Monday, September 19, 2005

Blissfully getting to know less about everything

I admit it. The older I get the more I understand one thing: that I don't know everything. I've been evaluating a range of Desktop Search products, and can't quite get any of them to sensibly index and retrieve "information" from the miserable 10 to 20 Gb of documents that I've got on my laptop system.

So what hope do I have of understanding the deeper mysteries of the universe? My background is that of being a scientist (something of a generalist). I've been making my living from the IT industry since 1970, but I'm still fascinated by all things scientific, cosmology included.

I recall reading a special issue of Scientific American around twenty years ago. One of the articles mentioned that the universe was thought to be around 13 billion years old, while another article indicated that the universe was maybe 26 billion light years across. (I might have the figures grossly wrong, but think that the RATIO between them is correct.)

On this one matter alone, I couldn't reconcile how (or if) light could travel across the universe. Light couldn't have been traveling for 26 billion years if the age of the universe's is supposed to be only half of that. I still don't quite know what to make of this. What point about it am I missing?

Maybe it means that everything started (with the "big bang") 13 million years ago and matter has been spreading outwards (at the speed of light?) in all directions from a single point for 13 billion years, so that light NEVER will be capable of travelling right across from one side of the universe to the other. It's just one of quadzillions of things that I don't understand, so I haven't lost any sleep over it. Ah, blissful ingnorance. Now I can go back to the trivialities of the IT world with renewed vigor.

The other day I came across an interesting article: Praying in a Post-Einsteinian Universe (by David S. Toolan, S.J.) Though written some ten years ago, and lots of things cosmological have been discovered since then, it still makes fascinating reading an the relationship between proof-centric "science" and faith-centric "religion".

Such articles help me to escape for a while from the extremely limiting, introspective world of information technology. ... So if I get frustrated when I couldn't fathom out why a certain Desktop Search product encounters a file that it can't index and crashes, who cares? I just ponder some of those cosmological unkowns for a while and it brings everything back into perspective!

Here's a brief extract from Fr. Toolan's article (but you should read the whole thing):

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I thought of this contrast a little over a year ago, as I read in the New York Times (Oct.10, 1995, C1) that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had just announced that its "deep space" radio telescopes in California and New Mexico had obtained the first clear images ever recorded of a star being born in the Milky Way. Wrapped in a thick cloud of gas and in-falling dust, the infant star had not yet ignited through nuclear fusion. It was also small, about half the size of our Sun, and by cosmic standards stood very close - a scarce 800 light years distant from Earth in the direction of the constellation Aquila. Such "protostars," we were told, enable scientists to understand the dynamic forces that once generated a solar system like our own. Nascent stars, in fact, are a cosmic commonplace. As the Times reporter put it, "While other stars are aging and collapsing in death, with a bang or a whimper, the universe is always replenishing itself with new stars."

That new star, of course, will be only one of 50 to 100 billion in the Milky Way. Nothing special. Moreover, another article in the Times a few months later (Jan.15, 1996) reported that the Hubble Space Telescope's probes into far out space had revealed that the number of galaxies had just increased five-fold over the previous count. Astronomers used to think there were some 10 billion galaxies; now the number is estimated to be about 50 billion of them, extending across some 300 billion billion light years of ever-expanding time-space.
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