By Bruno Macaes


Many poets despise scientific descriptions of nature and the heavens. They think cold and bleak science eliminates all the romance that used to be present there. They prefer to see the stars as aesthetic objects or even as gods, not amenable to an objective analysis.

Personally, I think it's a shame when someone can't see beauty in the true nature of the heavenly bodies or the natural world. Besides romantic poets, many people don't see any beauty in the world as it really is. They ignore almost completely the true nature of reality on Earth and beyond, and very often adopt magical and simplistic views about nature. A magical point of view, of course, is almost always beautiful itself. But scientific discoveries reveal a much more beautiful world, much bigger than we see or can imagine, with many breathtaking wonders.

The sheer size of the universe contains beauty. The cosmos is bigger than the greatest of gods created by human imagination. We, for instance live in the Milky Way galaxy. A galaxy is just an island of stars in the middle of immense emptiness. But ordinary island it is not, as there must be two hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. The observable universe may contain one hundred billion galaxies! The number of stars in the sky is comparable to the number of grains of sand on most of Earth's beaches put together.

Suppose you work or study 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away from home. By car, you could get there in about 20 minutes. If you had an airplane to take you there, it would take just about one minute to arrive. A spaceship orbiting the Earth would make the same distance in less than three seconds! The space shuttle, indeed, is capable of a full trip round the planet in about 90 minutes. That is, 40,000 kilometers(25,000 miles) in one and a half hour. Now suppose the space shuttle could take you to the Sun, our nearest star. At the shuttle speed of eight kilometers per second, you would reach the Sun in 217 days. A bit too distant, considering that the Sun is the nearest star. So what about the other stars? The second nearest star is called Proxima Centauri. It's a small star going about two bigger companions. A triple star system that with the unaided eye looks like a single point. Surely the journey wouldn't take more than two or three decades? The answer is: if you went there by shuttle, you would be arriving by the year 152,000. A hundred and fifty thousand years is too long a time scale for us. Our own species is not much older than that. Civilization dawned 10,000 years ago, and writing was invented only 6.000 years ago. Hey, if the second nearest star is that far, what about the others, all those billions of them?

Of course, one day it will be possible to travel much faster than the space shuttle does. Imagine that technological progress will allow us to travel at close to the speed of light. To reach such high speeds, it would be necessary prodigious amounts of energy. But let's admit that this will be no problem (maybe, with the help of science!). Why not, then, faster than light? Didn't we break the sound speed barrier? Actually, traveling faster than light is not a possibility, because it's not a matter of technology. The speed of light is a law of nature. The reason is that, the faster we go, the more energy we carry. Energy is equivalent to mass, so going faster, in a way, means to weigh more. Now if you want to go ever faster, you (or your engine) will have to pull ever harder an ever increasing mass. As your mass approaches infinity, close to the speed of light, your engine must get infinitely powerful. Such engines will never exist because all the energy available in the universe wouldn't be enough (science, again. On another occasion I will discuss in more detail this and other interesting aspects of traveling at the speed of light). So at light speed, which is 37,500 times faster than the shuttle, we would be at Proxima Centauri in just four years. That sounds much better. But if we wanted to go farther away, even at light speed, our journey wouldn't seem to end. To reach our galaxy's center, we would need 30,000 years. That long ago, our ancestors were hunting with stone-pointed spears, and fleeing the leopards. We measure time in years, decades and centuries, not thousand years! The Andromeda Galaxy is the one closest to us, after the Magellanic Clouds, "tiny" irregular galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. And to go there would take more than two million years. Two million years ago we didn't even exist. Our ancestors, homo-habilis and homo-erectus were thriving in Africa and the Middle East.

Using a telescope, we do see places much more distant than that. If we tried to go to those places, the journey would last billions of years. Our planet was formed in a cloud of gas and dust some 4.6 billion years ago. Life first appeared about 3.8 billion years ago. The universe, thus, is much bigger than our tiny world. If we were near Proxima Centauri now, we would't be seeing the Earth, even with powerful telescopes. And from our perspective, the Earth seems to be all there is. Our world with its nation states and mighty rulers are as small as specks of dust.

Is it possible not to see beauty in all this? In the idea that planets and stars are places, not gods or ethereal objects? Each planet has beautiful landscapes to be admired by poets, isn't that great? The world as it really is is much more beautiful than we thought, or desired, it was. Science has uncovered many more wonders. For instance, today we know at least in part what the answer to the question "where do we come from" is. We know that our bodies and every object we see are composed of atoms. Hydrogen and Helium atoms were formed in the great explosion that originated the whole universe. And the other types of atoms, like Carbon and Oxygen, were forged inside the stars. It's the only manner by which they could have formed. We know in detail how stars make them, and how they spread in space after stars explode. Those atoms will form planets and people. Isn't it wonderful to learn that the matter forming our bodies was, in a very distant past, inside a star, at extreme temperatures?

The number of wonders uncovered by science is greater than this page could mention. I hope to come back to this topic many times. Anyway, the lesson I learned with all this and wish to tell you is that we shouldn't base our ideas about the world only on religion, mythology or authority. Science has been the most interesting and beautiful guide we could get. And it is also the best one, for in principle anyone can do a scientific experiment and observe by oneself the truth of a scientific explanation. The other explanations are based solely on anecdotal testimony. It doesn't matter how sincere those statements are. If they can't be proved or shown to anyone, then probably there is something wrong with them. The scientific method of discovery may be boring and hard; other systems of knowledge are easier to learn. But there are no results more beautiful and accurate than those of science!


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