Cosmos - Carl Sagan (1980)
Chapter 7. THE BACKBONE OF NIGHT
I would rather understand one cause than be King of Persia.
—Democritus of Abdera
If a faithful account was rendered of Man’s ideas upon Divinity, he would be obliged to acknowledge, that for the most part the word “gods” has been used to express the concealed, remote, unknown causes of the effects he witnessed; that he applies this term when the spring of the natural, the source of known causes, ceases to be visible: as soon as he loses the thread of these causes, or as soon as his mind can no longer follow the chain, he solves the difficulty, terminates his research, by ascribing it to his gods … When, therefore, he ascribes to his gods the production of some phenomenon … does he, in fact, do any thing more than substitute for the darkness of his own mind, a sound to which he has been accustomed to listen with reverential awe?
—Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron von Holbach,
Système de la Nature, London, 1770
When I was little, I lived in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn in the City of New York. I knew my immediate neighborhood intimately, every apartment building, pigeon coop, backyard, front stoop, empty lot, elm tree, ornamental railing, coal chute and wall for playing Chinese handball, among which the brick exterior of a theater called the Loew’s Stillwell was of superior quality. I knew where many people lived: Bruno and Dino, Ronald and Harvey, Sandy, Bernie, Danny, Jackie and Myra. But more than a few blocks away, north of the raucous automobile traffic and elevated railway on 86th Street, was a strange unknown territory, off-limits to my wanderings. It could have been Mars for all I knew.
Even with an early bedtime, in winter you could sometimes see the stars. I would look at them, twinkling and remote, and wonder what they were. I would ask older children and adults, who would only reply, “They’re lights in the sky, kid.” I could see they were lights in the sky. But what were they? Just small hovering lamps? Whatever for? I felt a kind of sorrow for them: a commonplace whose strangeness remained somehow hidden from my incurious fellows. There had to be some deeper answer.
As soon as I was old enough, my parents gave me my first library card. I think the library was on 85th Street, an alien land. Immediately, I asked the librarian for something on stars. She returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained, and for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another book—the right kind of book. I opened it breathlessly and read until I found it. The book said something astonishing, a very big thought. It said that the stars were suns, only very far away. The Sun was a star, but close up.
Imagine that you took the Sun and moved it so far away that it was just a tiny twinkling point of light. How far away would you have to move it? I was innocent of the notion of angular size. I was ignorant of the inverse square law for light propagation. I had not a ghost of a chance of calculating the distance to the stars. But I could tell that if the stars were suns, they had to be very far away—farther away than 85th Street, farther away than Manhattan, farther away, probably, than New Jersey. The Cosmos was much bigger than I had guessed.
Later I read another astonishing fact. The Earth, which includes Brooklyn, is a planet, and it goes around the Sun. There are other planets. They also go around the Sun; some are closer to it and some are farther away. But the planets do not shine by their own light, as the Sun does. They merely reflect light from the Sun. If you were a great distance away, you would not see the Earth and the other planets at all; they would be only faint luminous points, lost in the glare of the Sun. Well, then, I thought, it stood to reason that the other stars must have planets too, ones we have not yet detected, and some of those other planets should have life (why not?), a kind of life probably different from life as we know it, life in Brooklyn. So I decided I would be an astronomer, learn about the stars and planets and, if I could, go and visit them.
It has been my immense good fortune to have parents and some teachers who encouraged this odd ambition and to live in this time, the first moment in human history when we are, in fact, visiting other worlds and engaging in a deep reconnaissance of the Cosmos. If I had been born in a much earlier age, no matter how great my dedication, I would not have understood what the stars and planets are. I would not have known that there were other suns and other worlds. This is one of the great secrets, wrested from Nature through a million years of patient observation and courageous thinking by our ancestors.
What are the stars? Such questions are as natural as an infant’s smile. We have always asked them. What is different about our time is that at last we know some of the answers. Books and libraries provide a ready means for finding out what those answers are. In biology there is a principle of powerful if imperfect applicability called recapitulation: in our individual embryonic development we retrace the evolutionary history of the species. There is, I think, a kind of recapitulation that occurs in our individual intellectual developments as well. We unconsciously retrace the thoughts of our remote ancestors. Imagine a time before science, a time before libraries. Imagine a time hundreds of thousands of years ago. We were then just about as smart, just as curious, just as involved in things social and sexual. But the experiments had not yet been done, the inventions had not yet been made. It was the childhood of genus Homo. Imagine the time when fire was first discovered. What were human lives like then? What did our ancestors believe the stars were? Sometimes, in my fantasies, I imagine there was someone who thought like this:
We eat berries and roots. Nuts and leaves. And dead animals. Some animals we find. Some we kill. We know which foods are good and which are dangerous. If we taste some foods we are struck down, in punishment for eating them. We did not mean to do something bad. But foxglove or hemlock can kill you. We love our children and our friends. We warn them of such foods.
When we hunt animals, then also can we be killed. We can be gored. Or trampled. Or eaten. What animals do means life and death for us: how they behave, what tracks they leave, their times for mating and giving birth, their times for wandering. We must know these things. We tell our children. They will tell their children.
We depend on animals. We follow them—especially in winter when there are few plants to eat. We are wandering hunters and gatherers. We call ourselves the hunterfolk.
Most of us fall asleep under the sky or under a tree or in its branches. We use animal skins for clothing: to keep us warm, to cover our nakedness and sometimes as a hammock. When we wear the animal skins we feel the animal’s power. We leap with the gazelle. We hunt with the bear. There is a bond between us and the animals. We hunt and eat the animals. They hunt and eat us. We are part of one another.
We make tools and stay alive. Some of us are experts at splitting, flaking, sharpening and polishing, as well as finding, rocks. Some rocks we tie with animal sinew to a wooden handle and make an ax. With the ax we strike plants and animals. Other rocks are tied to long sticks. If we are quiet and watchful, we can sometimes come close to an animal and stick it with the spear.
Meat spoils. Sometimes we are hungry and try not to notice. Sometimes we mix herbs with the bad meat to hide the taste. We fold foods that will not spoil into pieces of animal skin. Or big leaves. Or the shell of a large nut. It is wise to put food aside and carry it. If we eat this food too early, some of us will starve later. So we must help one another. For this and many other reasons we have rules. Everyone must obey the rules. We have always had rules. Rules are sacred.
One day there was a storm, with much lightning and thunder and rain. The little ones are afraid of storms. And sometimes so am I. The secret of the storm is hidden. The thunder is deep and loud; the lightning is brief and bright. Maybe someone very powerful is very angry. It must be someone in the sky, I think.
After the storm there was a flickering and crackling in the forest nearby. We went to see. There was a bright, hot, leaping thing, yellow and red. We had never seen such a thing before. We now call it “flame.” It has a special smell. In a way it is alive. It eats food. It eats plants and tree limbs and even whole trees, if you let it. It is strong. But it is not very smart. If all the food is gone, it dies. It will not walk a spear’s throw from one tree to another if there is no food along the way. It cannot walk without eating. But where there is much food, it grows and makes many flame children.
