Beyond Earth: Mapping the Universe
Aug 29 2002 @ 12:31 by Tormod Guldvog
Sometimes, a book comes along and redefines everything. This is a book that shows what cosmology really is - and why you should learn more about it.Since Carl Sagan baffled the world with his brilliant 'Cosmos' TV-series, numeros cosmology books have been published. In general, popular cosmology is becoming a field for the technically oriented, and our role in the Universe is reduced to being observers. The book ?Beyond Earth: Mapping the Universe? is a striking example that cosmology can be so much, much more.
After 'Cosmos', this is possibly the first book to bring cosmology firmly back to Earth, and show that for all it is worth, cosmology is a philosophy of Man?s place in the Universe. It is a richly illustrated coffee-table book, written by a group of true experts, and truly the first of the kind to really get the job done.
Because after Carl Sagan something happened. Suddenly, everyone wanted to learn more about the Cosmos surrounding us. One of the bestsellers of the 1980s was Stephen Hawking?s 'A Brief History of Time' ? and I seriously doubt that most people who battled through it actually understood most of what they read. Because this was a new diet for most people ? black holes, relativity, quantum physics, time travel and other esoteric concepts usually found only in the science fiction department.
Sagan and Hawkings probably share the honor of bringing popular cosmology into mainstream science literature. The idea that we were not at the center of the Universe had grown in humanity's mind for quite some time, especially after centuries of great breakthroughs in physics and astronomy, and cosmology was in itself a language which opened up the sciences to people: Here were mathematics, physics, astronomy, and chemistry united once and for all. It may well be that cosmology, more than any other scientific venue, was able to gather these sciences into one understandable entity.
But 25 years after Cosmos, it is striking that popular cosmology has seen a development which makes ita technical study of the Cosmos. Popular cosmology is being presented as a science in itself, where our understanding of the Universe can only be extracted from our knowledge of how black holes are created, how atoms assembled after the Big Bang, or in what direction the Universe is expanding.
It is truly remarkable that this quasi-scientific approach can contain so many absolute truths, but it has long been accepted that the Big Bang really happened, the stars have evolved through many stages, expansion theory is correct ? and relativity has for the most part been proved correct.
If we are to define 'cosmology' as 'the study of the Universe', we might be quite right to talk about the Big Bang, black holes, quasars and antimatter. Because these are of course interesting topics which give inspiration to many people. But that is not the point. Because as popular cosmology is increasingly technologifying itself, we really need a new definition of the word 'cosmology'. Because we have reached a point where normal people may sit at their kitchen table and discuss incredibly difficult stuff ? without understanding a single word of what they say.
'Beyond Earth' takes this issue seriously. Here, cosmology is being treated as a philosophy. True, the book is filled to the brim with popular cosmology, but it consistently puts it into a perspective which will prove invaluable if the genre is to survive. Because here, 'cosmology' is no longer limited to the study of the Universe, but it is indeed defined as "humanity?s perception of the Universe". It is simply liberating to find a book which makes it so obvious that our view of the Universe is highly subjective. What we see of it with our own eyes, is such a vanishingly small part of it, that we must rely on technical gadgetry to see longer than the tips of our noses.
The book starts by placing the unique cosmologies of ancient peoples in context ? by revealing the depth of their subjective views of the world ? in a way that is both enriching and educational. Here are genesis stories from around the globe, as well as fantastic stories which show the enormous impact the stars in the sky have had on human beings since the dawn of our species. The book then proceeds to take a closer look on how modern science has provided us with the opportunity to look farther out into the Universe than ever before ? and it turns out that what we see is more incredible than we could ever imagine.
But most of all, this book shows us that no matter how much data we gather from our Cosmos, no matter how far into it we peek, we do it with very human eyes. We are still firmly rooted in our own galaxy, in our own solar system, on our own planet, in stable orbit around our own star. And this will remain the center of our Universe for so long that it is pure religion to believe anything else ? just like it was for our ancestors of endless generations. And books like this one teach us that we have reason to celebrate that we are living in our own, brief slot of time in the giant Cosmos.
Whether it is 9 or 15 billion years old, the age of the Universe is just one of the mysteries of the Cosmos. Get a grip on things with our cosmology special.
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