“The Horrid Voice of Science”?

“The Horrid Voice of Science”? May 22, 2019


The night sky at Paranal
The European Southern Observatory’s various sites in Chile — Paranal, La Silla, Chajnantor — boast enviably low levels of light pollution. However, the skies overhead are rarely pitch-black! As shown in this image of Paranal Observatory, the skies regularly display a myriad of colours and astronomical sights, from the plane of the Milky Way shining brightly overhead to the orange-hued speck of Mars (left), the starry constellations of Scorpius and Orion, and the magenta splash of the Carina Nebula (upper middle). Despite the remote location there are also occasional signs of human activity — for example, the sequence of lamps seen in the center of the frame. These faint lights illuminate the route from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), where this image was taken. Due to the highly sensitive camera used, this photograph also showcases a mysterious phenomenon called airglow. The night sky is ablaze with deep red and eerie green hues, caused by the faint glow of Earth’s atmosphere. Because of airglow, no observatory site on Earth can ever be absolutely, completely dark — although ESO’s do come pretty close. This image was taken by the astronomer and photographer Yuri Beletsky, a member of the 2016 ESO Fulldome Expedition team. This team visited Chile to gather spectacular images for use in the ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Center.
(ESO public domain photograph)


One of the complaints commonly leveled against science focuses on its tendency toward reductionism, toward leaving us with a disenchanted cosmos.  Stars are no longer gods, but spheres of burning gas.  We know about photosynthesis, but we’ve lost the dryads and hamadryads who once inhabited trees.  I’m not altogether sure that I share the complaint or even agree with or sympathize with it, but here it is in three interesting poetic expressions:




Sonnet—To Science

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
   Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
   Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
   Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
   Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
   And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
   Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

— Edgar Allan Poe




The Horrid Voice of Science

“There’s machinery in the
     There’s a mainspring to the bee;
There’s hydraulics to a daisy,
     And contraptions to a tree.

“If we could see the birdie
        That makes the chirping sound
With x-ray, scientific eyes,
     We could see the wheels go round.”

And I hope all men
Who think like this
Will soon lie

— Vachel Lindsay




When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

— Walt Whitman


Posted from London, England



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