One of us had a brave and fearful thought: to capture the flame, feed it a little, and make it our friend. We found some long branches of hard wood. The flame was eating them, but slowly. We could pick them up by the end that had no flame. If you run fast with a small flame, it dies. Their children are weak. We did not run. We walked, shouting good wishes. “Do not die,” we said to the flame. The other hunterfolk looked with wide eyes.
Ever after, we have carried it with us. We have a flame mother to feed the flame slowly so it does not die of hunger.* Flame is a wonder, and useful too; surely a gift from powerful beings. Are they the same as the angry beings in the storm?
The flame keeps us warm on cold nights. It gives us light. It makes holes in the darkness when the Moon is new. We can fix spears at night for tomorrow’s hunt. And if we are not tired, even in the darkness we can see each other and talk. Also—a good thing!—fire keeps animals away. We can be hurt at night. Sometimes we have been eaten, even by small animals, hyenas and wolves. Now it is different. Now the flame keeps the animals back. We see them baying softly in the dark, prowling, their eyes glowing in the light of the flame. They are frightened of the flame. But we are not frightened. The flame is ours. We take care of the flame. The flame takes care of us.
The sky is important. It covers us. It speaks to us. Before the time we found the flame, we would lie back in the dark and look up at all the points of light. Some points would come together to make a picture in the sky. One of us could see the pictures better than the rest. She taught us the star pictures and what names to call them. We would sit around late at night and make up stories about the pictures in the sky: lions, dogs, bears, hunterfolk. Other, stranger things. Could they be the pictures of the powerful beings in the sky, the ones who make the storms when angry?
Mostly, the sky does not change. The same star pictures are there year after year. The Moon grows from nothing to a thin sliver to a round ball, and then back again to nothing. When the Moon changes, the women bleed. Some tribes have rules against sex at certain times in the growing and shrinking of the Moon. Some tribes scratch the days of the Moon or the days that the women bleed on antler bones. Then they can plan ahead and obey their rules. Rules are sacred.
The stars are very far away. When we climb a hill or a tree they are no closer. And clouds come between us and the stars: the stars must be behind the clouds. The Moon, as it slowly moves, passes in front of stars. Later you can see that the stars are not harmed. The Moon does not eat stars. The stars must be behind the Moon. They flicker. A strange, cold, white faraway light. Many of them. All over the sky. But only at night. I wonder what they are.
After we found the flame, I was sitting near the campfire wondering about the stars. Slowly a thought came: The stars are flame, I thought. Then I had another thought: The stars are campfires that other hunterfolk light at night. The stars give a smaller light than campfires. So the stars must be campfires very far away. “But,” they ask me, “how can there be campfires in the sky? Why do the campfires and the hunter people around those flames not fall down at our feet? Why don’t strange tribes drop from the sky?”
Those are good questions. They trouble me. Sometimes I think the sky is half of a big eggshell or a big nutshell. I think the people around those faraway campfires look down at us—except for them it seems up—and say that we are in their sky, and wonder why we do not fall up to them, if you see what I mean. But hunterfolk say, “Down is down and up is up.” That is a good answer, too.
There is another thought that one of us had. His thought is that night is a great black animal skin, thrown up over the sky. There are holes in the skin. We look through the holes. And we see flame. His thought is not just that there is flame in a few places where we see stars. He thinks there is flame everywhere. He thinks flame covers the whole sky. But the skin hides the flame. Except where there are holes.
Some stars wander. Like the animals we hunt. Like us. If you watch with care over many months, you find they move. There are only five of them, like the fingers on a hand. They wander slowly among the stars. If the campfire thought is true, those stars must be tribes of wandering hunterfolk, carrying big fires. But I don’t see how wandering stars can be holes in a skin. When you make a hole, there it is. A hole is a hole. Holes do not wander. Also, I don’t want to be surrounded by a sky of flame. If the skin fell, the night sky would be bright—too bright—like seeing flame everywhere. I think a sky of flame would eat us all. Maybe there are two kinds of powerful beings in the sky. Bad ones, who wish the flame to eat us. And good ones who put up the skin to keep the flame away. We must find some way to thank the good ones.
I don’t know if the stars are campfires in the sky. Or holes in a skin through which the flame of power looks down on us. Sometimes I think one way. Sometimes I think a different way. Once I thought there are no campfires and no holes but something else, too hard for me to understand.
Rest your neck on a log. Your head goes back. Then you can see only the sky. No hills, no trees, no hunterfolk, no campfire. Just sky. Sometimes I feel I may fall up into the sky. If the stars are campfires, I would like to visit those other hunterfolk—the ones who wander. Then I feel good about falling up. But if the stars are holes in a skin, I become afraid. I don’t want to fall up through a hole and into the flame of power.
I wish I knew which was true. I don’t like not knowing.
I do not imagine that many members of a hunter/gatherer group had thoughts like these about the stars. Perhaps, over the ages, a few did, but never all these thoughts in the same person. Yet, sophisticated ideas are common in such communities. For example, the !Kung* Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana have an explanation for the Milky Way, which at their latitude is often overhead. They call it “the backbone of night,” as if the sky were some great beast inside which we live. Their explanation makes the Milky Way useful as well as understandable. The !Kung believe the Milky Way holds up the night; that if it were not for the Milky Way, fragments of darkness would come crashing down at our feet. It is an elegant idea.
Metaphors like those about celestial campfires or galactic backbones were eventually replaced in most human cultures by another idea: The powerful beings in the sky were promoted to gods. They were given names and relatives, and special responsibilities for the cosmic services they were expected to perform. There was a god or goddess for every human concern. Gods ran Nature. Nothing could happen without their direct intervention. If they were happy, there was plenty of food, and humans were happy. But if something displeased the gods—and sometimes it took very little—the consequences were awesome: droughts, storms, wars, earthquakes, volcanoes, epidemics. The gods had to be propitiated, and a vast industry of priests and oracles arose to make the gods less angry. But because the gods were capricious, you could not be sure what they would do. Nature was a mystery. It was hard to understand the world.
Little remains of the Heraion on the Aegean isle of Samos, one of the wonders of the ancient world, a great temple dedicated to Hera, who began her career as goddess of the sky. She was the patron deity of Samos, playing the same role there as Athena did in Athens. Much later she married Zeus, the chief of the Olympian gods. They honeymooned on Samos, the old stories tell us. The Greek religion explained that diffuse band of light in the night sky as the milk of Hera, squirted from her breast across the heavens, a legend that is the origin of the phrase Westerners still use—the Milky Way. Perhaps it originally represented the important insight that the sky nurtures the Earth; if so, that meaning seems to have been forgotten millennia ago.
