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Cosmic Adventure

Cosmic Adventure
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Have you ever wondered what happened before the Big Bang, or how we would colonize Mars, or what an alien invasion might really be like? Astronomer Bob Berman has, and in Cosmic Adventure, a collection of twenty-six profound to outrageous essays, he takes readers on a mind-bending tour of the universe, including our own planet Earth. From the most extraordinary cosmic phenomena to the basics of the natural world, Berman challenges us to look at the facts, discoveries, concepts, and awesome wonders of our cosmos in a new light. Written in entertaining, jargon-free language that even a novice stargazer will understand, Cosmic Adventure is a fun-filled, thought-provoking exploration of the secrets beyond the night sky.

Bob Berman takes you on a stellar journey in this collection of twenty-five essays that display a lively mix of science, astounding facts, personal anecdotes, and sheer playfulness. Complex, mind-stretching scientific topics become understandable in human terms as Berman links astronomy to our lives. He explores strange new mysteries raised by recent discoveries, and covers areas that haven't been discussed anywhere else before. From the "night terrors" that have haunted humankind since time immemorial to the penniless eccentric who sleeps inside the revolutionary telescope he designed, Berman's scope ranges far and wide.

Cosmic Adventure explains aspects of the physical world that have often piqued our curiosity. Who gets to name the stars? What would an alien invasion really be like? What's the inside story behind space program disasters? Why was the early Hubble goof avoidable? What's the only original idea in recent science? Why does time probably not exist at all?

HarperCollins; October 2009
272 pages; ISBN 9780061984181
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Excerpt


Chapter One

Either life is always perfect and this flawlessness is cloaked by our ignorance, or else frightening snakelike patterns slither menacingly across a cosmos whose motif is accidents and heartbreak.

Buddhists and Hindus have both ways. Their pundits declare that a fascinating bit of theater is at play, creating the ups and downs of life—a seductively realistic chimera—while a deeper meaning lurks in everyone's underlying storybook. Blown opportunities coexist with a perfection worthy of a finely crafted novel. Wheels within wheels.

Granted, it's hard to fathom any "deeper meaning" when fifteen years' work vanishes as an exquisitely instrumented unmanned spacecraft explodes on liftoff. Or find consolation for the tenacious comet hunter who finally discovers what becomes the brightest comet of the century—but finds it six hours after someone else. So it is another whose name gets blazoned across the heavens, who gains instant celebrity, lands prestigious appointments, and rides off into the moonset.

The solar system, too, is full of losers. Venus is just 30 percent closer to the sun than Earth, yet that's enough to make it the most stifling hellhole in the known universe. Going the other way, a fifth planet, beyond Mars, never quite formed because of insistent gravitational meddling from outer planets. What lesson is there from one of the solar system's children being stillborn?

The most gifted artist I ever met spent an entire year on his magnum opus. Oils on which he invests a mere two weeks look like museum treasures, so I can only wonder about the glorious masterpiece forged by that year's dedication. I'll never know, because when the painting was finally completed, he wrapped and carefully tied it to the rooftop luggage area of the inter-city bus on which he was traveling in Asia. But upon reaching his destination, he discovered that the painting was gone. The twine had snapped!

Like a crazed, disconsolate wanderer, he pathetically set out on foot to retrace the bus route. He walked the entire sixty miles, examining both sides of the rural road, stopping at every village to offer a generous reward. All for nothing.

What's the purpose of that loss?

During the Asian total eclipse of 1981, a group of American astronomers had been invited by Soviet authorities to observe from an ideal site on an island in Lake Baikal. On the morning of the eclipse, however, two astronomers overslept and missed the ferry. The pair had to content themselves with viewing the event from their hotel rooftop (where they actually saw it quite well). Meanwhile, a stationary cloud formed over the lake, and nobody at the "perfect" site saw a thing! The late sleepers were the only Americans to observe the great eclipse.

What does that tell us?

Are events in our lives—or in the cosmos itself—random patterns shifting with blind abandon, or is there some greater design too intricate to be perceived by our limited vision? From our egocentric point of view, we're torn and tortured over disappointments no matter how we try to rationalize and shrug them off with "Oh, well, it was meant to be!" Many of us always want to coerce improvement in our circumstances and yet, when pressed, admit that we could not have written a better scenario for our lives than the way things spontaneously unfolded. Sad interludes often lead to happy finales. On the coin's flip side, our hearts' desire may deteriorate with time, grand expectations evaporate. Somewhere, a mother's sunflower eyes beam at the first smile of her infant, destined someday to hold up a convenience store. Darkness before dawn. Azure sky followed by hurricane. Destructive novas generating starbirth.

