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All posts for the month June, 2004

Cassini shows us Saturn

Cassini shows us Saturn

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my first experience covering a planetary mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1981. It was Saturn, and in a great deja vu experience, 23 years later, I’m watching from the comfort of my home office while another mission prepares to explore Saturn in greater depth. It’s not nearly as heart-pounding (for me, anyway), but for the mission planners who have been waiting for 7 years for this moment, it is astoundingly exciting, the chance of a lifetime to study Saturn. The Saturn image here was taken a couple of days ago and it brings all those memories back… and entices us to imagine what the next months of exploration will bring us. Stay tuned!

When I was a teenager there was a popular poster with a poem called “Desiderata.” One stanza of this work particularly caught my attention:

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

That poster hung on my wall for a couple of years until I headed off to college, but I credit it with reawakening my interest in all things cosmological. (Though I doubt I thought of an interest in the origin and evolution of everything in the universe as an interest in cosmology.) I think that reading that piece was the first time I heard a glimmering of the idea that right down to our blood and bones and the air we breathe and the light we see we are intimately tied to the stars and galaxies.
Radical idea that, especially if one believes in alternate theories of creation. It seems only natural that an evolving universe would eventually come up with stuff like human beings, although we now know that life (at least as we know it) is the result of many rare confluences of events and processes. Some say that argues for a creator, or some organizing influence. Others say that it doesn’t. In truth we’ll never really know because so much of the universe, particularly the instant of its birth (the Big Bang) is forever veiled from us. But we use astronomy and astrophysics to probe as much as we can into the depths of the cosmos to find clues to the origins of everything we know.
It’s my opinion that the universe has no conscious, overarching planner shoving the cosmic chess pieces here and there just to see how things will turn out. Sure there are laws which govern the actions of matter (all forms) and forces, but those aren’t evidence of such a planner. Is there an organizing principle? Sure. But again, that’s no evidence of a planner.
In truth, it’s not important (in the cosmic scheme of things) that a set of life forms on a planet hidden away in the outskirts of a galaxy (one of billions of galaxies) has devised some cosmic architect and insists that everyone was created by that unseen influence. What IS important that we continually search the cosmos for answers to how everything we can detect came about, how the stars and galaxies were formed, and what processes lead the constant unfolding of the universe. In the end, that’s all we can really do—strive to learn.