Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Brian Cox and John Hartnett

As a theologian I am in a curious situation with the juxtaposition of professor Brian Cox and physicist John Hartnett. Both write and teach about the fundamental matters of Universe.

Curious, because Cox describes himself as a student of Carl Sagan. BBC offered him a dream opportunity to use modern media in a kind of second edition of Cosmos which shares Sagan's original brilliance, width and depth of vision and youthful enthusiasm about the wonders of Universe. The underlying scientific discussion is repeatedly defined by Cox as wonder of the Laws of Nature that create such variety and the magic word "chance". In other words, explanation of everything without referring to any kind of divinities or religious beliefs, practical atheism.

Curious, because Hartnett makes an intensive effort to bring the Bible into cosmology providing modern scientific sounding theories that would translate the old biblical sentences into descriptions of physical reality. He is genuinely a man of religion and loves the Bible and wishes to let everyone believe in the Creator demolishing ideas that are against true faith.

So why I feel as a man of religion recommending from all my heart the BBC documentaries and publications by Brian Cox, the practical atheist, and vehemently oppose the approach, hermeneutics and interpretations of John Hartnett warning everybody to stay far from his writings? Curious indeed.

The brilliant popular BBC documentaries with Brian Cox have this unbearable lightness of moving around planet Earth and in space as if it is nothing - now in arid desert high in Chilean mountains, now in deep see probe Alvin in unfathomable depths and atmospheric pressure. In all this he is humble concentrating on the facts and eager to learn from the experts he meets listening to what they have learned from the nature. The presentations are up-to-date and packed with information and yet the story is easy and pleasant to follow.

The brilliant ESA scientist and physicist John Hartnett establishes his authority pointing to scholars who listen to him and telling about his achievements in science. He is out there not asking questions, not doubting like every scientist doubts and questions, but telling how things are because the Bible says so. Not all creationists accept his views but many do as they are unable to evaluate independently his mathematical formulas and expert statements of time-space continuum. He is a true believer, shows that Bible is true, that is enough for another believer to adopt his authority.

These things, personality, approach towards exploration and research, questioning or already knowing the answers from divine sources, are all aspects in this comparison. But they are not decisive.

The decisive matter can be put in a single word: truth.

Curiously, from Brian Cox a Christian or non-Christian can learn in short time a fascinating array of truthful statements about the Creation. They waken curiosity, interest in the scientific exploration of the planetary system, deep space, origins of life and other questions that used to be the monopoly of religion. And a Christian listening to him can complete the picture by praising in his heart the Lord and His Majesty that is missing from professor Cox's presentations.

Curiously, the approach of the Christian John Hartnett does violence to truth, disfigures Bible and Nature alike into some rational shape he can figure out and stops all healthy questioning and curiosity towards God's works.

But that's how it is - love of truth is so precious and more often than not characterizes scientific work by believers and unbelievers alike while being scary and objectionable to many true believers.

The ways our brain arranges what we see

Familiar things in Unicorn
Image Credit & Copyright: R. Colombari & Francesco Antonucci
When we feed our brain with visual data that lacks coherence and meaning the brain steps in and starts to suggest familiar things that arranges the random looking dots and shapes into something recognizable and familiar.

This happened to the ancient ones as it happens to us. Thanks to them we learn to connect bright points in night sky into constellations. Since they were defined by people with very different mental visions from ou common perceptions it takes a bit work to understand their logic. The Big Dipper is okay and the Lion looks like a mighty Sphinx. Swan has wings and flies always high up. Everybody recognizes Orion the great hunter with his dog. But why that square is Andromeda and why that big W on the sky is called Cassiopeia or those five stars plus Pegasus? A little study and visual aids calm our brains and we start to see also in less familiar groups of dots what the people in antiquity saw in them.

The beautiful image of the region of Unicorn, another constellation, is a good example of how modern astronomers follow the example of the ancient ones and let the brain suggest familiar shapes for seemingly random things. The method is, in fact, a very helpful memory aid and it is the key to mental mapping of the sky. Someone has seen the lights and shadows and coined a name for them. That is how others then conveniently call them letting astronomers to immediately understand what the other is talking about.

People have recognized shapes in the region visible in the photo and given them names. The Cone Nebula in the upper left corner really is a cone. The Christmas Tree cluster looks like a decorated fir tree with lights its base on the right and top near the cone. Doesn't it. Once you see it you remember it!

But what is that strange cloudy thing on the lower right corner of the image? Of course, it is the Fox Fur Nebula..Once one of Adam's children has named it that's what it is!

From these thoughts we can deduce that study of human perception, such as psychology, semiotics and various cognitive sciences, also have their place in Astronomy and Cosmology - after all, everything we see in the space is interpreted by that amazing organ between our ears which has its hard wired and creative ways of working also with randomly visual data.