What is astronomy? I’ve been playing with this question as I prayerfully prepare for FAW2019. (Reminder, if you want to attend this year’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop, click here or on the advertisement to register!)
The professional astronomers who write for The Catholic Astronomer could provide you with a much better definition of astronomy than I. If I asked one of my non-scientist parishioners to answer this question, the response would probably begin with, “Astrology is the… (fill in blank).” After a frustrating moment of clarifying that my love of astronomy is understanding things like why stars explode and has nothing to do with reading palms, the follow-up answer would be some variation of, “Astronomy is that thing you do when you take your telescope outside and look ‘up there’ from ‘down here.'”
At one level, this definition is well and good for the non-scientist, but my pursuit of astronomy has taught me that this definition contains a geocentric bias. If astronomy is only done “down here” on Earth, are we not implying that the only perspective of the universe that matters is from our common home? Though we know the Earth is not the center of the universe, are we not implicitly contributing to a false vision of creation?
Now, in fairness, the vast majority of our ability to do astronomy forces us to look up from down here. Therefore, the “geocentric bias” I reference may be a bit overstated since it’s the only perspective we really have at this point. Nevertheless, we have come to see that being able to view the Earth from “up there to down here” has transformed how we see ourselves and our common home. Whether it be the iconic images of the Pale Blue Dot or the Apollo 8 picture of Earth-rise from the Moon, simply changing from where we do astronomy can give us new insight into creation and our place in creation.
When looking at the contributions astronomy has provided for us in 2018, two areas of research have been of greatest interest to me that are “from up there to down here” approaches to astronomy.
- The imaging and forecasting of wildfires in Canada and the West Coast of the United States.
- The monitoring of sea ice levels at the North and South Poles.
Living in the state of Wisconsin, we have been dealing all summer with the wildfires from the West Coast of the United States and western Canada. Whether it be tracking the drift of Carbon Monoxide, studying the impact of wildfires on ecosystems from space, or a global look at the spread of dust and smoke, one can clearly see not only that the Earth is on fire, but also the range of impact these events have on our common home. One only needs to look at the satellite images of these fires to understand the importance of astronomy done from a different perspective.
Though a wild range of interpretation can be found online about the status of global sea ice, the best science of the day points to a gradual decline. What will the long-range impact of this decline be upon our common home? What will happen to global temperatures as sea ice decreases? Since the answers to these questions can often be summarizes in the sentiment, “We’re not exactly sure, but we do have some well founded ideas,” many use this latitude to platitude political and religious opinions that have very little to do with actual science and more to do with pushing agendas. For others, this gap in what we observe and the interpretation of what this observation means for our future becomes the template for research that is both exciting and concerning.
The excitement comes from the very nature of science to poke and prod at the unanswered questions that arise from human curiosity.
Concern emerges when we realize that some frightening possibilities emerge for our future based on the data.
Though it is true science doesn’t have all the answers of where our climate future is going, to use that in a post-modern interpretive frame of “every interpretation of the data is just as legitimate as another regardless of how wildly speculative the interpretation is” simply doesn’t hold water. Put another way, a connection I see between faith and science is that the more we grow in legitimate knowledge of our climate, the more we realize how little we know about our climate, just as how growing in knowledge of God points to how ignorant we are in our understand of God.
Nevertheless, the humility we experience in science and theology doesn’t mean we know nothing about God and creation. Quite the contrary. It is precisely the knowledge we grow in that makes us more conscience how careful we must be not to participate in inflammatory rhetoric espousing a false certitude of who is God and how creation works.
Next week I’ll continue my reflection on “astronomy from out there” versus “astronomy from down here.” In the meantime, I would like to get your feedback.
Question: What are the scientific discoveries that have moved you this past year? How have these discoveries shaped how you see the world you live in and how you live in that world? Pray with these questions. Together, may we find through the legitimate exploration of faith and science a deeper understanding of God and the world, even if that understanding teaches us more about what we don’t know than what we do know.