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by Groff Schroeder
We humans have long gazed into the night sky at beautiful objects we, at first, did not understand. Late at night and far from artificial light, you can still see them. The inky black sky, split by a diagonal, thickened band of seemingly infinite, shimmering points of light we called stars. Fleeting streaks of light. Rarely, a star grows suddenly very bright, then fades away. The moon, first full bright, then cyclically darkening, as if being eaten by an impossibly large mouth. Several lights were especially bright and moved faster than the others - sometimes in inexplicable ways. We called them planets - and thought them gods. And every day, the bright, warming sun seems to rise in the east, arcs across the sky, then sets in the west. The seasons came and went. The flowering of spring, the growth of summer, the chilling fall, the cold of winter. Time after time. Year after year. When the food moved or the climate changed, so did we. And from the beginning, many of our lives depended upon predicting the changing of the seasons.
So we watched. And we learned. Eventually we learned to follow the horizontal movements of the sun as it slowed, stopped, and reversed course twice every year. Solstice (sun stop). Once in midsummer, once in midwinter. Long, warm summer days, surrounded by green plants and plentiful food. Then cold, short days of winter, when only evergreens seemed to survive the snow and ice, their boughs sometimes glinting tiny rainbows in the sun. Yet despite our ability to build tools like Stonehenge to track the solstices, for most of human history, much of our universe remained a profound mystery.
But in the 18th century, Galileo Galilei devised a self correcting and predictive process of observation, research, experiment, validation, and publication called the scientific method, and Isaac Newton developed mathematical equations that accurately and precisely predict the laws of motion, gravitation, and more, founding the science of physics. In the 19th century, Dimitri Mendelev devised the periodic table of the elements, founding the science of chemistry, and James Clerk Maxwell used the scientific method to derive powerful, predictive equations that model electromagnetism, optics, and electronics. In the 20th century, Albert Einstein and Max Planck laid the foundations of relativity and quantum mechanics, and Hans Bethe calculated that the force of gravity in stars like our sun is so strong that stars' elemental hydrogen fuses into the element helium, releasing almost unimaginable amounts of light and energy to power life on earth. Biochemistry revealed that life depends upon "heavy" elements like iron and magnesium, and Fred Hoyle discovered that those heavy elements can only form in a stellar supernova.
Science founds every aspect of our modern technological world, from accelerated flight to vaccines - and promises much more. Science validates that: the thickened band of stars is the Milky Way galaxy; the "mouth" devouring the moon is the shadow of the earth; supernovae appear as suddenly bright, then fading stars; snowflakes are crystals of water that can split light into its component wavelengths; the seasons stem from the tilt of the earth - and that the winter solstice marks each celestial new year with the promise of spring. And science tells us we are literally made of elements formed in exploding stars.
Happy new year!
Published in the December 22-28, 2021 issue of the Colorado Springs Independent with the quotation below.
"Where the senses fail us, reason must step in."