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Strange Attractors and the Origin of Everything

[whitespace] Frank Drake SETI Lights: 'There's what I like to call the wall of fire in all directions--the primordial fireball,' says UCSC's Frank Drake. 'You can actually see the originating cosmic explosion.'

Christopher Gardner

When astronomers tell us that the universe is expanding in all directions, do they mean that it's unfolding like a rose on a summer afternoon? Or do they refer to an event that happened 10 to the minus 35 seconds after a singular explosion 15 million years ago? Does science ever need to wander into poetry and metaphor to articulate its astonishing discoveries? We're glad you asked.

By Christina Waters

    Twinkle, twinkle little star,
    How I wonder what you are.
    --Mother Goose

IN A SERIES OF DIVINE orgasms, the earth, moon and stars gushed into creation, or so mused the ancient poets of time and space. To explain how night and day kept on keeping their celestial rendezvous at horizon's edge, the Egyptian priesthood released a cosmological infomercial to the public. It proclaimed that the goddess Nut--whose body is portrayed on temples as curving over the roof of a starry heaven--swallowed the sun each night and gave birth to it again each morning. This passionate Big Bang is just one of many such colorful creation myths dotting the mythological landscape we call history.

In providing a sexy saga to explain stellar events, the ancient Egyptians were simply being human. The size and origin of the universe have seduced earthling intelligence since, well, since the beginning. And in the wondrous domain of deep space astronomy, the words "big," "very big" and "really, really big" often cave in under the weight of the task they're asked to perform. Shoring up our feeble imaginations with vibrant illustrations, the collective human brain has taken refuge in music, pictures and myth to contemplate--and explain--the greatest and most complex questions of the cosmos.

People in all cultures since the beginning of time (10-35 seconds after the Big Bang in present-day astrospeak) have looked up and wondered at the dazzling light of the sun, the constancy and beauty of the starry nights, the sudden terror of eclipses and comets. In ascribing these phenomena to the actions of gods and goddesses, to emotional retribution on the part of jealous deities or vengeful titans, ancient cultures were simply putting a pre-technological spin on the observed data.

We in the 20th century may have dispensed with such quaintness, but perhaps we're simply replacing one vocabulary, that of mythic heroes, with another, the mathematical language of astrophysics.

The beginning of the universe. Ten to the minus 35 seconds. Both phrases describe a cosmological event. Yet what a difference in the language. One is clearly poetic, evocative of an emotional response. "In the beginning ..." is a phrase redolent of epic stirrings, at least for people raised within earshot of the Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition. The very word "universe" comes laden with innuendo--with its own intimations of limitless space, of boundless time, of galaxies, stars and other extremely large entities.

"Space, the final frontier ..." It's true that popular culture in the 20th century seems to have picked up where poetry and religion left off in other eras. Science fiction movies and cult TV programs like Star Trek and The X-Files feed our endless addiction to Big Questions, not to mention Big Special Effects. From Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Ray Bradbury and Steven Spielberg, writers and filmmakers have been happy to whet our collective appetite for extraterrestrial everything. Even science, however much it likes to think of itself as a plain vanilla discipline--sort of a no-frills, slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of operation--helps to fuel the fires of nonscientific jargon and inquiry.

Sandy Faber Mother of Invention: Sandy Faber believes humanity's awe and reverence for Mother Nature is more practical than poetic. 'It's a survival skill that's genetically programmed into us,' she says.

George Sakkestad

Interstellar Sex Appeal

    The beginning of the universe
    Is the mother of all things.
    --Lao Tsu

THE TECHNICAL VOCABULARY of science is often surprisingly provocative, even sexy. Quarks, pulsars, red shifts, white dwarfs and the ever-popular black holes feed our imaginations just as much as Star Trek's utterly fictive wormholes and warp drives. "All cultures need new inspiration and new influences on their thought," says physicist Joel Primack, who co-teaches the popular UCSC course titled Cosmology and Culture. "We consume ideas and novelty in this country, and one of the most fertile sources of these new ideas--and new terms--is science."

Primack cites "quark" as an example. "When you move outside the realm of the sensible world into the realms of the very large and the very small, you move outside the realm of ordinary language," he says. "In science, for example, the language of quantum mechanics is extremely precise yet extremely paradoxical. So we stretch ordinary language to make poetry and metaphor do the work."

