A Telescope Is a Time Machine

I like to think that the vast mysteries of the cosmos flabbergast (or offend) so many people just because they have never thought about anything outside the parameters of their own experience, or at best, beyond the scope of the world they perceive, and assume that the parameters of that world are the end all of existence, without knowing any better.

Just watched again the fourth episode of Cosmos, (via) describing how the speed of light necessarily means that we see stars and other objects in the sky only as they existed years or decades or millennia ago. This is an elementary fact that one learns very early, if one is interesting in learning about astronomy or cosmology.

It’s ironic to me that franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars are popular, while so many people (nearly half the population, by some polls), have no idea that Earth orbits the sun, rather than vice versa, let alone what a ‘planet’ is as opposed to a ‘star’ or a ‘galaxy’. People watch these shows and movies and are dazzled without having any understanding of how what they are seeing does or does not correspond to the reality of the universe as humanity has come to understand it. To a substantial extent, these franchises actually confound understanding of these issues, with their depiction of casual travel from star to star within seemingly a few minutes or hours — presuming a faster-than-light travel that is impossible according to current scientific understanding. (And, even if such travel might be possible, their depiction in movies and TV trivializes the reality of the true distances involve. A fair amount of literary ‘hard’ science fiction does deal with these realities, but that is a subject for another post.)

I realized the vast difference in perspective between those who understood such astronomical realities and those who’d never had any reason to think about them, early on: my own grandmother, back in the ‘60s when I was watching Star Trek and Twilight Zone, had trouble understanding that ‘up’ was relative to where one was on the planet. And therefore that the galaxy, the Milky Way, was in *every* direction, not just ‘up’. She must have known intellectually, abstractly, that the world was round, but her everyday ‘cosmology’ was a subjective flat earth with the sky *above* — up. I don’t mean for a moment to patronize my grandmother. She was just one example of the majority of the population, who to this day, have the same intuitive feeling for how the universe is oriented around their immediate surroundings, and have never had any reason to understand the larger reality in which they live.

In fact, there have been public confessions of such ignorance in recent years. A host of The View who admitted on air that she wasn’t actually sure whether the earth was flat or not. And Bill O’Reilly (on Fox, appropriately), has so little understanding of basic physics and astronomy that he thinks — and said so on air, to much ridicule — that the tides are so inexplicable that they must prove the existence of God. (Snort.) Yes, the vast majority of the population carries on productive lives while being benignly ignorant of the world and cosmos they live in.

Science fiction, it must be said, does not always do a good job of presenting accurate representations of the reality of time and space — especially media SF, TV and movies. The earliest example that made an impression on me was an article by Isaac Asimov, in TV Guide, that criticized the TV series Lost in Space — a show that was my first exposure of science fiction, however crude, when I discovered it mid-first season (early 1966, that would be). Among his examples, Asimov cited a line of dialogue about how the spaceship Jupiter 2, heading back toward Earth, had “just passed Arcturus and Uranus” [or something like that], a grotesque distortion of scale, not to mention a confusion between a star and a planet. I would compare it to, say, “I’m almost in Santa Monica at 4th Street, having just passed Chicago and 5th Street”.

Star Trek did much better, though Asimov also complained about its evocation of the “edge of the galaxy” in the first episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. It’s like thinking there’s an exact edge of a valley, given the scale. Aside from that, my thought is that Trek’s casual use of real star names was problematic; if you take its ‘star dates’ seriously as an indication the passage of relative time between episodes, and plot those times to the Enterprise’s travel to Vega or Orion or the various other actual names cited, they are probably not at all realistic –- they are back and forth across the galaxy, in various up and down directions. (I admit I have not tried to plot out trajectories between these various locales.)

A more fundamental problem with LIS and ST and SW and pretty much all visual SF is that they presume everything happens in a flat *horizontal* plane – spaceships always fly left to right across the screen, or vice versa, and meet alien ships in the same relative plane. While in fact, the universe is 3D. The Enterprise, changing course, should have angled up, or down, or way up or way down. (As I recall, this was a plot point in the second ST feature, making into a huge discovery an elementary fact that should have been obvious all along. [I’ve never seen any of the Trek films more than once, and the later ones, not at all. I grew out of Trek long ago.])

The gold standard for scientific accuracy in an SF film is still the 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a standard even last year’s Gravity did not quite meet. (2001’s horizontal frame was accurate, since the action took place within the plane of the solar system.) Yes, even 2001 had minor inaccuracies — among them, that the stars would be visible in the sky above a sunlit moon — but it’s still the best that’s ever been done. It took an obsessive like Kubrick, a rare beast.

[Updated a bit, 4apr14]

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