Friday, March 13, 2020

for astro-science funding—then beyond

The following is a letter I sent today to David Overbye, the lead science writer at the NYTimes, in light of his article today, “American Astronomy’s Future Goes on Trial in Washington.” I’m posting this copy because it’s fun creative writing (below the “• • •” separation point in the letter), after a short wish that he do his best to inspire funding (text above the “• • •” point).

I’m commonly amazed that I often change my attitude toward emails that I’ve sent, several hours after sending them, and that happened today. Blog posting allows for revision that sent letters don’t allow, of course, which can cause unprovoked embarrassment, and did earlier today.

For this posting, I’m inserting indicators of what’s a reference to the article’s discussion which might be obscure for a reader here who hasn’t read the long article (which gets somewhat tedious in detail). But I’m not explaining those references, since that’s not necessary for the creative writing; and I have a link to the article above.

After the letter, I’m adding some further discussion, relative to numerical points that I’m inserting into this posting of the letter (e.g., “…[ 1 ].”) Those numbered points aren’t footnotes, exactly, but reference points for the short comments after the letter, which becomes prospectively imaginative.

Sunday, Mar. 15: I received a warm-hearted reply. But I’m still embarrassed that I actually sent this:

Friday, March 13
To: David Overbye
re: “American Astronomy's Future...”

Dear Mr. Overbye,

You've devoted your writing life to the intrinsic value of cosmic science, so I imagine that you're better positioned than the astronomers themselves to articulate an inspiring narrative vision that can sway U.S. funders to do their part to support long-term thinking for astro-scientific investment.

I wish you would write a few articles that could really help Congresspersons justify to their constituents the funding that astronomers need. What Congress needs is ways to inspire public support.

I suppose that the most dramatic instance of this is what's been happening in Hawaii [article points], which is allegorical for a Republican Senate that has trouble funding anything not recognizable as immanent threat (easy to justify for re-election).

Apparently, the rhetoric of rationalization by astronomers [article points] is in terms of competing with the Europeans, which may be a prudent tactic: appealing to nationalist desire to not be Left Behind. But the reality of science—you know better than I—is a Singular Planetary Community.

So, I hope that your experience can serve inspiration of funding.
• • •

The rest of this is creative indulgence. You're better positioned to appeal to Congressional funders than I am. But I enjoy creative writing:

Metaphorically, the higher that one's position of view is, the farther one's vision, such that long-sighted thinking is superior to short-sighted thinking [ 1 ], but that's anathema to short-sighted thinking (and to rightist anti-elitism, as well as to nativist provincialism).

In particular, “native” Hawaiian culture is relatively very recent on that colonization of flora and fauna (favored by volcanic emergence from the sea) by Polynesians whose monarchies later exploited its subjects in collusion with predatory, seafaring Western colonialists [ 2 ]. Hawaiians are part of Polynesian humanity that designated its sacred heights there, and those heights have demonstrably welcomed scientific humanity as guests, because no gods have prevented astronomical research on Mauna Kea [ 3 ]. Inasmuch as there are “gods” there, locals can recognize that they are affirmed by understanding how science serves those gods. And native Hawaiians are free to appreciate sacredness as having many identifiable locations.

I humorously think that maybe the rhetoric of justification to Republicans in Congress ought to be in terms of furthering appreciation of God's Creation because it's (allegedly) our God's desire that we are to know Him (which is to know Ourselves ultimately).

That's a joke, but not by much: The folklore of gods, which led to the folklore of monotheism in the West, has always been about our “God” wanting His creatures to know Him. I'm not religious by any means; I'm philological about “God” (that's philological, not philosophical—another story [ 4 ]). But it's obvious that astronomer Tommasu Treu's questions [article point] belong together for a religious mind: We are not ”Alone” and They likely know as much more about the universe (about “God”) beyond us, analogously as quantum cosmologists know beyond Andean campesinos (who have an interesting cosmology, by the way: very ecological!) [ 5 ]—or beyond Hawaiian natives, who are creatures of the same gods that welcome astronomy in their heights. (That "likely" results from knowing, as We do, how easily life may emerge [ 6 ] on a waterworld planet; and that there are countless star systems in our galaxy that are millions of years beyond us [ 7 ].)

So, how can science show natives (and Republicans) how We are all one humanity reaching to know the awaiting gods? How can Americans feel good about buying into supporting the future of humanity?

