REVIEW of REVIEWS

An Astronomer Views the Cosmos

Well-known Scientific Writer Explains His Feeling About the Eternal Riddle of the Universe.

PROFESSOR J. ARTHUR THOMSON July 15 1929
REVIEW of REVIEWS

An Astronomer Views the Cosmos

Well-known Scientific Writer Explains His Feeling About the Eternal Riddle of the Universe.

PROFESSOR J. ARTHUR THOMSON July 15 1929

An Astronomer Views the Cosmos

Well-known Scientific Writer Explains His Feeling About the Eternal Riddle of the Universe.

PROFESSOR J. ARTHUR THOMSON

WHAT kind of philosophy, of religion, must the astronomer who deals ever with stupendities—million millions of light years and the like— evolve for himself? This is a question which must have occurred to innumerable thousands who have felt themselves almost suffocated by the immensities of time and distance which these scientists present for their contemplation.

Professor J. Arthur Thomson, writing in John O’London’s Weekly briefly sketches his answer to this tremendous riddle. He says:

“We are daring to ask what the astronomer thinks and feels about the whole, so far as he has experience of it, when he envisages himself and man’s history, and his science and other sciences and everything he knows and feels in the framework of his astronomy. And we cannot do better than start with the old overwhelming impression of the apparent smallness and yet incredible greatness of man against the background of the Universe. ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained—what is man, that thou art mindful of him and the son of man, that thou regardest 'him?’

“And then comes the philosophicalreligious thought that, after all, man is greatest of all. ‘Thou hast set him but little lower than godhead, to crown him with glory and worship: Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.’ So the psalmist’s conclusion is one of gratitude to God, and a conviction that on the whole ‘all’s right with the world.’ For he ends his argument with the words with which he began it:—

‘O Lord our Governour,

How excellent is thy name in all the world!’

“Even to the untutored eye the heavens are sublimely overwhelming, yet how much more so when we are told that the Milky Way includes many thousands of millions of stars, that there are other systems beyond the main galaxy, that some of these are ten million light-years away, say sixty million million million miles, that the earth in its orbit could revolve within Betelgeuse, the brighter of the two shoulder-stars in the constellation of Orion!

“These are wonderful facts and there are a thousand more, but even mere wonderful is their discovery by man, the measurer of the universe, the inhabitant of a minor planet in a small solar system in a little corner of an immensity. We are accustomed to think of man in the light of evolution, but we must not forget to consider evolution in the light of man. It was no “fortuitous concourse of atoms”—that abominable phrase— that gave rise in the course of ages to the astronomer. So we go back to the Aristotelian saying that there is nothing in the end which was not also present in kind in the beginning, and think to ourselves under the star-strewn sky: If

there is so much power of Reason in the astronomer’s discoveries, there must also have been some kind of Reason at the start, and likewise through and through.

“We are a little too apt to take science for granted, whereas it is in itself a philosophical problem. How is it that Nature is so amenable to scientific formulation? The so-called Laws of Nature, man’s intellectual shorthand summations of uniformities in his experience, must have some close correspondence to reality, for they form a safe basis for practical and theoretical prophecy.

“Now all through the astronomer’s world there is pervasive orderliness. There may be strange collisions and catastrophes, but we do not suppose that any of these occur fortuitously. Given three good observations of even a comet, and the astronomers can tell us to a night when it will come back again. We live in no phantasmagoria, but in an orderly cosmos. And that is the kind of world in which a religious mind can breathe freely.

“What did the poet mean when he said this, and what did Napoleon mean when he said that a contemplation of the starstrewn sky was the best cure for atheism? Why was Addison so confident in his familiar hymn that the ‘spangled heavens, a shining frame, their great Original proclaim?’ The suggestion in each case was, we take it, that the postulate of a Divine Purpose is needed to interpret a universe of such sublime magnitude, with pervasive order amid flux, with such striking permanence amid ceaseless change, and of such well-thought-out significance that out of the nebula there emerged, after a long circuit, the astronomer.

“We suspect that there has been a general misunderstanding of the Laplace and Napoleon story, which is to the effect that after the astronomer had expounded his Nebular Hypothesis of the making of worlds, the Emperor asked where God came in, provoking the response: ‘Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis.’ This has been mistaken for atheistic bravado, whereas there is every reason to believe that Laplace simply meant that transcendental interpretation must never be mixed up with scientific description. As description, the scientific story is complete in itself; but it says nothing about the why or the how. Astronomy deals with Lowest Common Denominators, such as Gravitation and Radiations, electrons and protons, but a philosophical or religious view thinks in terms of a Greatest Common Measure, and such is God in whom we live and move and have our being; and the stars likewise.

“Behind the time when the morning stars first sang together, the astronomer leads us back to a nebula of vast dimensions and possibilities; behind that again he takes us to a universe of atoms thinly scattered in space, here and there just beginning to cluster like fireflies in the night; but he stops far short of the beginning. And while stars or suns may be born out of fire-mist, and others may cool and fade into darkness, there is not today the slightest hint of the end. The astronomer lives in an Eternal Now, which is at once a spur and a curb to the scientific imagination. ‘That was a good play,’ said the gods; ‘let us have it over again.’

“And yet out of the great nebula came our particular star, the sun, and thence, in another way the earth and the other planets arose. And on the earth there arose the Measurer, in whom, so far as we know, the Universe for the first time became articulate. Thus the biggest fact in the Astronomer’s Universe is himself —and when he is not too reticent as a philosopher, he sometimes says that the greatest reality in his Universe cannot be given any lesser name than God.”

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