Guiltier than most of such poetic prattling was astro-enthusiast Carl Sagan, whose beloved and oft-quoted phrase "billions and billions of stars" actually was uttered in an admiring send-up by talk-show host Johnny Carson (himself an avid amateur astronomer). Sagan, clearly enamored of our human propensity to ask Big Questions, indulged in dramatic descriptions, committing linguistic hyperbole in every episode of his acclaimed PBS series Cosmos. Pooh-poohed by jealous colleagues as a mere popularizer, Sagan never ran from a poetic way of describing complex astronomical matters. Romantic to the core, his description of earth as "our lovely, finite and fragile planetary home" equaled any of William Blake's trembling imagery.

Sagan wasn't alone. Most working astronomers often find themselves forced to dig for linguistic imagery powerful enough to convey complex subject matter. Last fall's three-part PBS series Mysteries of Deep Space brought this home vividly. Scientists who deal with issues few nonprofessionals can grasp reveal themselves to be clearly enchanted, breathless, often moved to joyful metaphors and phrases of delight when describing their work, their results and their ongoing passion for what waits at the edge of the known universe.

In one memorable segment, UCSC astronomer Sandra Faber's rapturous tones betrayed her own sense of wonder in the face of cosmic design. Faber, who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, gained cult status in her field as one of the Seven Samurai, cosmologists who theorize about The Great Attractor, the invisible dark matter that influences the movement of galaxies in theoretically disturbing ways.

Faber believes that humanity's age-old awe and reverence for Mother Nature is more practical than poetic. "It's a survival skill that's genetically programmed into us," she says. "Astronomy is important because it reminds us that the universe is large and powerful, and that we are not. With awe we can function more capably in our environment." She cites the recent images retrieved by the Hubble Space Telescope. "Those images from the Hubble are iconic. You look at the Earth from space and suddenly you realize that we are separated from the hostile void of space by just a few miles of air."

Faber briskly adds, "Most people have a mistaken impression of what it is to be a scientist. You think I'm somehow walking along in a forest of gigantic ideas," she laughs. "That's a distorted view. I spend most of my life doing very mundane things. The edifice may be grand, but it's composed of a lot of small bricks.

"Science only uses quantifying descriptions-- mathematics-- when it's trying to get something nailed down," Faber explains patiently. "The creative process for a scientist involves the same sort of intuition used in any other creative process. The same creative selection used in art goes on in my work all the time. All the time."

Throwing Down Tears

    When the stars threw down their spears
    And water'd heaven with their tears,
    Did he smile his work to see?
    Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
    --William Blake, 'The Tyger'

THE REAL-LIFE MODEL for Jody Foster's character in the film Contact, famed ET-hunter Jill Tarter of Mountain View's SETI Institute, agrees with Faber that "when you talk with colleagues, you never leave the minutiae of scientific language. But when speaking with the public, words seem so pallid compared with the phenomena you're trying to describe."

Tarter sighs, searching for a better description. "We don't have words with large enough scale to describe 10 to the sixth power mega-parcels as an entity, to describe how vast the universe is. So we keep stretching, we keep looking. And when we're constrained from using the scientific shorthand that we get so used to with each other in order to frame these very large and beautiful ideas for the public, then we use poetry. Or anything else that'll work."

Tarter admits that the scales she deals with "are so alien to everyday perceptions that it's hard to find a way to relate them. So we struggle." Thinking in terms of relative numbers helps her picture some of the larger concepts in her scientific work. "The farthest galaxies are several million times closer than the Great Wall [not China's], what we call the farthest measurable entity in the universe."

Using even these unfathomably large relative numbers helps to give Tarter a working sense of the cosmos. But she claims to have no poetic mental image of the edge of the observable universe. "For me the event horizon is just an absolute," she says, "it's the end of information. I can't know anything beyond that. 'Beyond that' doesn't have a meaning."

Tarter pauses. "The thing itself is much more magnificent than words. You only use words when you're trying to communicate with someone who doesn't have the same understanding of the phenomena. Otherwise numbers do a much better job. I'm afraid I haven't a lot of poetry in me," says the cosmologist, who then proceeds to flash some.

"Even though we can't see the night sky or the stars the way the shepherds tending their flocks did," Tarter says, "it is just sooooooo neat to be part of a generation that can take our vision beyond the atmosphere and see the way the shepherds couldn't. We're able to see the incredible complexity of it all, the stars actually being born. It's so fulfilling. I just can't think of any other word than neat."