We are, almost all of us, descended from people who responded to the dangers of existence by inventing stories about unpredictable or disgruntled deities. For a long time the human instinct to understand was thwarted by facile religious explanations, as in ancient Greece in the time of Homer, where there were gods of the sky and the Earth, the thunderstorm, the oceans and the underworld, fire and time and love and war; where every tree and meadow had its dryad and maenad.
For thousands of years humans were oppressed—as some of us still are—by the notion that the universe is a marionette whose strings are pulled by a god or gods, unseen and inscrutable. Then, 2,500 years ago, there was a glorious awakening in Ionia: on Samos and the other nearby Greek colonies that grew up among the islands and inlets of the busy eastern Aegean Sea.* Suddenly there were people who believed that everything was made of atoms; that human beings and other animals had sprung from simpler forms; that diseases were not caused by demons or the gods; that the Earth was only a planet going around the Sun. And that the stars were very far away.
This revolution made Cosmos out of Chaos. The early Greeks had believed that the first being was Chaos, corresponding to the phrase in Genesis in the same context, “without form.” Chaos created and then mated with a goddess called Night, and their offspring eventually produced all the gods and men. A universe created from Chaos was in perfect keeping with the Greek belief in an unpredictable Nature run by capricious gods. But in the sixth century B.C., in Ionia, a new concept developed, one of the great ideas of the human species. The universe is knowable, the ancient Ionians argued, because it exhibits an internal order: there are regularities in Nature that permit its secrets to be uncovered. Nature is not entirely unpredictable; there are rules even she must obey. This ordered and admirable character of the universe was called Cosmos.
But why Ionia, why in these unassuming and pastoral landscapes, these remote islands and inlets of the Eastern Mediterranean? Why not in the great cities of India or Egypt, Babylonia, China or Mesoamerica? China had an astronomical tradition millennia old; it invented paper and printing, rockets, clocks, silk, porcelain, and ocean-going navies. Some historians argue it was nevertheless too traditionalist a society, too unwilling to adopt innovations. Why not India, an extremely rich, mathematically gifted culture? Because, some historians maintain, of a rigid fascination with the idea of an infinitely old universe condemned to an endless cycle of deaths and rebirths, of souls and universes, in which nothing fundamentally new could ever happen. Why not Mayan and Aztec societies, which were accomplished in astronomy and captivated, as the Indians were, by large numbers? Because, some historians declare, they lacked the aptitude or impetus for mechanical invention. The Mayans and the Aztecs did not even—except for children’s toys—invent the wheel.
The Ionians had several advantages. Ionia is an island realm. Isolation, even if incomplete, breeds diversity. With many different islands, there was a variety of political systems. No single concentration of power could enforce social and intellectual conformity in all the islands. Free inquiry became possible. The promotion of superstition was not considered a political necessity. Unlike many other cultures, the Ionians were at the crossroads of civilizations, not at one of the centers. In Ionia, the Phoenician alphabet was first adapted to Greek usage and widespread literacy became possible. Writing was no longer a monopoly of the priests and scribes. The thoughts of many were available for consideration and debate. Political power was in the hands of the merchants, who actively promoted the technology on which their prosperity depended. It was in the Eastern Mediterranean that African, Asian, and European civilizations, including the great cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, met and cross-fertilized in a vigorous and heady confrontation of prejudices, languages, ideas and gods. What do you do when you are faced with several different gods each claiming the same territory? The Babylonian Marduk and the Greek Zeus was each considered master of the sky and king of the gods. You might decide that Marduk and Zeus were really the same. You might also decide, since they had quite different attributes, that one of them was merely invented by the priests. But if one, why not both?
And so it was that the great idea arose, the realization that there might be a way to know the world without the god hypothesis; that there might be principles, forces, laws of nature, through which the world could be understood without attributing the fall of every sparrow to the direct intervention of Zeus.
China and India and Mesoamerica would, I think, have tumbled to science too, if only they had been given a little more time. Cultures do not develop with identical rhythms or evolve in lock-step. They arise at different times and progress at different rates. The scientific world view works so well, explains so much and resonates so harmoniously with the most advanced parts of our brains that in time, I think, virtually every culture on the Earth, left to its own devices, would have discovered science. Some culture had to be first. As it turned out, Ionia was the place where science was born.
Between 600 and 400 B.C., this great revolution in human thought began. The key to the revolution was the hand. Some of the brilliant Ionian thinkers were the sons of sailors and farmers and weavers. They were accustomed to poking and fixing, unlike the priests and scribes of other nations, who, raised in luxury, were reluctant to dirty their hands. They rejected superstition, and they worked wonders. In many cases we have only fragmentary or secondhand accounts of what happened. The metaphors used then may be obscure to us now. There was almost certainly a conscious effort a few centuries later to suppress the new insights. The leading figures in this revolution were men with Greek names, largely unfamiliar to us today, but the truest pioneers in the development of our civilization and our humanity.
The first Ionian scientist was Thales of Miletus, a city in Asia across a narrow channel of water from the island of Samos. He had traveled in Egypt and was conversant with the knowledge of Babylon. It is said that he predicted a solar eclipse. He learned how to measure the height of a pyramid from the length of its shadow and the angle of the Sun above the horizon, a method employed today to determine the heights of the mountains of the Moon. He was the first to prove geometric theorems of the sort codified by Euclid three centuries later—for example, the proposition that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal. There is a clear continuity of intellectual effort from Thales to Euclid to Isaac Newton’s purchase of the Elements of Geometry at Stourbridge Fair in 1663 (p. 68), the event that precipitated modern science and technology.
Thales attempted to understand the world without invoking the intervention of the gods. Like the Babylonians, he believed the world to have once been water. To explain the dry land, the Babylonians added that Marduk had placed a mat on the face of the waters and piled dirt upon it.* Thales held a similar view, but, as Benjamin Farrington said, “left Marduk out.” Yes, everything was once water, but the Earth formed out of the oceans by a natural process—similar, he thought, to the silting he had observed at the delta of the Nile. Indeed, he thought that water was a common principle underlying all of matter, just as today we might say the same of electrons, protons and neutrons, or of quarks. Whether Thales’ conclusion was correct is not as important as his approach: The world was not made by the gods, but instead was the work of material forces interacting in Nature. Thales brought back from Babylon and Egypt the seeds of the new sciences of astronomy and geometry, sciences that would sprout and grow in the fertile soil of Ionia.
Very little is known about the personal life of Thales, but one revealing anecdote is told by Aristotle in his Politics:
[Thales] was reproached for his poverty, which was supposed to show that philosophy is of no use. According to the story, he knew by his skill [in interpreting the heavens] while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest time came, and many were wanted all at once, he let them out at any rate which he pleased and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.
He was also famous as a political sage, successfully urging the Milesians to resist assimilation by Croesus, King of Lydia, and unsuccessfully urging a federation of all the island states of Ionia to oppose the Lydians.
