|NGC 4594, the Sombrero Galaxy|
What I enjoy most about being an amateur astronomer is learning about the Universe through a blended process of observing distant objects and then reading about those objects in the Wikipedia which is usually supplemented by a related episode of Astronomy Cast. It adds so much to my life to be able to look up through a telescope and view the Sombrero galaxy, to really take it in and ponder its existence. I wonder, who may be there and are they looking out in this direction? In my last viewing of that galaxy I spent nearly 30 minutes allowing my eyes to adjust and taking the time to notice the details. After a time of looking through the scope and seeing so many beautiful objects, supplemented by the research, I can say that now when I look up with my naked eyes I see it all very differently. There is now a deeper awareness brewing in me, fermenting knowledge, of the details and I more fully appreciate what I see and the emotions I experience as a result.
But of course we don't explore this Universe alone do we? At the forefront we have a global community of scientists cooperating and collaborating and challenging one another through this amazing process we call science. This open community, based on finding the mistakes and correcting the theories and adding in the details as they are discovered with newer, better instrumentation, sets the example for how we can better get at the truth. It is a never ending process, an ongoing adventure and exploration of our Universe and one we can all take part in. Those of us that are not scientists have a role as well.
As citizens of our planet it is our responsibility to make our own effort to learn and to explore. It is our responsibility to reach out, to share and engage with one another and with the knowledge being produced. The internet is allowing for increased communication between the public and the scientific community. For those interested in astronomy and related fields there are the sites I mentioned a couple days ago: CosmoQuest, the Planetary Society and the Citizen Science Alliance, all of which have at their core mission an attempt to engage the public and even to create a space for them to participate. Most of these groups are also involved with Google+ hangouts which allow for real-time video conferencing with the scientists doing the work. If you can't be around to watch live they are all archived on YouTube. For example, here's the Planetary Society's Channel.
There is an essential trait that we need to borrow from the scientific community before we can move forward: a willingness to embrace our mistakes and our ignorance. It seems to have become a common cultural trait to fear our fallibility but such fear holds us back from moving forward as individuals as well as collectively. Not so in the scientific community which is based upon a willingness to fail and a recognition that with failure comes knowledge and a better understanding of the Universe. It is in the moment of embracing failure, mistakes, and ignorance that we grow.
It is perhaps one of the great failings of the past 60 years that we have come to think of ourselves as alone and with that we have come to feel isolated, alienated. In that kind of world it is easy to become fearful and when we live in a culture of fear and insecurity we tend to avoid failure. We avoid growth out of fear of failure and we avoid accepting our mistakes because to do so is to admit we are fallible.
Fortunately, for us, the Universe that we actually inhabit is not one in which we can ever be alone or alienated, at least not physically. We might come to feel separated and alone in our minds due to our perception and our culture, but as far as the reality of the physical Universe that we live in, we are all very much connected:
When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than most of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small, the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity — that’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on and activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” - Neil DeGrasse TysonIt is natural for us to share what we know or think we know and it is natural for us to be curious. It is these natural desires, coupled with critical thought and the scientific method that we can lift ourselves up and, just as importantly, lift one another up. We have great challenges before us but in teaching one another and encouraging one another we can do remarkable things. In our cooperation we have the opportunity to co-create something beautiful: each other.
We truly are in this together. There is no such thing as alone in this Universe and the sooner we remember that, feel that, and understand that, the sooner we can get on being whole again. We are but one species sharing this planet sharing this cosmos. I did not know Kaleesha or her husband or children until just a couple months ago and am thankful to Bill (another of our community and local librarian) for sending them my way when they indicated interest in astronomy. As a result they have become an important part of our little outpost of science advocates in this out of the way rural community. As long as I'm expressing my appreciation I think I'll also mention how happy I am to have connected to Frances, Russ, Angie and Karen, all humans with which I am grateful to have met since moving to this little corner of the Universe and who have shared the exploration with me.