Sagan definitely could.

Astrophysicist Gregory Benford won't. Asked to speculate as to why scientists resort to metaphor, the UC-Irvine astronomy professor, who also moonlights writing science fiction, retorts electronically: "How about the obvious: that when science ventures beyond the quantitative, metaphor gives the best command of a subject, so we use such devices."

Geoff Marcy, a San Francisco State University astronomer and UCSC grad who along with Lick Observatory partner Paul Butler was responsible for verifying the existence of planets beyond our solar system, echoes the conflict many scientists feel when asked about their terminology. "I try very hard to be sensitive to feelings of awe, and other feelings in my life," Marcy says via email. "But, my reaction is to try to understand those feelings in terms that can be conveyed to others.

"Part of the beauty of the natural environment and our universe comes, for me, from the unity of it all in terms of common explanations," Marcy adds. "Rainbows and music have so much in common that I can barely stand the harmony of their relationship. Stars and icebergs float on the same laws of nature! That's awesome, I think."

And that's hardly scientific terminology, I think.

The Big Picture

    Great is my brightness!
    I am the walkway
    And I am the crawlway
    For the People
    --Mayan Popol Vuh

SETH SHOSTAK, SETI researcher and frequent interviewee on the Nova circuit, agrees that lapsing into metaphor in order to make complex issues intelligible to ordinary mortals is the rule rather than the exception. "In fact, it goes beyond that," he contends. "You need to use metaphor in order to understand this stuff yourself. No matter what astronomical problem you're working on--planets or galaxies or stars--you need a picture in your mind. You play with it, manipulate it, try to understand it by observing it in your brain. That's a requirement for the scientist, let alone talking to Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch about what you do."

When lecturing on cosmology, Shostak chats about the fundamental questions--"like where did the universe come from, where is it going, how did it get here. At that point, you find yourself really grasping to describe the sorts of things that our language never had to deal with before," he says emphatically. "These are concepts that didn't exist before this century."

When talking with scientific colleagues, Shostak admits he describes astronomical research "in a fairly nuts-and-bolts way. But if I'm trying to explain something about astronomy to the lay public, then I do frequently use poetic vocabulary. Because there is something awe-inspiring about this. And you want to convey that this thing is more than the sum of its parts. Maybe it's the difference between just giving a recipe and making a really fantastic cake. Or like biology: You can describe the inner workings of the living thing, but if you actually see it, it may have a beauty and a grace that transcends the description of the components."

Marc G. Millis of NASA's Lewis Research Center says that he, too, had a turning point, a sense of grander purpose that placed him in the middle of propulsion technology designed to power us to the stars. "One look into a clear night sky," he emails, "with all those suns, countless suns with very likely countless other planets--well, the opportunities are astronomical, if you'll excuse the pun. And then one look down back to the ground. Just one Earth, one small crowded Earth. There's got to be more than just Earth! I decided that a meaningful life would be one pushing the frontiers of knowledge that could open frontiers for the rest of humanity."

Working with the heavens has seemed a sacred ritual, its practitioners a priesthood with special access to holy secrets, since before Mayan astrologers formulated the first accurate calendar. "It's true that in the past, astronomy implied a certain amount of power. If you figured out how to predict eclipses, like some of the priests in Babylonia did 4,000 years ago, that was information that gave you job security," Shostak chuckles.

"There really are those occasional moments when you're awestruck about what you're really doing," Shostak says. "It reminds you why you're in it. You're probably in it because sometime when you were a little kid, the wonder hit you. You went to a planetarium, you looked up at the night sky, and that's why you're here now. And it doesn't ever leave you."

Robert Scheer

Window Addressing : When lecturing, Seth Shostak finds that at some point, 'you find yourself grasping to describe the sorts of things that our language never had to deal with before.'

Sense of Wonder

    But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
    It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
    Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon ...
    --William Shakespeare
    Romeo and Juliet

IT WAS HIS FIRST GLIMPSE of Jupiter through a modest telescope that ignited Frank Drake's lifelong passion for astronomy. "That really was a turn in the road," he remembers. "It wasn't a slide, it wasn't a photograph, it was the real planet with its four satellites and weather bands and orange colors. And I realized that there really are other worlds." The SETI founder and UCSC astronomy professor emeritus admits that he often tunes in to the night sky, just to stay in touch with that boy he once was.

