Head in the clouds

From man’s first squint at the Sun, humans have always wondered at how the universe works

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.

The cosmos in literature

Whether devoutly religious or fervently humanist, artists, writers and philosophers,
 too, have not been immune to that sense of awe. Throughout history we have used our creative skills to try to capture and relate the scale of the cosmos. Take, for instance, William Shakespeare’s “majestical roof fretted with golden fire” (Hamlet, act 2, scene 2), or the philosopher Plato who wrote, more than 2,400 years ago, that “astronomy compels the soul to look upward”.

Geoffrey Chaucer was an outstanding mathematician who used his excellent knowledge of the planets to both educate and tease his readers, as Professor Richard North, a lecturer in the English Language and Literature department who teaches the cosmos in Chaucer’s poems, points out.

“In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer adds astronomical dates that are not in Boccaccio’s original text,” he says. “So we know, for example, that Criseyde first spotted Troilus on 2 April 1385, and that they spent their first night together on 9 June. Only a few other people would have understood those astronomical references.I think Chaucer liked the craft of the astronomical detail, but he also maybe just liked showing off.”

But do we really need the imaginings of artists, or the ruminations of philosophers, to underline our wonder? Isn’t our understanding of how this all works a (dark) matter for space scientists? Surely astrophysicists, who deal in pure mathematics, must have little time for such fanciful ideas to pervade their work?

Not at all, says Professor Ofer Lahav, who holds the Perren Chair of Astronomy, and believes you can only truly begin to understand the cosmos by appreciating different past and present perspectives on it.

“It’s true that cosmology is a very solid discipline in physics,” he says. “But the cosmos doesn’t just offer quantifiable problems, it offers conceptual challenges. We have learned that 
the universe is not only expanding but is also accelerating. But what is causing that? Our study goes all the way back to Isaac Newton’s Principia and the laws of gravitation. Scientists observed a change in the movement of Uranus, for example, and by stepping back to look for an answer they discovered Neptune. We quite often don’t know the answers here and now, but we know people have been here before, and that’s very enriching.”

Cosmic collaboration

Professor Lahav certainly sees a future of 
further cosmic collaboration between academic disciplines. “I’m fascinated by space, of course,” he says, “but I am fascinated by the pattern of its study, and others’ interpretations of what we see and discover.”

So can the pure physicists find common ground – or space, anyway – with academics who celebrate a more ethereal appreciation
 of the universe? Absolutely, says Dr Donnacha Kirk, Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy – because it has been ever thus.

“It was believed that understanding the heavens could give insight into God’s ordering of the world,” says Kirk. “Newton, for example, felt his study of gravitation was intimately connected to his study of theology and sacred history.”

But he says the artists’ and the scientists’ sense of awe won’t necessarily be for the same reasons.
“I certainly wonder at the cosmos,” he says. “But it’s not in the same terms as the writers or the painters. My awe is for the science. I have this constant sense of wonder that the people on this small planet with our small brains could have figured out so much about the universe. The cosmos is an extraordinary thing, but my amazement is at what we as humans have achieved in understanding it.”

Which brings us back to why we are constantly so fascinated by our vast surroundings. Dr Dina Gusejnova, Honorary Research Associate of the Centre for Transnational History, believes it’s about a human desire to be in control of our surroundings. “The space we want to control is proportionate to the space that we know,” she says, “so I would say the desire for knowledge expands with the desire for control. And this combination of control and knowledge is most visible in the space race.”

But why do we as humans have an innate sense of curiosity in the cosmos at all? Well, we don’t necessarily, says Abramson. “Dogmatists, or recipients of received wisdom, are not all that curious,” he says.

“Curiosity stems from a will to know what is knowable but hidden and compelling. These conditions for the growth of knowledge- producing curiosity imply a certain ontology (theory of being) and cosmology (spatio-temporal location of being); namely a world presented to us as an array of so many multiple surfaces with hidden scales and depths that for a reason inscribed within this world compel us mysteriously to quest.”

Most understanding of cosmology is eccentric: restricted
 to boffins in the cloisters. The really interesting thing now 
is that knowledge 
of cosmos
 is beginning
 to break
 out of these confines

But the urge to know the universe may actually not be functionally essential for humans, he adds. “Only cosmologists go in for fully situated ideas about who and where humans are in time and space; where a knowledge of cosmos has been linked to ritual design that is conceived to be essential for the renewal of the human realm itself, then humans are probably more disposed to know cosmos because they vitally ‘need’ it.

“But the wonderment of cosmos only really becomes a problem for ‘moderns’ precisely because they have arrogated divine powers to reproduce the human realm as science and technology, and they only need cosmological understanding to the extent that it feeds into the construction and deployment of science, society and technology.

“In this human realm called society, consequently, most understanding of cosmology is or has been eccentric: more or less restricted to boffins in the cloisters – academia, labs and so on. But the really interesting thing now is that knowledge of cosmos is beginning to break out of these eccentric confines and cultural generalising. How and why have become crucial matters for research in anthropology.”

Holbraad is equally convinced that multi- disciplinary study is, well, written in the stars, and recently ran a series of seminars at UCL called Wonderments of Cosmos which brought together academics from a range of disciplines to talk about their view of the cosmos.

“Scientific theories are by their nature more robust than, say, mythological stories or biblical interpretations of space,” he says. “But bringing disciplines together under one umbrella – and there’s no bigger umbrella than the cosmos – gives us a real appreciation not only of the science, but of who we are and where we came from in understanding it.”

Holbraad is in good company: Michael Collins was not the only man from that historic moon mission to realise appreciation of the cosmos goes beyond the science. Buzz Aldrin, who followed Armstrong onto the lunar surface on 21 July, 1969, struggled as much as Collins to articulate what he had seen. “We need more than just pilots and engineers,” he said when he returned to Earth. “We need to have people up there who can communicate what it feels like.”