August 2, 2014 in sci
I learned something new this year, we all did. It started with a picture from NASA in 2012, but its full meaning wasn’t revealed until this year, in magazines like Scientific American and Nature. When I showed the picture above to my students, I realized after half a minute that they didn’t understand what they were seeing: Saturn’s rings on their side, its moon, Enceladus in the foreground, Titan in the background, and a tiny moon to the right of its rings. In the future, our kids will see it, know it, as if we always knew what it is, when the truth is we only saw for the first time this year, and a lot of us couldn’t make sense of it.
The first person to see Saturn’s rings was Galileo Galilei. When he drew what he saw, even he couldn’t figure out he was looking at rings. More importantly, simply drawing a heavenly object going around another heavenly object was heretical. The notion that something (the rings) went around something other than the Earth (Saturn) violated a millennium of church doctrine and during the Inquisition, that was a very bad thing. Galileo was led to the church dungeons, and was forced to view torture instruments, the unspoken word being that he would feel them as well if he did not recant. He did, and then, as the story goes, mumbled eppur si muove — “and yet it moves.”
Eventually the church police power waned, although it’s flexing its muscles against scientific facts more and more these days. Once it was OK to see Saturn’s rings, for four hundred years we wondered how they got there. And then this year the Cassini spacecraft scanned Enceladus, and radioed back the data which gave us the answer: the moon has an underground lake that may even nurture life.
Can you imagine standing on one of Saturn’s tiny moons, watching Saturn’s massive weight pull and squeeze Enceladus like a mother’s hands on her pimply child’s face until some subterranean mist squirts out from an underground lake, wafting into Saturn’s rings? And that the accretion of geysered mists from Enceladus over four billion years formed Saturn’s rings? Every day, year, century, millennia, we see, first not understanding or accepting something new about the rings, rings a couple of billion years in the making. The rings will always defy human understanding, a promise that what we think we know now will change, that the mysteries of the universe will continue to surprise us, shock us into new ways of viewing our world and others.
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Thanks Walt, you made my day.