Anaximander of Miletus was a friend and colleague of Thales, one of the first people we know of to do an experiment. By examining the moving shadow cast by a vertical stick he determined accurately the length of the year and the seasons. For ages men had used sticks to club and spear one another. Anaximander used one to measure time. He was the first person in Greece to make a sundial, a map of the known world and a celestial globe that showed the patterns of the constellations. He believed the Sun, the Moon and the stars to be made of fire seen through moving holes in the dome of the sky, probably a much older idea. He held the remarkable view that the Earth is not suspended or supported from the heavens, but that it remains by itself at the center of the universe; since it was equidistant from all places on the “celestial sphere,” there was no force that could move it.
He argued that we are so helpless at birth that, if the first human infants had been put into the world on their own, they would immediately have died. From this Anaximander concluded that human beings arose from other animals with more self-reliant newborns: He proposed the spontaneous origin of life in mud, the first animals being fish covered with spines. Some descendants of these fishes eventually abandoned the water and moved to dry land, where they evolved into other animals by the transmutation of one form into another. He believed in an infinite number of worlds, all inhabited, and all subject to cycles of dissolution and regeneration. “Nor,” as Saint Augustine ruefully complained, “did he, any more than Thales, attribute the cause of all this ceaseless activity to a divine mind.”
In the year 540 B.C. or thereabouts, on the island of Samos, there came to power a tyrant named Polycrates. He seems to have started as a caterer and then gone on to international piracy. Polycrates was a generous patron of the arts, sciences and engineering. But he oppressed his own people; he made war on his neighbors; he quite rightly feared invasion. So he surrounded his capital city with a massive wall, about six kilometers long, whose remains stand to this day. To carry water from a distant spring through the fortifications, he ordered a great tunnel built. A kilometer long, it pierces a mountain. Two cuttings were dug from either end which met almost perfectly in the middle. The project took about fifteen years to complete, a testament to the civil engineering of the day and an indication of the extraordinary practical capability of the Ionians. But there is another and more ominous side to the enterprise: it was built in part by slaves in chains, many captured by the pirate ships of Polycrates.
This was the time of Theodorus, the master engineer of the age, credited among the Greeks with the invention of the key, the ruler, the carpenter’s square, the level, the lathe, bronze casting and central heating. Why are there no monuments to this man? Those who dreamed and speculated about the laws of Nature talked with the technologists and the engineers. They were often the same people. The theoretical and the practical were one.
About the same time, on the nearby island of Cos, Hippocrates was establishing his famous medical tradition, now barely remembered because of the Hippocratic oath. It was a practical and effective school of medicine, which Hippocrates insisted had to be based on the contemporary equivalent of physics and chemistry.* But it also had its theoretical side. In his book On Ancient Medicine, Hippocrates wrote: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”
In time, the Ionian influence and the experimental method spread to the mainland of Greece, to Italy, to Sicily. There was once a time when hardly anyone believed in air. They knew about breathing, of course, and they thought the wind was the breath of the gods. But the idea of air as a static, material but invisible substance was unimagined. The first recorded experiment on air was performed by a physician† named Empedocles, who flourished around 450 B.C. Some accounts claim he identified himself as a god. But perhaps it was only that he was so clever that others thought him a god. He believed that light travels very fast, but not infinitely fast. He taught that there was once a much greater variety of living things on the Earth, but that many races of beings “must have been unable to beget and continue their kind. For in the case of every species that exists, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence protected and preserved it.” In this attempt to explain the lovely adaptation of organisms to their environments, Empedocles, like Anaximander and Democritus (see below), clearly anticipated some aspects of Darwin’s great idea of evolution by natural selection.
Empedocles performed his experiment with a household implement people had used for centuries, the so-called clepsydra or “water thief,” which was used as a kitchen ladle. A brazen sphere with an open neck and small holes in the bottom, it is filled by immersing it in water. If you pull it out with the neck uncovered, the water pours out of the holes, making a little shower. But if you pull it out properly, with your thumb covering the neck, the water is retained within the sphere until you lift your thumb. If you try to fill it with the neck covered, nothing happens. Some material substance must be in the way of the water. We cannot see such a substance. What could it be? Empedocles argued that it could only be air. A thing we cannot see can exert pressure, can frustrate my wish to fill a vessel with water if I were dumb enough to leave my finger on the neck. Empedocles had discovered the invisible. Air, he thought, must be matter in a form so finely divided that it could not be seen.
Empedocles is said to have died in an apotheotic fit by leaping into the hot lava at the summit caldera of the great volcano of Aetna. But I sometimes imagine that he merely slipped during a courageous and pioneering venture in observational geophysics.
This hint, this whiff, of the existence of atoms was carried much further by a man named Democritus, who came from the Ionian colony of Abdera in northern Greece. Abdera was a kind of joke town. If in 430 B.C. you told a story about someone from Abdera, you were guaranteed a laugh. It was in a way the Brooklyn of its time. For Democritus all of life was to be enjoyed and understood; understanding and enjoyment were the same thing. He said that “a life without festivity is a long road without an inn.” Democritus may have come from Abdera, but he was no dummy. He believed that a large number of worlds had formed spontaneously out of diffuse matter in space, evolved and then decayed. At a time when no one knew about impact craters, Democritus thought that worlds on occasion collide; he believed that some worlds wandered alone through the darkness of space, while others were accompanied by several suns and moons; that some worlds were inhabited, while others had no plants or animals or even water; that the simplest forms of life arose from a kind of primeval ooze. He taught that perception—the reason, say, I think there is a pen in my hand—was a purely physical and mechanistic process; that thinking and feeling were attributes of matter put together in a sufficiently fine and complex way and not due to some spirit infused into matter by the gods.
Democritus invented the word atom, Greek for “unable to be cut.” Atoms were the ultimate particles, forever frustrating our attempts to break them into smaller pieces. Everything, he said, is a collection of atoms, intricately assembled. Even we. “Nothing exists,” he said, “but atoms and the void.”
When we cut an apple, the knife must pass through empty spaces between the atoms, Democritus argued. If there were no such empty spaces, no void, the knife would encounter the impenetrable atoms, and the apple could not be cut. Having cut a slice from a cone, say, let us compare the cross sections of the two pieces. Are the exposed areas equal? No, said Democritus. The slope of the cone forces one side of the slice to have a slightly smaller cross section than the other. If the two areas were exactly equal, we would have a cylinder, not a cone. No matter how sharp the knife, the two pieces have unequal cross sections. Why? Because, on the scale of the very small, matter exhibits some irreducible roughness. This fine scale of roughness Democritus identified with the world of the atoms. His arguments were not those we use today, but they were subtle and elegant, derived from everyday life. And his conclusions were fundamentally correct.
In a related exercise, Democritus imagined calculating the volume of a cone or a pyramid by a very large number of extremely small stacked plates tapering in size from the base to the apex. He had stated the problem that, in mathematics, is called the theory of limits. He was knocking at the door of the differential and integral calculus, that fundamental tool for understanding the world that was not, so far as we know from written records, in fact discovered until the time of Isaac Newton. Perhaps if Democritus’ work had not been almost completely destroyed, there would have been calculus by the time of Christ.*
Thomas Wright marveled in 1750 that Democritus had believed the Milky Way to be composed mainly of unresolved stars: “long before astronomy reaped any benefit from the improved sciences of optics; [he] saw, as we may say, through the eye of reason, full as far into infinity as the most able astronomers in more advantageous times have done since.” Beyond the Milk of Hera, past the Backbone of Night, the mind of Democritus soared.
