Magazine: Portico Issue 1 2014/2015; Client: UCL .
Above: Ottoman map, Zubdat al-Tawarikh by
historiographer Seyyid Loqman Ashuri, 1583, showing the
universe, the terrestrial globe, the seven stages of sky, the zodiacs
and the position of the 28 days of the lunar month.
The Apollo 11 mission may have been one small step for man, but Neil Armstrong’s pilot, Michael Collins, had other things on his mind: the unprecedented, extraordinary view of the cosmos. “I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher,” he said later.
“We might get a much better idea of what we saw.”
That Collins was awed by his surroundings is beyond question. What is as notable, however, is that for all the astonishing technology, the mathematics, the physics, the hard science that helped him power the human race’s greatest achievement, his overriding emotion was one
of simple wonder at the stars.
But then the cosmos, and our role within
it, has captivated humans since we first walked the Earth. From man’s first squints at the Sun, through to the extraordinary pure science of today’s astrophysicists, we have always wondered at how the universe works. But why?
Much fascination has stemmed from various beliefs that the heavens determine our fates, from the Romans and the Greeks’ personalisation
of the planets, through star-crossed astrologers, to Abrahamic religions placing their God in his heaven, looking down on humankind.
But if anything the advancement of scientific knowledge and man’s increasingly “de-sacralised” view of the heavens only made us ask even more questions, says Dr Martin Holbraad, Reader in Social Anthropology. “The idea of infinity – a cosmos that cannot be fully or mostly known – fascinates us precisely for that reason,” he adds.
“This is almost certainly a modern idea stemming probably from Protestant refusals to imagine God as a human-like figure
in the heavens. The Reformation took God out of the heavens, placed him everywhere, de-personalised him by transferring figural person onto his son, and made God essentially unknowable beyond that.”
Holbraad believes the idea of an unending universe stems from around the time of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian friar, philosopher and mathematician whose radical – and accurate – heliocentric ideology, including the notion that the Sun was just another star, almost certainly didn’t help his cause when he was burned at the stake as a heretic. According to Holbraad: “Infinite cosmos from Bruno onwards seems to be a de-sacralised development of this idea of deity.”
But we don’t need to believe the universe
is infinite to be awed by it, says Holbraad’s colleague Dr Allen Abramson. “Anthropology and comparative cosmology tells us that many cultures think of the cosmos as a finite, self-enclosed, often spherical entity that can be fully known,” he says. “The idea that the wonder of cosmos stems from its gigantic unknowability will not be shared
by peoples whose sense of wonder stems precisely from the ordered symmetry of the universe – for example, the pre-Socratic Greeks.