For fun, I love thinking of science as acting for the sake of all planetary intelligence facing the prospect of eventually—and inevitably—joining with disclosed exoplanetary intelligence to advance the quality of being in this corner of Our galaxy. That's Our ultimate fate: to make being as good as possible in this reach of Our galaxy, which will merge with Andromeda, mergently speeding away from other galaxies.

That's the reality, such that it is fate that human fidelity to gods will have to reconcile with the gods’ desire that humanity know its reality.

The ultimacy of being is to make the journey of appreciation as good as possible, just like a given life that will die finds ultimate meaning in its ongoing, ever growing potential for a higher quality of life, that is intrinsic to being, in face of the fact that this pale blue dot is all the heaven there is. We are the shepherds of Earth’s version of intelligence in Our galaxy. The nature of intelligence is to advance itself [ 8 ].

The point of “what the universe is made of” [article point] is emergent intelligence, which “gods” mirror figuratively. Humanity is the Earthly version of something manifold in Our galaxy. Astro-science (astrobiology, astronomy, astrophysics) is like one provincial culture realizing that a foreign culture is, at heart, another version of “Our” same humanity, such that one's conception of being is enriched [ 9 ]. To know multi-culturality is, at heart, to better know our shared humanity. To learn the cosmos is to learn where We already always are: being an instance of intelligence in a galaxy [ 10 ].

Human life is intrinsically about paying forward for our heirs’ quality of being. Theologians proffer that this is God's design: The “life of the universe” (Lee Smolin [ 11 ]) is “alive”: evolving; and that evolving is—poetically figured—our “God” showing Itself relative to Our ability so far to appreciate the evolving, which is to be appreciated. That is our “God’s” desire: to appreciate most intelligently.

Thanks for reading,

Berkeley, CA subscriber

Many years ago, physical theorist Lee Smolin [11] wrote a book titled The Life of the Universe, which argued that the notion of evolving pertains to the universe itself, within which intelligence emerges (proven by the fact that we are here [10]).

There may be multiple universes, but this one works by the same physics throughout, while recent science has determined that life begins easily in the right conditions. Research reported this past week [6] merely adds to such realization by certifying that not only does life begin easily (shown my much other research), but began more recently on Earth (hundreds of millions of years more recently) than previously believed by the best science.

In our galaxy, there are countless planetary systems, many that are millions of years older than our sun [7] (maybe a billion years older), emergent from the same physics.

Our evolution has given way to intelligence which is advancing exponentially. Electricity systems are merely 12-15 decades old, commercial computing 7 decades old. Yet that led to the public Internet merely 2.5 decades ago. And now, manifold senses of “artificial intelligence” implement science fiction ideas that idealize post-humanity. Soon, we will be able to discern which of the thousands of exoplanets that we’re discovering have probable life, just from spectral analysis of their light.

What’s to be for us, thousands of years from now—a million years? And They, who are millions of years beyond us already? You think They don’t know we’re here, because S.E.T.I. gets Silence? [8]

Suppose that you are called upon to explain to curious orangutans how your smartphone “communicates” (as if the phone itself does it)? You would decline to respond to their curiosity.

And suppose such a god replied. Would humanity become wholly oriented to what Contact could disclose? Would religions lose all ability to keep social order oriented? Would opportunistic competition between nations seeking greater Contact go to war like animals fighting over a singularly grand food source?

If a god appeared, would you be ecstatic over the fact; or terrified of why It arrived?

If the gods are real, but wholly non-reflections of human idealization, would you want their presence?

Saying that I'm “philological about ‘God’” [4] is shorthand for my anthropological interest in evolution of intelligence. Our premodern cultural evolution created gods as aspirational idealizations (and ethical lights—and explanatory consolations, etc.), much of which remains institutionally necessary for social stability and long-term sustainability [5]—yet also for honoring ancestral tradition, as if a culture originates from its ancestry like seeds evincing fruit trees.

The situation of Hawaiian nativism is typical: aversively awed by the mysterious, monstrous telescopes that have been “received” on the mountain [3]. A folklore of cultural purity is belied by the reality of its suppressed history [2], which is the reality of its legacy of Polynesian humanity which is part of the legacy of Asian humanity, which is part of the 200,000 year diasporas out of Africa and around the planet, back and forth for tens of millennia, that resulted in “brothers” facing natives [9] with too much too soon.

Yet, just as cultural pluralism reveals a shared humanity, astroscientific adventure will reveal a shared intelligibility of being.