Saturday, May 5, 2012

Huck Finn and the Learned Astronomer

It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could 'a' laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course, it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
-Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It's hard for modern city dwellers to really appreciate the stars. Only the brightest ones shine through the city lights. You have to work, traveling far from town on a clear night, to find the kind of sky that would have enveloped Jim and Huck as they slipped down the dark, 19th century Mississippi river. We forget what a truly overwhelming sight it is to see the whole dome of the sky filled with lights and buttressed by the arch of the Milky Way.

The Milky Way  Gemma Stiles
On the other hand, today we can appreciate the stars another way, trading the nightly spectacle for the modern scientific vision of what the stars really are, and how they work. We don't have to rely on naked eyesight, or blind speculation, the way Huck and Jim did. Our telescopes can spot objects millions of millions of times fainter than what we can see with our naked eyes, showing us that the most spectacularly starry night reveals only a fraction of the stars that are really out there. Today we can find out, in a way Huck and Jim never could have, what the stars really are. These days, any attentive schoolchild knows that the stars are all varieties of suns, and that they are only dim because they are so incredibly far away. We know the moon and stars are two different kinds of things, and falling stars still another. But this knowledge also requires effort - painstaking scientific observation, trips to libraries or planetariums; time set aside for reading. The stars don't yield their secrets easily.

In the poem I Heard the Learned Astronomer, Walt Whitman describes attending a lecture on stars. Finding the numbers and theories sterile, he walks outside to gaze on the stars firsthand. Whitman obviously feels that trading the nightly spectacle for hard facts and complex theories is a losing proposition. No doubt he would have preferred Huck's or Jim's poetic vision of the stars to that of the "learned astronomer". He does have a point - scientific explanations are not substitutes for raw experiences like the sight of a starry sky on a summer night; or for poetic comparisons like the idea that the moon laid the stars. But what he misses is that science only kills the poetry of experience if we extend it so far as to obstruct other views. We don't have to let it. We don't have to trade visceral experience or metaphor for science, because it isn't a tradeoff situation. We can have all three; if we realize they serve different purposes. The trick is too assign each to its own realm, without letting any take over. Better yet, we can find out how each realm fits in with the others, and find a point of view that transcends all three. Of all the secrets of the stars, this one may be the hardest to appreciate.


This post is lifted from a book I tried to write a few years ago:  Here's the original in context.

More old writings about the same ideas here:  The Scientific vs. the Romantic View of Nature