Surely you're not telling me they're just there to twinkle?

May 30, 2008 - 9:00 am
Irradiated by LabRat
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“Personally, I liked working for the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything. I’ve worked in the private sector- they expect RESULTS.”
- Ray Stantz, Ghostbusters

Nowadays, when you put “astrology” and “astronomy” in close proximity, and you are not a dictionary, it’s usually because you’re meaning to compare occult nonsense with sober science. One of them is the study of the nature, movement, and behavior of heavenly bodies, and the other is fundamentally the assertion that the bits of bright light in the sky move in ways that directly translate to what *our* bodies and nature are going to be doing. If nothing else, they make handy root-word cousins for comparing science and pseudoscience. However, as some astrologers point out (thanks Chas), astronomy and astrology were close to being the same discipline for the bulk of human history so far.

Humanity has parlayed a few tricks into astonishing success as animals. One of these- a tactic known by most big-brained and long-lived mammals- is noticing and remembering patterns in the environment around them, and relating those patterns to one another. In its most basic form, this is how a species that doesn’t breed like a mayfly and needs its expensive offspring to survive through lean years stays healthy- in flush years, ripe fruit and dumb young animals (meat) might be everywhere, but remembering where they may STILL be found during lean ones is a useful skill. For a big, bright primate- like an orangutan- life is a layered map of resources cued by changes in the length of the day, the temperature, and all the other things that change with the seasons.

Humans became extremely good at this. Between the even bigger brain and even longer lives, and early advances in telling each other things beyond “we can probably still find palms in fruit over this way”, and some even further symbological advancements that let us write such things down, humanity began to pick up on even bigger patterns- like the specific *way* the sun moved through the sky, the patterns of light against the darkness moved over time, and the predictable way the moon changed. People in the tropics began with noticing the strange days on which they cast no shadow. Folks in more temperate climes were most intensely interested in the longest and shortest days of the year- when the light, the warmth, and the ability to grow things to eat was going to go away and when it was going to come back.

In order to start writing *enough* things down and start relating them to one another in consistent ways, let alone start building everything from the ancient equivalent of UNIVAC right on up to Roadrunner, big civilizations were necessary. Without one, every individual human is mostly occupied with keeping all his own resources organized; you need a surplus, and a way of organizing its distribution, before you can have excess citizens with nothing better to do than sit around watching the lights overhead and mapping them.

However advanced any given group of humans became at making sense of the timing and progression of the seasons, and the tides, and the way they all correlated to the way the stars and the planets (identified by being a lot more inclined to wander around the sky than the more fixed points of lights) moved, they were still thinking about them with exactly the same brain that they used to keep track of the fruit, the herds, and the wife’s monthlies. Specifically, the same brain whose instant followup question to “How do these things relate?” is always “what does this have to do with me?” If anything, the followup only becomes more pressing when your entire existence of painstakingly recording the nature and behavior of the lights in the sky rests on it- or at least on your ability to justify such pure knowledge as valuable to someone who has no knowledge of the processions of the heavens, but DOES have a lot of goats and wheat to spare.

There was certainly little enough reason to suspect that the earth was NOT at the center of the whole thing; earth is a fixed point of reference to anyone standing on it. There was even less reason to suspect that the complex, beautiful system of patterns that the heavens revolved through had no more relevance to humanity than a useful reference system for good times for planting and harvesting; even an illiterate farmer can figure THAT sort of thing out. Stars were the stuff of math, the purest marriage of abstract symbolism and concrete reality, and ultimately the most powerful tool the tool-using apes were ever to stumble across. It all had to mean something- and the same people who wrote everything else down wrote down what they suspected that might be, relating it to everything else they associated with the heavens, with true justification or without it- it can be hard to tell. Ultimately, the body of any contemporary state of knowledge lies in what’s been written down so far.

As it turns out, reality is usually far more preposterous than mere intuition leads us to suspect.

milky way

Eventually, the math led us far enough in the right direction that old assumptions based primarily on “makes the most sense of the time” began to crumble and new ones based on “this is the only way we can make the figures work” rose, eventually to the point where we could make such accurate predictions about the sky and the deeper space beyond it that we could stick a probe into a transient celestial object 429 million kilometers away.

Math is wonderful. It gave us astrology and astronomy in a single package born of human nature and solid observation, and then got us out of needing astrology as the most logical set of assumptions about our relationship to the stars. Math can do nearly anything.

It is always useful, however, to remember that math, being a pure tool for pattern-finding, will find the patterns in anything.

Be sure to swing by Matt’s, Marko’s, Tam’s, LawDog’s, and Ambulance Driver’s for everyone else’s take on this weeks’ theme.

No Responses to “Surely you're not telling me they're just there to twinkle?”

  1. Rogue Medic Says:

    And math will help reveal when those patterns are just there by coincidence. At least if we use the correct method and large enough samples.

    I love the way you relate it to egocentric presumptions.

  2. Matt G Says:

    I love you, LabRat.

    But you’d've scored higher if I’d gotten to see painted nekkid wimmen, like on some posts I know.

    What if…? Well, we’ll talk.