As a person, Democritus seems to have been somewhat unusual. Women, children and sex discomfited him, in part because they took time away from thinking. But he valued friendship, held cheerfulness to be the goal of life and devoted a major philosophical inquiry to the origin and nature of enthusiasm. He journeyed to Athens to visit Socrates and then found himself too shy to introduce himself. He was a close friend of Hippocrates. He was awed by the beauty and elegance of the physical world. He felt that poverty in a democracy was preferable to wealth in a tyranny. He believed that the prevailing religions of his time were evil and that neither immortal souls nor immortal gods exist: “Nothing exists, but atoms and the void.”
There is no record of Democritus having been persecuted for his opinions—but then, he came from Abdera. However, in his time the brief tradition of tolerance for unconventional views began to erode and then to shatter. People came to be punished for having unusual ideas. A portrait of Democritus is now on the Greek hundred-drachma bill. But his insights were suppressed, his influence on history made minor. The mystics were beginning to win.
Anaxagoras was an Ionian experimentalist who flourished around 450 B.C. and lived in Athens. He was a rich man, indifferent to his wealth but passionate about science. Asked what was the purpose of life, he replied, “the investigation of the Sun, the Moon, and the heavens,” the reply of a true astronomer. He performed a clever experiment in which a single drop of white liquid, like cream, was shown not to lighten perceptibly the contents of a great pitcher of dark liquid, like wine. There must, he concluded, be changes deducible by experiment that are too subtle to be perceived directly by the senses.
Anaxagoras was not nearly so radical as Democritus. Both were thoroughgoing materialists, not in prizing possessions but in holding that matter alone provided the underpinnings of the world. Anaxagoras believed in a special mind substance and disbelieved in the existence of atoms. He thought humans were more intelligent than other animals because of our hands, a very Ionian idea.
He was the first person to state clearly that the Moon shines by reflected light, and he accordingly devised a theory of the phases of the Moon. This doctrine was so dangerous that the manuscript describing it had to be circulated in secret, an Athenian samizdat. It was not in keeping with the prejudices of the time to explain the phases or eclipses of the Moon by the relative geometry of the Earth, the Moon and the self-luminous Sun. Aristotle, two generations later, was content to argue that those things happened because it was the nature of the Moon to have phases and eclipses—mere verbal juggling, an explanation that explains nothing.
The prevailing belief was that the Sun and Moon were gods. Anaxagoras held that the Sun and stars are fiery stones. We do not feel the heat of the stars because they are too far away. He also thought that the Moon has mountains (right) and inhabitants (wrong). He held that the Sun was so huge that it was probably larger than the Peloponnesus, roughly the southern third of Greece. His critics thought this estimate excessive and absurd.
Anaxagoras was brought to Athens by Pericles, its leader in its time of greatest glory, but also the man whose actions led to the Peloponnesian War, which destroyed Athenian democracy. Pericles delighted in philosophy and science, and Anaxagoras was one of his principal confidants. There are those who think that in this role Anaxagoras contributed significantly to the greatness of Athens. But Pericles had political problems. He was too powerful to be attacked directly, so his enemies attacked those close to him. Anaxagoras was convicted and imprisoned for the religious crime of impiety—because he had taught that the Moon was made of ordinary matter, that it was a place, and that the Sun was a red-hot stone in the sky. Bishop John Wilkins commented in 1638 on these Athenians: “Those zealous idolators [counted] it a great blasphemy to make their God a stone, whereas notwithstanding they were so senseless in their adoration of idols as to make a stone their God.” Pericles seems to have engineered Anaxagoras’ release from prison, but it was too late. In Greece the tide was turning, although the Ionian tradition continued in Alexandrian Egypt two hundred years later.
The great scientists from Thales to Democritus and Anaxagoras have usually been described in history or philosophy books as “Presocratics,” as if their main function was to hold the philosophical fort until the advent of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and perhaps influence them a little. Instead, the old Ionians represent a different and largely contradictory tradition, one in much better accord with modern science. That their influence was felt powerfully for only two or three centuries is an irreparable loss for all those human beings who lived between the Ionian Awakening and the Italian Renaissance.
Perhaps the most influential person ever associated with Samos was Pythagoras,* a contemporary of Polycrates in the sixth century B.C. According to local tradition, he lived for a time in a cave on the Samian Mount Kerkis, and was the first person in the history of the world to deduce mat the Earth is a sphere. Perhaps he argued by analogy with the Moon and the Sun, or noticed the curved shadow of the Earth on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, or recognized that when ships leave Samos and recede over the horizon, their masts disappear last.
He or his disciples discovered the Pythagorean theorem: the sum of the squares of the shorter sides of a right triangle equals the square of the longer side. Pythagoras did not simply enumerate examples of this theorem; he developed a method of mathematical deduction to prove the thing generally. The modern tradition of mathematical argument, essential to all of science, owes much to Pythagoras. It was he who first used the word Cosmos to denote a well-ordered and harmonious universe, a world amenable to human understanding.
Many Ionians believed the underlying harmony of the universe to be accessible through observation and experiment, the method that dominates science today. However, Pythagoras employed a very different method. He taught that the laws of Nature could be deduced by pure thought. He and his followers were not fundamentally experimentalists.* They were mathematicians. And they were thoroughgoing mystics. According to Bertrand Russell, in a perhaps uncharitable passage, Pythagoras “founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. His religion was embodied in a religious order, which, here and there, acquired control of the State and established a rule of the saints. But the unregenerate hankered after beans, and sooner or later rebelled.”
The Pythagoreans delighted in the certainty of mathematical demonstration, the sense of a pure and unsullied world accessible to the human intellect, a Cosmos in which the sides of right triangles perfectly obey simple mathematical relationships. It was in striking contrast to the messy reality of the workaday world. They believed that in their mathematics they had glimpsed a perfect reality, a realm of the gods, of which our familiar world is but an imperfect reflection. In Plato’s famous parable of the cave, prisoners were imagined tied in such a way that they saw only the shadows of passersby and believed the shadows to be real—never guessing the complex reality that was accessible if they would but turn their heads. The Pythagoreans would powerfully influence Plato and, later, Christianity.
They did not advocate the free confrontation of conflicting points of view. Instead, like all orthodox religions, they practiced a rigidity that prevented them from correcting their errors. Cicero wrote:
In discussion it is not so much weight of authority as force of argument that should be demanded. Indeed, the authority of those who profess to teach is often a positive hindrance to those who desire to learn; they cease to employ their own judgment, and take what they perceive to be the verdict of their chosen master as settling the question. In fact I am not disposed to approve the practice traditionally ascribed to the Pythagoreans, who, when questioned as to the grounds of any assertion that they advanced in debate, are said to have been accustomed to reply “The Master said so,” “the Master” being Pythagoras. So potent was an opinion already decided, making authority prevail unsupported by reason.
