The philosopher Posidonius (135-51 BC) is credited to have said, "Man is the Beholders and expounders of heaven." Indeed, humans throughout history have been involved in the business of observing and learning about the world. We have a basic, intense, motivation to understand, to know, to explain why and how things happen around us, and we have learned that the more we know, the more successful we are at surviving and enjoying our lives. We are creatures who look around.
I have entitled this column "Looking Around" because my writings here are to represent science, and science is the process of learning about our surroundings and ourselves by making the most critical and accurate observations we possibly can. By creating theories to explain what we observe, testing these theories by applying them beyond the boundaries of the original observations to learn if they explain phenomena not included in what was used to create the theories. And, finally, continuing the process ad infinitum. In simple words, "looking around" is the foundation of science. It is spawned by curiosity, driven by attempts to explain and fulfilled by enhanced understanding. It leads to discovery, invention, improving technology and ever-greater freedom in our lives accompanied by the dilemmas of increasing complexity.
We often hear people criticizing science: "There isn't really a problem with ozone, with increasing pollution or with rising world temperatures. Scientists are just trying to convince us of such things. Those people will change their minds eventually. Everything is all right. Just wait and see." Think about it. Cultures have come and gone based upon their abilities to adapt through understanding. It is science that has brought us the understanding that has allowed us to drive automobiles, fly airplanes and spaceships, use microwaves and enjoy sights and sounds coming from laser disks. Most of us make use of scientific understanding every day of our lives, indeed almost every moment. The statement that science will change its mind as time goes on reveals how little many people understand about how science works.
Science is founded on the expectation that its theories will change! Scientists know that our best explanations will be replaced by better ones: indeed, their work is to create better, more detailed and accurate, and more comprehensive descriptions of the world. It has always changed. It will always change. It is the process of growing comprehension through change. "The only constant in the universe is change." The greatest folly in scientific history is the cases when scientists themselves have said of some area of knowledge, "now we know about all there is to know about this." We never have. We never will. Science is predicated upon the belief that we will continue to replace old, inadequate knowledge with the new, more useful, which again and again will fall into the story-bin labeled "how we know what we know that makes us what we are."
Even though we trace the development of modern science back to the Greeks, no one can really say where science started. Indeed, it has begun many times in human history. Over and over, isolated people have beheld and expounded upon what they saw around them on Earth and in the heavens. Every culture has embedded within it concepts of how it came into existence and how it relates to the universe of earth and sky, of the things it can see and those it can not. Wanting more secure knowledge, people observed and remembered what happened in their worlds. They watched seasons come and go, noting all the associated phenomena: the Sun moved on the horizon, up and down in the sky, as days changed in length and temperature; they noted the changing canopy of stars as animals gave birth, trees budded, then later dropped their leaves. Then they planted gardens and raised domestic livestock. For all such things they created explanations. Most of these we place in the category of mythology, but without mythology there wo
uld be no science.
Yes, science begins with our senses, which allow us to perceive our surroundings. Our desire to know has led us to improve upon the sensors we carry within us. Starting with eyes that can see visible light, we expanded that ability with instruments that can detect infrared and radio, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays. The broad electromagnetic spectrum that includes the minute part our eyes detect, has yielded our current understanding of the universe containing objects billions of light years away. Human eyes attached to questioning minds have brought us electron microscopes and the Hubble Space Telescope. Starting with fingers and toes to cipher on, now we have computers that manipulate enormous quantities of data. People have always looked around, and doing so they have emerged from caves into the homes and lifestyles we now enjoy.
In this series I want to write on topics that explore examples gleaned from the sciences that relate us to our roots. I want to share some of the lesser-known things we can see around us as well as some of the better known. We will look both back and forward on topics such as equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days. We will consider some "mythological" notions people have had about certain groups of stars, right along side scientific ones. We will discuss how modern astronomers harvest fossil light, how ancient ones determined calendars, and how you can set up your own solar calendar from your back porch or bedroom window. I want to suggest to you some stars that might belong in our set of Utah state symbols: why not have a Utah star to go with our animals and flowers? Perhaps you will find my writings to be more perspectives on the things we see as we look around than on the details of what science is discovering, for I, too, like to consider ourselves "beholders and expounders of heaven."
A Brief Biography of Von Del Chamberlain
Von Del Chamberlain was born in Kanab, Utah in 1934 where he attended public school until his senior year. He graduated from Granite High School in Salt Lake County, where later he was inducted into the Granite High Hall of Fame. He obtained a bachelor of arts degree, with major in physics, from the University of Utah in 1958, then a masters degree in astronomy from the University of Michigan. He has worked at the McMath-Hulbert solar observatory, the Robert T. Longway Planetarium and the Abrams Planetarium, all in Michigan. In 1973 he joined the staff of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, where he directed the Albert Einstein Spacearium (planetarium), administered the giant screen IMAX theater and developed educational programs. In 1984 he became director of Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City, a post he held until he retired in 1996.
Mr. Chamberlain was the founding member of both the Great Lakes Planetarium Association and the International Planetarium Society. In addition to developing education programs in classrooms and planetariums, he has encouraged "sky interpretation" in outdoor visitation areas, lectured widely in outdoor settings, on cruise ships and elsewhere. He is known for his research on Native American ethnoastronomy, co-hosting the first world conference on that topic. He is the author of many papers and a book titled, "When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America." Currently he teaches, lectures and writes. His writing includes a newspaper column, titled "Looking Around," published twice monthly.
Von Del Chamberlain has said that he is trained as a scientist, his experience is that of an educator and administrator, he thinks of himself as an interpreter of the sky, and his heart is that of a naturalist. The more he learns about the vast universe, the more deeply he loves the tiny Earth, this vanishingly small speck we ride upon as we explore the cosmos while each day unfolds the wonders of our lives.