Mapping the Universe

From the first lunar atlas -1647

A lot of us think of mapping the universe as starting with people like Galileo and the invention of the telescope, but obviously we have ben looking to the heavens and, perhaps in crude ways, trying to put it down and record what we saw for a much longer time. This cataloging of the the heavens and making visible both what we see and later what we imagined was there or beyond is still going on, and I imagine it will continue well past all our lifetimes..

We know a lot now. This week NASAs' Juno spacecraft went into its orbit around Jupiter and we'll know even more. And yet we still have much to learn and discover.

Several articles on the website ponted me to books about the ways we have imagined the shape and design of the uinverse. One of those is Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos by Yale theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan. Her premise is that the advent of modern cosmology and astrophysics is what has shaped our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

The book gets into the mapping of the invisible, such as black holes and dark matter, the accelerating expansion of the universe, the echo of the big bang, the discovery of exoplanets, and the possibility of other universes.

We are far beyond the earliest maps of the Sun and Moon and the attempt to describe why they - or was it the Earth? - was changing positions in the heavens.

The book and this kind of inquiry also reminds us that science will always be changing and incomplete, and that is a thing wonderful in the old full-of-wonder manner.

Astrophysics, say Natarajan, is using powerful tools to answer the same questions that our ancestors tried to answer through mythology:

Cosmology, perhaps more essentially than any other scientific discipline, has transformed not only our conception of the universe but also our place in it. This need to locate ourselves and explain natural phenomena seems primordial. Ancient creation myths shared striking similarities across cultures and helped humans deal with the uncertainty of violent natural phenomena. These supernatural explanations evoke a belief in an invisible and yet more powerful reality, and besides, they rely deeply on channeling our sense of wonder at the natural world. The complex human imagination enabled ancient civilizations to envision entities that were not immediately present but still felt real. Take for instance Enki, the Sumerian god of water whose wrath unleashed floods, or the Hindu god of rain and thunderstorms, Indra, whose bow was the rainbow stretched across the sky with a lightning bolt as his arrow. The most powerful myths are the ones that force us to take huge leaps of imagination but, at the same time, help us to remain rooted.

The Juno spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on the 4th of July this year (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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