The Pythagoreans were fascinated by the regular solids, symmetrical three-dimensional objects all of whose sides are the same regular polygon. The cube is the simplest example, having six squares as sides. There are an infinite number of regular polygons, but only five regular solids. (The proof of this statement, a famous example of mathematical reasoning, is given in Appendix 2.) For some reason, knowledge of a solid called the dodecahedron having twelve pentagons as sides seemed to them dangerous. It was mystically associated with the Cosmos. The other four regular solids were identified, somehow, with the four “elements” then imagined to constitute the world; earth, fire, air and water. The fifth regular solid must then, they thought, correspond to some fifth element that could only be the substance of the heavenly bodies. (This notion of a fifth essence is the origin of our word quintessence.) Ordinary people were to be kept ignorant of the dodecahedron.
In love with whole numbers, the Pythagoreans believed all things could be derived from them, certainly all other numbers. A crisis in doctrine arose when they discovered that the square root of two (the ratio of the diagonal to the side of a square) was irrational, that √2 cannot be expressed accurately as the ratio of any two whole numbers, no matter how big these numbers are. Ironically this discovery (reproduced in Appendix 1) was made with the Pythagorean theorem as a tool. “Irrational” originally meant only that a number could not be expressed as a ratio. But for the Pythagoreans it came to mean something threatening, a hint that their world view might not make sense, which is today the other meaning of “irrational.” Instead of sharing these important mathematical discoveries, the Pythagoreans suppressed the knowledge of and the dodecahedron. The outside world was not to know.* Even today there are scientists opposed to the popularization of science: the sacred knowledge is to be kept within the cult, unsullied by public understanding.
The Pythagoreans believed the sphere to be “perfect,” all points on its surface being at the same distance from its center. Circles were also perfect. And the Pythagoreans insisted that planets moved in circular paths at constant speeds. They seemed to believe that moving slower or faster at different places in the orbit would be unseemly; noncircular motion was somehow flawed, unsuitable for the planets, which, being free of the Earth, were also deemed “perfect.”
The pros and cons of the Pythagorean tradition can be seen clearly in the life’s work of Johannes Kepler (Chapter 3). The Pythagorean idea of a perfect and mystical world, unseen by the senses, was readily accepted by the early Christians and was an integral component of Kepler’s early training. On the one hand, Kepler was convinced that mathematical harmonies exist in nature (he wrote that “the universe was stamped with the adornment of harmonic proportions”); that simple numerical relationships must determine the motion of the planets. On the other hand, again following the Pythagoreans, he long believed that only uniform circular motion was admissible. He repeatedly found that the observed planetary motions could not be explained in this way, and repeatedly tried again. But unlike many Pythagoreans, he believed in observation and experiment in the real world. Eventually the detailed observations of the apparent motion of the planets forced him to abandon the idea of circular paths and to realize that planets travel in ellipses. Kepler was both inspired in his search for the harmony of planetary motion and delayed for more than a decade by the attractions of Pythagorean doctrine.
A disdain for the practical swept the ancient world. Plato urged astronomers to think about the heavens, but not to waste their time observing them. Aristotle believed that: “The lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.… The slave shares in his master’s life; the artisan is less closely connected with him, and only attains excellence in proportion as he becomes a slave. The meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery.” Plutarch wrote: “It does not of necessity follow that, if the work delight you with its grace, the one who wrought it is worthy of esteem.” Xenophon’s opinion was: “What are called the mechanical arts carry a social stigma and are rightly dishonoured in our cities.” As a result of such attitudes, the brilliant and promising Ionian experimental method was largely abandoned for two thousand years. Without experiment, there is no way to choose among contending hypotheses, no way for science to advance. The anti-empirical taint of the Pythagoreans survives to this day. But why? Where did this distaste for experiment come from?
An explanation for the decline of ancient science has been put forward by the historian of science, Benjamin Farrington: The mercantile tradition, which led to Ionian science, also led to a slave economy. The owning of slaves was the road to wealth and power. Polycrates’ fortifications were built by slaves. Athens in the time of Pericles, Plato and Aristotle had a vast slave population. All the brave Athenian talk about democracy applied only to a privileged few. What slaves characteristically perform is manual labor. But scientific experimentation is manual labor, from which the slaveholders are preferentially distanced; while it is only the slaveholders—politely called “gentle-men” in some societies—who have the leisure to do science. Accordingly, almost no one did science. The Ionians were perfectly able to make machines of some elegance. But the availability of slaves undermined the economic motive for the development of technology. Thus the mercantile tradition contributed to the great Ionian awakening around 600 B.C., and, through slavery, may have been the cause of its decline some two centuries later. There are great ironies here.
Approximate lifetimes of Ionian and other Greek scientists between the seventh century B.C. and the fifth century. The decline of Greek science is indicated by the relatively few individuals shown after the first century B.c.
Similar trends are apparent throughout the world. The high point in indigenous Chinese astronomy occurred around 1280, with the work of Kuo Shou-ching, who used an observational baseline of 1,500 years and improved both astronomical instruments and mathematical techniques for computation. It is generally thought that Chinese astronomy thereafter underwent a steep decline. Nathan Sivin believes that the reason lies at least partly “in increasing rigidity of elite attitudes, so that the educated were less inclined to be curious about techniques and less willing to value science as an appropriate pursuit for a gentleman.” The occupation of astronomer became a hereditary office, a practice inconsistent with the advance of the subject. Additionally, “the responsibility for the evolution of astronomy remained centered in the Imperial Court and was largely abandoned to foreign technicians,” chiefly the Jesuits, who had introduced Euclid and Copernicus to the astonished Chinese, but who, after the censorship of the latter’s book, had a vested interest in disguising and suppressing heliocentric cosmology. Perhaps science was stillborn in Indian, Mayan and Aztec civilizations for the same reason it declined in Ionia, the pervasiveness of the slave economy. A major problem in the contemporary (political) Third World is that the educated classes tend to be the children of the wealthy, with a vested interest in the status quo, and are unaccustomed either to working with their hands or to challenging conventional wisdom. Science has been very slow to take root.
Plato and Aristotle were comfortable in a slave society. They offered justifications for oppression. They served tyrants. They taught the alienation of the body from the mind (a natural enough ideal in a slave society); they separated matter from thought; they divorced the Earth from the heavens—divisions that were to dominate Western thinking for more than twenty centuries. Plato, who believed that “all things are full of gods,” actually used the metaphor of slavery to connect his politics with his cosmology. He is said to have urged the burning of all the books of Democritus (he had a similar recommendation for the books of Homer), perhaps because Democritus did not acknowledge immortal souls or immortal gods or Pythagorean mysticism, or because he believed in an infinite number of worlds. Of the seventy-three books Democritus is said to have written, covering all of human knowledge, not a single work survives. All we know is from fragments, chiefly on ethics, and secondhand accounts. The same is true of almost all the other ancient Ionian scientists.
