Monday, January 11, 2010

543)A Guide to the Cosmos, in Words and Images: Book Review; Quotes from Blogpost Four Hundred

January 5, 2010

Books on Science

A Guide to the Cosmos, in Words and Images


In the universe there is always room for another surprise. Or two. Or a trillion.

Take the Witch Head Nebula, for example — a puffy purplish trail of gas in the constellation Eridanus. When a picture of it is turned on its side, the nebula looks just like, well, a witch, complete with a pointy chin and peaked hat, ready to jump on a broomstick or offer an apple to Snow White.

In 30 years of covering astronomy, I had never heard of the Witch Head Nebula until I came across a haunting two-page spread showing it snaking across an inky black star-speckled background in “Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle,” an exquisite picture guide to the universe by Michael Benson, a photographer, journalist and filmmaker, and obviously a longtime space buff.
Actually “exquisite” does not really do justice to the aesthetic and literary merits of the book, published in the fall. I live in New York, so most of the cosmos is invisible to me, but even when I lived under the black crystalline and — at this time of year — head-ringingly cold skies of the Catskills, I could see only so far. If you don’t have your own Hubble Space Telescope, this book is the next best thing.

Mr. Benson has scoured images from the world’s observatories, including the Hubble, to fashion a step-by-step tour of the cosmos, outward from fantastical clusters and nebulae a few hundred light-years away to soft red dots of primordial galaxies peppering the wall of the sky billions of light-years beyond the stars, almost to the Big Bang.

The result is an art book befitting its Abrams imprint. Here are stars packed like golden sand, gas combed in delicate blue threads, piled into burgundy thunderheads and carved into sinuous rilles and ribbons, and galaxies clotted with star clusters dancing like spiders on the ceiling.
Mr. Benson has reprocessed many of the images to give them colors truer to physical reality. For example, in the NASA version of the Hubble’s “Pillars of Creation,” showing fingers of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula boiling away to reveal new stars, the “pillars” are brown and the radiation burning them away is green; Mr. Benson has turned it into a composition in shades of red, including burgundy, the actual color of the ionized hydrogen that makes the nebula.

You can sit and look through this book for hours and never be bored by the shapes, colors and textures into which cosmic creation can arrange itself, or you can actually read the accompanying learned essays. Mr. Benson’s prose is up to its visual surroundings, no mean feat.

“The enlarging mirrors of our telescopes,” he writes, “comprise material forged at the centers of the same generation of stars they now record.”

One set of essays relates what was going on in the sky to what was going on back on Earth. The Witch Head, for example, is about 700 light-years from here, which means its soft smoky light has been traveling to us since the early part of the 14th century. It is a milestone for, among other things, the bubonic plague, the first stirrings of the Renaissance in Italy and the foundation of the Ming dynasty in China.

The Heart Nebula, another new acquaintance, in Cassiopeia right next to the Soul Nebula, is 7,500 light-years away. Its image dates to the time of the first proto-writing in China and the first wine, in Persia, and when the Mediterranean burst its banks in biblical fashion and flooded the Black Sea.

The journey outward ends in those distant blurry galaxies on the doorstep of the Big Bang. Or is it the beginning?

“Eternity,” Mr. Benson quotes William Blake as saying in an epigraph, “is in love with the productions of time.” Well, aren’t we all?

"...As we use our intellect to gain new knowledge about Creation, we come to see even more profoundly the depth and breadth of its mysteries. We explore unknown regions beneath the seas – and in outer space. We reach back over hundreds of millions of years in time. Extra-ordinary fossilised geological specimens seize our imagination – palm leaves, amethyst flowers, hedgehog quartz, sea lilies, chrysanthemum and a rich panoply of shells. Indeed, these wonders are found beneath the very soil on which we tread – in every corner of the world – and they connect us with far distant epochs and environments.And the more we discover, the more we know, the more we penetrate just below the surface of our normal lives – the more our imagination staggers. Just think for example what might lie below the surfaces of celestial bodies all across the far flung reaches of our universe. What we feel, even as we learn, is an ever-renewed sense of wonder, indeed, a powerful sense of awe – and of Divine inspiration"(Aga Khan IV, Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa, Canada, December 6th 2008)
For the full version of this quote see:

"In Shia Islam, intellect is a key component of faith. Intellect allows us to understand the creation of God"(Aga Khan IV, July 23rd 2008, Lisbon, Portugal)

"The United States' position as a world leader, in my view, grows directly out of its accomplishments as a Knowledge Society - and this Knowledge - rightly applied - can continue to be a resource of enormous global value"(Aga Khan IV, Austin, Texas, USA, 12 April 2008)

"......The Quran tells us that signs of Allah’s Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation - in the heavens and the earth, the night and the day, the clouds and the seas, the winds and the waters...."(Aga Khan IV, Kampala, Uganda, August 22 2007)

“Parts of the Ummah are concerned about the relationship between Muslims and the contemporary knowledge society, which is now principally rooted in the West. It is my deepest conviction, my deepest conviction, that we must make that knowledge society our own, in keeping with the Alid tradition towards the intellect, but always doing so within the ethics of our faith. Thus, I have sought from my Jamat your Nazrana of time and knowledge.”(Aga Khan IV, Paris, France, July 11th 2007)

