Beirut? Yeah, he was there for 8 or 12 years. He says he thinks US is more interesting these days, though. Wow, okay! I rooted around and found my last business card and gave to him. [He said if he’s ever in the area he’ll stop by.] I’ll watch for his book.

>Click here for my collection of pictures from Yerkes.<

Observatory 1: Green Bank

I spent four days and nights at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in Green Bank, WV, July 11-15. A local astronomy club has hosted the Green Bank Star Quest there for fifteen years. It is a very well run event, and I had a ball.

Now some star parties are just camping at a dark site, observing the sky at night and (as I’m told) either sleeping or drinking during the day. Not at GBSQ! First, there’s a bunk house and cafeteria, so no camping required, although you can if you want. Second, they had tours, speakers, and workshops lined up from 9am to 8pm every day, so no reason to be bored. These were really good, too! I learned so much about radio astronomy, “multiple messenger” astronomical discoveries (finding things out through various lines of inquiry), and even astronomy history! The evening keynote speakers were all very enthusiastic, interesting, and engaging on their various topics. I met some new friends as well as spending time with a college bud of mine. In fact, when I registered I was told I am now part of the Star Quest family!

There is more to write about this week’s experiences than I can manage tonight, but I want to get one thought out there. The principle scientist at GBO, Dr. Jay Lockman, was the keynote speaker for Thursday night. He spoke about his experience in developing one of the Great Courses for The Teaching Company on radio astronomy. He told us about the rather grueling process of writing, editing, and filming the course, about some of the history of radio astronomy that he learned himself in developing the class, and about his own radio research, which ironically ended up on the cutting room floor, all of which was quite interesting. His recent research is on the enormous bubbles of gas and dust that have been found to be expanding from the center of the Milky Way above and below the central core, and how, by tracking neutral hydrogen in those areas, some theories as to their nature and flow have been developed. This led my friend Bruce to ask in the Q&A, “As fascinating as this is, how do you answer those who say (and always there are those who say), ‘What is the point of all this? What difference does any of this make? How does this help anyone, or me in particular?'” Dr. Lockman asked Bruce what his answer is first, to which Bruce said, “My answer is, ‘What is the point of a baby?'” which I thought was insightful.

Dr. Lockman, acknowledged Bruce’s idea but went on to say, <paraphrase> “Of course we who do such things know about the intrinsic value of science and of any sort of knowledge, and we can talk about that and about how we may someday find practical applications to all these discoveries. Further, we can talk about the relatively tiny financial investment that we make in science and the vast returns we receive on that investment. But frankly, I am tired of trying to convince people of that. If it isn’t obvious, it is very difficult to get someone to understand it. What I have come to use as an answer instead is that people are interested in these things. I spend a great deal of my time telling conferences full of people like yourselves about this, and they are excited by it. We have 50,000 visitors a year that come through this facility, because they care about science and want to learn things. So it makes a difference because there are people who care about it.” </paraphrase>

This blew me away, and it continues to provide thought fodder for me. It is a great prophetic statement in its justification of something precious and its repudiation of the inherent repudiation in the question. Let’s look at other cases. We might ask, what is the point of professional sports? What good does it do anyone? What is the point of popular music? What is the point of photography, or sculpture, or quilting? What is the point of fishing, or hiking, or boating? What is the point of collecting antiques or beer cans or paperweights or dolls? None of these things has any practical justification, either, but people pour large amounts of time, money, and energy into all of them and more. People make careers around most if not all of these things, too. Why should science, which produces so much more value to the world than, say, football, be held up for scorn as a waste of time and money? And, if the value of science is found in that humans like it and find meaning and pleasure in it, then so, too, the value of all those other things as well, at least to the extent to which they are not harmful to human wellbeing.

Humans do what humans do. Some of us love science. Let’s give thanks for that.