In the recognition by Pythagoras and Plato that the Cosmos is knowable, that there is a mathematical underpinning to nature, they greatly advanced the cause of science. But in the suppression of disquieting facts, the sense that science should be kept for a small elite, the distaste for experiment, the embrace of mysticism and the easy acceptance of slave societies, they set back the human enterprise. After a long mystical sleep in which the tools of scientific inquiry lay moldering, the Ionian approach, in some cases transmitted through scholars at the Alexandrian Library, was finally rediscovered. The Western world reawakened. Experiment and open inquiry became once more respectable. Forgotten books and fragments were again read. Leonardo and Columbus and Copernicus were inspired by or independently retraced parts of this ancient Greek tradition. There is in our time much Ionian science, although not in politics and religion, and a fair amount of courageous free inquiry. But there are also appalling superstitions and deadly ethical ambiguities. We are flawed by ancient contradictions.
The Platonists and their Christian successors held the peculiar notion that the Earth was tainted and somehow nasty, while the heavens were perfect and divine. The fundamental idea that the Earth is a planet, that we are citizens of the Universe, was rejected and forgotten. This idea was first argued by Aristarchus, born on Samos three centuries after Pythagoras. Aristarchus was one of the last of the Ionian scientists. By this time, the center of intellectual enlightenment had moved to the great Library of Alexandria. Aristarchus was the first person to hold that the Sun rather than the Earth is at the center of the planetary system, that all the planets go around the Sun rather than the Earth. Typically, his writings on this matter are lost. From the size of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, he deduced that the Sun had to be much larger than the Earth, as well as very far away. He may then have reasoned that it is absurd for so large a body as the Sun to revolve around so small a body as the Earth. He put the Sun at the center, made the Earth rotate on its axis once a day and orbit the Sun once a year.
It is the same idea we associate with the name of Copernicus, whom Galileo described as the “restorer and confirmer,” not the inventor, of the heliocentric hypothesis.* For most of the 1,800 years between Aristarchus and Copernicus nobody knew the correct disposition of the planets, even though it had been laid out perfectly clearly around 280 B.C. The idea outraged some of Aristarchus’ contemporaries. There were cries, like those voiced about Anaxagoras and Bruno and Galileo, that he be condemned for impiety. The resistance to Aristarchus and Copernicus, a kind of geocentrism in everyday life, remains with us: we still talk about the Sun “rising” and the Sun “setting.” It is 2,200 years since Aristarchus, and our language still pretends that the Earth does not turn.
The separation of the planets from one another—forty million kilometers from Earth to Venus at closest approach, six billion kilometers to Pluto—would have stunned those Greeks who were outraged by the contention that the Sun might be as large as the Peloponnesus. It was natural to think of the solar system as much more compact and local. If I hold my finger before my eyes and examine it first with my left and then with my right eye, it seems to move against the distant background. The closer my finger is, the more it seems to move. I can estimate the distance to my finger from the amount of this apparent motion, or parallax. If my eyes were farther apart, my finger would seem to move substantially more. The longer the baseline from which we make our two observations, the greater the parallax and the better we can measure the distance to remote objects. But we live on a moving platform, the Earth, which every six months has progressed from one end of its orbit to the other, a distance of 300,000,000 kilometers. If we look at the same unmoving celestial object six months apart, we should be able to measure very great distances. Aristarchus suspected the stars to be distant suns. He placed the Sun “among” the fixed stars. The absence of detectable stellar parallax as the Earth moved suggested that the stars were much farther away than the Sun. Before the invention of the telescope, the parallax of even the nearest stars was too small to detect. Not until the nineteenth century was the parallax of a star first measured. It then became clear, from straightforward Greek geometry, that the stars were light-years away.
There is another way to measure the distance to the stars which the Ionians were fully capable of discovering, although, so far as we know, they did not employ it. Everyone knows that the farther away an object is, the smaller it seems. This inverse proportionality between apparent size and distance is the basis of perspective in art and photography. So the farther away we are from the Sun, the smaller and dimmer it appears. How far would we have to be from the Sun for it to appear as small and as dim as a star? Or, equivalently, how small a piece of the Sun would be as bright as a star?
An early experiment to answer this question was performed by Christiaan Huygens, very much in the Ionian tradition. Huygens drilled small holes in a brass plate, held the plate up to the Sun and asked himself which hole seemed as bright as he remembered the bright star Sirius to have been the night before. The hole was effectively* 1/28,000 the apparent size of the Sun. So Sirius, he reasoned, must be 28,000 times farther from us than the Sun, or about half a light-year away. It is hard to remember just how bright a star is many hours after you look at it, but Huygens remembered very well. If he had known that Sirius was intrinsically brighter than the Sun, he would have come up with almost exactly the right answer: Sirius is 8.8 light-years away. The fact that Aristarchus and Huygens used imprecise data and derived imperfect answers hardly matters. They explained their methods so clearly that, when better observations were available, more accurate answers could be derived.
Between the times of Aristarchus and Huygens, humans answered the question that had so excited me as a boy growing up in Brooklyn: What are the stars? The answer is that the stars are mighty suns, light-years away in the vastness of interstellar space.
The great legacy of Aristarchus is this: neither we nor our planet enjoys a privileged position in Nature. This insight has since been applied upward to the stars, and sideways to many subsets of the human family, with great success and invariable opposition. It has been responsible for major advances in astronomy, physics, biology, anthropology, economics and politics. I wonder if its social extrapolation is a major reason for attempts at its suppression.
The legacy of Aristarchus has been extended far beyond the realm of the stars. At the end of the eighteenth century, William Herschel, musician and astronomer to George III of England, completed a project to map the starry skies and found apparently equal numbers of stars in all directions in the plane or band of the Milky Way; from this, reasonably enough, he deduced that we were at the center of the Galaxy.* Just before World War I, Harlow Shapley of Missouri devised a technique for measuring the distances to the globular clusters, those lovely spherical arrays of stars which resemble a swarm of bees. Shapley had found a stellar standard candle, a star noticeable because of its variability, but which had always the same average intrinsic brightness. By comparing the faintness of such stars when found in globular clusters with their real brightness, as determined from nearby representatives, Shapley could calculate how far away they are—just as, in a field, we can estimate the distance of a lantern of known intrinsic brightness from the feeble light that reaches us—essentially, the method of Huygens. Shapley discovered that the globular clusters were not centered around the solar neighborhood but rather about a distant region of the Milky Way, in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. It seemed to him very likely that the globular clusters used in this investigation, nearly a hundred of them, would be orbiting about, paying homage to, the massive center of the Milky Way.