"Astronomy, the so-called “Science of the Universe” was a field of particular distinction in Islamic civilization-–in sharp contrast to the weakness of Islamic countries in the field of Space research today. In this field, as in others, intellectual leadership is never a static condition, but something which is always shifting and always dynamic"(Aga Khan IV, Convocation, American University of Cairo, Cairo, Egypt, June 15th 2006)

"In this context, would it not also be relevant to consider how, above all, it has been the Qur'anic notion of the universe as an expression of Allah's will and creation that has inspired, in diverse Muslim communities, generations of artists, scientists and philosophers? Scientific pursuits, philosophic inquiry and artistic endeavour are all seen as the response of the faithful to the recurring call of the Qur'an to ponder the creation as a way to understand Allah's benevolent majesty. As Sura al-Baqara proclaims: 'Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah'.The famous verse of 'light' in the Qur'an, the Ayat al-Nur, whose first line is rendered here in the mural behind me, inspires among Muslims a reflection on the sacred, the transcendent. It hints at a cosmos full of signs and symbols that evoke the perfection of Allah's creation and mercy"(Aga Khan IV,Speech, Institute of Ismaili Studies, October 2003, London, U.K.)

“Muslims believe in an all-encompassing unit of man and nature. To them there is no fundamental division between the spiritual and the material while the whole world, whether it be the earth, sea or air, or the living creatures that inhabit them, is an expression of God’s creation.”(Aga Khan IV, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, 13 April 1984)

"In Islamic belief, knowledge is two-fold. There is that revealed through the Holy Prophet (s.a.s.) and that which man discovers by virtue of his own intellect. Nor do these two involve any contradiction, provided man remembers that his own mind is itself the creation of God. Without this humility, no balance is possible. With it, there are no barriers. Indeed, one strength of Islam has always lain in its belief that creation is not static but continuous, that through scientific and other endeavours, God has opened and continues to open new windows for us to see the marvels of His creation"(Aga Khan IV, Aga Khan University, 16 March 1983, Karachi, Pakistan)

"Islam does not deal in dichotomies but in all encompassing Unity. Spirit and body are one, man and nature are one. What is more, man is answerable to God for what man has created"(Aga Khan IV, Speech to the Asia Society, New York, USA, September 25 1979)

"God has given us the miracle of life with all its attributes: the extraordinary manifestations of sunrise and sunset, of sickness and recovery, of birth and death, but surely if He has given us the means with which to remove ourselves from this world so as to go to other parts of the Universe, we can but accept as further manifestations the creation and destructions of stars, the birth and death of atomic particles, the flighting new sound and light waves. I am afraid that the torch of intellectual discovery, the attraction of the unknown, the desire for intellectual self-perfection have left us"(Aga Khan IV,Speech, 1963, Mindanao, Phillipines)

"The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought. Outside His will, outside His thought, all is nothing, even the things which seem to us absolutely self-evident such as space and time. Allah alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine Will"(Memoirs of Aga Khan III, 1954)

"Islam is fundamentally in its very nature a natural religion. Throughout the Quran God's signs (Ayats) are referred to as the natural phenomenon, the law and order of the universe, the exactitudes and consequences of the relations between natural phenomenon in cause and effect. Over and over, the stars, sun, moon, earthquakes, fruits of the earth and trees are mentioned as the signs of divine power, divine law and divine order. Even in the Ayeh of Noor, divine is referred to as the natural phenomenon of light and even references are made to the fruit of the earth. During the great period of Islam, Muslims did not forget these principles of their religion(Aga Khan III, April 4th 1952, Karachi, Pakistan)

"The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being"(Aga Khan III, April 4th 1952, Karachi, Pakistan)

"In fact this world is a book in which you see inscribed the writings of God the Almighty"(Nasir Khusraw, 11th century Fatimid Ismaili cosmologist-philosopher-poet)

"Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth; (Here) indeed are Signs for the people of intellect"(Noble Quran)

Chapter 30, Verse 27: He originates creation; then refashions it - for Him an easy task. His is the most Sublime Symbol in the heavens and the earth(Noble Quran, 7th Century CE)

Chapter 21, Verse 30: Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together before We clove them asunder, and of water fashioned every thing? Will they not then believe?(Noble Quran, 7th Century CE)

Chapter 51, verse 47: We built the heavens with might, and We expand it wide(Noble Quran, 7th Century CE)

Chapter79, verse 30: And then he gave the earth an oval form(Noble Quran, 7th Century CE)

Chapter 86, verse 11: I swear by the reciprocating heaven.....(Noble Quran, 7th Century CE)

"One hour of contemplation on the works of the Creator is better than a thousand hours of prayer"(Prophet Muhammad, circa 632CE)

"All human beings, by their nature, desire to know."(Aristotle, The Metaphysics, circa 322BC)

Easy Nash

The Qur'an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
The Quran tells us that signs of Allah's Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
This notion of the capacity of the human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives: Aga Khan IV(2007)
Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2006)
The Holy Qu'ran's encouragement to study nature and the physical world around us gave the original impetus to scientific enquiry among Muslims: Aga Khan IV(1985)
The first and only thing created by God was the Intellect(Aql): Prophet Muhammad(circa 632CE)