"The numbers that go with astronomy are incomprehensible to us," Drake says. "The first few times I used the expression 'a trillion light years,' it really boggled me. After you've said it a hundred times, you just get used to it--it becomes part of your everyday vocabulary. But you still have no sense of the magnitude."

Drake illustrates with a few examples. "Four and a half billion years ago, the sun was born. Ten to the 20th power. We use those expressions like it was no big deal. But it's important to stop and think about what those astronomical figures really mean. It's important to reflect on what that really means, or you might miss a key understanding."

Metaphor can be critical, Drake believes. "Sagan was good at analogies. He translated 4.5 billion years by asking us to imagine that you were walking from San Francisco to New York during the span of 4.5 billion years. At that rate, you would take a step every 2,000 years." He grins.

"Cosmology--the history and structure of the universe--can work on any level," Drake believes, "from the most highly technical to the everyday. We deal in subjects like the fact that a galaxy might be 15 billion light years across or that with a radio telescope we can look back 15 billion years. And then it stops."

Drake is on a dramatic roll. "There's what I like to call the 'wall of fire' in all directions--the primordial fireball."

He makes eye contact. "You can actually see the originating cosmic explosion."

Or all those Egyptian gods making love?

"Yes, it's poetic," Drake admits. "It's both--poetic and literal. The scientific description would use words like 'high temperature opacity.' I use the expression 'wall of fire' in my lectures," he says, the grin broadening. "It's easier and more vivid."

Drake, whose work for SETI has helped channel the search for intelligent life on other worlds from the fringe into the scientific mainstream, believes that the need for magic, for the romantic, is universal. "We all have a need for that. But some people exploit it. UFO freaks and New Agers--they exploit our need for the mysterious."

He confesses that he loves The X-Files. "It's fine because it doesn't pretend to be genuine. It's fiction. What is objectionable is fiction science. It misleads people and can have terrible consequences, like the Heaven's Gate suicides."

Drake, who makes jewelry when he's not teaching and lecturing, says that he doesn't have any problem feeling awe. "I'm an artist at heart. The night sky is awe-inspiring."

Heaven's Door

    There came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
    --Matthew 2:12

'POETRY IS THE LANGUAGE of the soul," explains former Dominican priest Matthew Fox, founder of Oakland's University of Creation Spirituality. "Poetry is the language of the heart, of awe and wonder. Art is the only language we have for these mystical experiences, these sacred experiences."

The religious thinker and author believes that "any human--astronomer or not--has to resort to poetry to express the ineffable, to express the really big, to express the presence of the Divine, and this is why I think scientists need training in the arts. They need to allow art and play into their lives just like the rest of us, so they can find the language and the imagery to express the sacred."

Agreeing with most of the astronomer informants mentioned here, Fox feels that "to the extent that scientists are locked into an academic experience that's exclusively left brain, or soulless, and it's just about analysis and numbers, then they don't have the means to relay the real meaning of what they've discovered to the rest of us."

Not surprisingly, Fox finds mathematics unable to reach total disclosure. "It's in the work of art that we get back in touch with wonder," he says. "Poetry is the language that can name our deepest experiences."

Science and poetry might simply be parallel travelers, using different brushes and colors to capture a single landscape. Or maybe, given such vastly differing vocabularies, science and poetry actually describe separate realities.

See for yourself.

You can consider the facts. We live on a small planet orbiting around an average star at the edge of a huge spiral star system. This system contains more than 100,000 million concentrations of condensing gas and dust, the nearest to Earth being four light-years away. Or you can lie on your back on a moonless night and look up. If you're lucky, a shimmering haze will appear to be suspended within the inky heavens--the Milky Way. You'll find the Big Dipper, and maybe one of the bright planets, Venus or Mars. You'll feel like a kid again. Or a poet.

In the rapturous breakthrough moment of the filmed version of Carl Sagan's Contact, the intergalactic sojourner, overcome with joy and wonder, says, "No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful ... beautiful. I had no idea."

At that trembling epiphany, Sagan's space traveler believed that we should have sent a poet to the stars.

It appears that we have.

    The end of time has just begun.
    --Bob Dylan, 'Time Out of Mind'

Special thanks to Joseph Wampler, former director of the Anglo-Australian Observatory, for his help in providing background for this story. See also NASA's fascinating Web site.

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From the May 14-20, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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