Shapley had in 1915 the courage to propose that the solar system was in the outskirts and not near the core of our galaxy. Herschel had been misled because of the copious amount of obscuring dust in the direction of Sagittarius; he had no way to know of the enormous numbers of stars beyond. It is now very clear that we live some 30,000 light-years from the galactic core, on the fringes of a spiral arm, where the local density of stars is relatively sparse. There may be those who live on a planet that orbits a central star in one of Shapley’s globular clusters, or one located in the core. Such beings may pity us for our handful of naked-eye stars, because their skies will be ablaze with them. Near the center of the Milky Way, millions of brilliant stars would be visible to the naked eye, compared to our paltry few thousand. Our Sun or suns might set, but the night would never come.
Well into the twentieth century, astronomers believed that there was only one galaxy in the Cosmos, the Milky Way—although in the eighteenth century Thomas Wright of Durban and Immanuel Kant of Königsberg each had a premonition that the exquisite luminous spiral forms, viewed through the telescope, were other galaxies. Kant suggested explicity that M31 in the constellation Andromeda was another Milky Way, composed of enormous numbers of stars, and proposed calling such objects by the evocative and haunting phrase “island universes.” Some scientists toyed with the idea that the spiral nebulae were not distant island universes but rather nearby condensing clouds of interstellar gas, perhaps on their way to make solar systems. To test the distance of the spiral nebulae, a class of intrinsically much brighter variable stars was needed to furnish a new standard candle. Such stars, identified in M31 by Edwin Hubble in 1924, were discovered to be alarmingly dim, and it became apparent that M31 was a prodigious distance away, a number now estimated at a little more than two million light-years. But if M31 were at such a distance, it could not be a cloud of mere interstellar dimensions; it had to be much larger—an immense galaxy in its own right. And the other, fainter galaxies must be more distant still, a hundred billion of them, sprinkled through the dark to the frontiers of the known Cosmos.
As long as there have been humans, we have searched for our place in the Cosmos. In the childhood of our species (when our ancestors gazed a little idly at the stars), among the Ionian scientists of ancient Greece, and in our own age, we have been transfixed by this question: Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost between two spiral arms in the outskirts of a galaxy which is a member of a sparse cluster of galaxies, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. This perspective is a courageous continuation of our penchant for constructing and testing mental models of the skies; the Sun as a red-hot stone, the stars as celestial flame, the Galaxy as the backbone of night.
Since Aristarchus, every step in our quest has moved us farther from center stage in the cosmic drama. There has not been much time to assimilate these new findings. The discoveries of Shapley and Hubble were made within the lifetimes of many people still alive today. There are those who secretly deplore these great discoveries, who consider every step a demotion, who in their heart of hearts still pine for a universe whose center, focus and fulcrum is the Earth. But if we are to deal with the Cosmos we must first understand it, even if our hopes for some unearned preferential status are, in the process, contravened. Understanding where we live is an essential precondition for improving the neighborhood. Knowing what other neighborhoods are like also helps. If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.
We embarked on our cosmic voyage with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.
*This sense of fire as a living thing, to be protected and cared for, should not be dismissed as a “primitive” notion. It is to be found near the root of many modern civilizations. Every home in ancient Greece and Rome and among the Brahmans of ancient India had a hearth and a set of prescribed rules for caring for the flame. At night the coals were covered with ashes for insulation; in the morning twigs were added to revive the flame. The death of the flame in the hearth was considered synonymous with the death of the family. In all three cultures, the hearth ritual was connected with the worship of ancestors. This is the origin of the eternal flame, a symbol still widely employed in religious, memorial, political and athletic ceremonials throughout the world.
*The exclamation point is a click, made by touching the tongue against the inside of the incisors, and simultaneously pronouncing the K.
*As an aid to confusion, Ionia is not in the Ionian Sea; it was named by colonists from the coast of the Ionian Sea.
*There is some evidence that the antecedent, early Sumerian creation myths were largely naturalistic explanations, later codified around 1000 B.C. in the Enuma elish (“When on high,” the first words of the poem); but by then the gods had replaced Nature, and the myths offers a theogony, not a cosmogony. The Enuma elish is reminiscent of the Japanese and Ainu myths in which an originally muddy cosmos is beaten by the wings of a bird, separating the land from the water. A Fijian creation myth says: “Rokomautu created the land. He scooped it up out of the bottom of the ocean in great handfuls and accumulated it in piles here and there. These are the Fiji Islands.” The distillation of land from water is a natural enough idea for island and seafaring peoples.
*And astrology, which was then widely regarded as a science. In a typical passage, Hippocrates writes: “One must also guard against the risings of the stars, especially of the Dog Star [Sirius], then of Arcturus, and also of the setting of the Pleiades.”
†The experiment was performed in support of a totally erroneous theory of the circulation of the blood, but the idea of performing any experiment to probe Nature is the important innovation.
*The frontiers of the calculus were also later breached by Eudoxus and Archimedes.
*The sixth century B.C. was a time of remarkable intellectual and spiritual ferment across the planet. Not only was it the time of Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and others in Ionia, but also the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho who caused Africa to be circumnavigated, of Zoroaster in Persia, Confucius and Lao-tse in China, the Jewish prophets in Israel, Egypt and Babylon, and Gautama Buddha in India. It is hard to think these activities altogether unrelated.
*Although there were a few welcome exceptions. The Pythagorean fascination with whole-number ratios in musical harmonies seems clearly to be based on observation, or even experiment on the sounds issued from plucked strings. Empedocles was, at least in part, a Pythagorean. One of Pythagoras’ students, Alcmaeon, is the first person known to have dissected a human body; he distinguished between arteries and veins, was the first to discover the optic nerve and the eustachian tubes, and identified the brain as the seat of the intellect (a contention later denied by Aristotle, who placed intelligence in the heart, and then revived by Herophilus of Chalcedon). He also founded the science of embryology. But Alcmaeon’s zest for the impure was not shared by most of his Pythagorean colleagues in later times.
*A Pythagorean named Hippasus published the secret of the “sphere with twelve pentagons,” the dodecahedron. When he later died in a shipwreck, we are told, his fellow Pythagoreans remarked on the justice of the punishment. His book has not survived.
*Copernicus may have gotten the idea from reading about Aristarchus. Recently discovered classical texts were a source of great excitement in Italian universities when Copernicus went to medical school there. In the manuscript of his book, Copernicus mentioned Aristarchus’ priority, but he omitted the citation before the book saw print. Copernicus wrote in a letter to Pope Paul III: “According to Cicero, Nicetas had thought the Earth was moved … According to Plutarch [who discusses Aristarchus] … certain others had held the same opinion. When from this, therefore, I had conceived its possibility, I myself also began to meditate upon the mobility of the Earth.”
*Huygens actually used a glass bead to reduce the amount of light passed by the hole.
*This supposed privileged position of the Earth, at the center of what was then considered the known universe, led A. R. Wallace to the anti-Aristarchian position, in his book Man’s Place in the Universe (1903), that ours may be the only inhabited planet.