Opposing layers of agony and ecstasy, splendor and pettiness, conform to the cosmic infatuation with alternating rhythms. Our very thoughts along these lines, racing at 250 miles per hour through impossibly labyrinthine neural pathways, may display consonance with the universe's operating system. A trillion brain cells are nourished and maintained so that a few millivolts of electricity can snake through their numbing complexity—all so that a teenager can apply lipstick! It's as if the energy of the world's waterfalls were focused into one ultra-powerful, galaxy-spanning broadcast of Wheel of Fortune. Grandeur harnessed for triviality.

Like copper wire within an insulator, the carrying cables of life's intensity often seem constrained by petty intent. Speaking requires the use of seventy-two muscles, each sustained by blood coursing through countless capillaries. Yet the typical end result of this architectural triumph is a clichi. Check out that convertible, man. Awesome. Once this design of alternating forces is glimpsed, it's easier to see banality in a new light, as merely a segment of equal and opposite formations, an amusing yin of a complete yin/yang. Confined to our lives' microscopic perspective, we see only the comedy or the tragedy; a larger, broader view would reveal the stasis, the equilibrium, the next stratum—if it weren't so profound as to escape detection altogether.

Maybe the "music of the sphere" is a jazz riff, improvised as it goes along. Or perhaps it's a symphony, carefully crafted of disparate elements heading toward harmonies, crescendos, and finales so exquisite that an immortal audience would be moved to tears.

So which is it—luck, or a fabulous script? And if the latter, is this how the universe works at large? Are star clusters evolving toward some Grand End?

It's no longer such a far-out idea. Leaving aside metaphysical considerations, we already know that each biological cell is designed to work for the overarching benefit of the individual animal or plant. And we observe biomes—larger, harmonious communities of plants, microbes, and animals—that have a symbiotic relationship of codependency. In short, individuals live within an intelligently designed matrix. (We need not decide whether such intelligence evolves as it goes along or is dictated by a deeper underlying faculty—any more than an astute question requires proof of origin.)

But does this process stop the biome level? James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis (which is really a restatement of ancient Eastern thought) says that Earth itself is an intelligent entity. That is, all its myriad biological systems fit together in a sage and self-regulating fashion. Throw off the global carbon dioxide balance, and oceanic plankton will multiply to absorb it. By this reasoning, humans are allowed only so much meddling in the Earth's ecosystem. If our actions become excessive, any one of several natural mechanisms will arise to take care of it, or us.

And why not? Humans, after all, sprang naturally from Earth. Our large, technology-creating brains, as convoluted as our rationalizations, do not stand apart from the biosphere but arose from it like seeds within an apple. If nature is thoughtful rather than merely intelligent, then we are myrmidons in an ongoing, never-ending project. Our aggression may be as preprogrammed as a computer booting up. If we eventually commit the ultimate "blunder" and engage in nuclear war, then it would actually be no error at all, but what we were designed to accomplish all along.

If something is infinite, then no finite amount of screwing up can do any real damage. Perhaps humans were intended. to mine uranium and release radiation, whose effects are ultimately good—if the goal is to accelerate evolution. Most radiation-induced genetic changes are unfavorable or even fatal. But bad mutations die out while beneficial ones thrive. A nuclear war would annihilate much, but it could not destroy all life. Earth's entire biological system would explore new pathways, enjoying a hundred million years' worth of evolution in a few brief millennia. Earth's biosphere would take the Reader's Digest condensed route to the next level of its collective destiny. The change, the adventure nature always seems eager to undertake, would be sped up. And poetic justice: this impatient, hurry-up species, the humans, unleashing a hurry-up potion upon the planet and upon ourselves.

Not that nature always enjoys fast action. Cockroaches have remained unchanged for 250 million years. Impervious to radiation, they're not likely to go along with the plan and metamorphose into anything else.. (A good thing. It's horrible to imagine a future human generation trying to exterminate an improved roach.) Personally, I will do everything an individual can do to help prevent nuclear accident. But if the Big One comes anyway, I hope I'll remember these thoughts in my final moments, to salute the stunning, here-comes-a-new-Earth mushroom cloud with a toast of: Excelsior!

ISBNs
0061984183
9780061791567
9780061791581
9780061791604
9780061984181
9780688172183