“Coming of Age in the Milky Way” by Timothy Ferris

This book is a great overview of the history of astronomy.  Since advances in astronomy affected many other branches of science as well, particularly physics, one may say that the scope of the book is the history of science as a whole.  This is a very informative book and Mr. Ferris is not afraid to delve into some nitty gritty theories.  Most of the time his explanations are lucid and more easily understandable than in most college textbooks I’ve read.

I did things a little different while reading this book.  I put little strips of paper in at pages where I read something that I wanted to remember and put up here.  So here goes…I’ll list the page number just for the sake of reference.

pg. 30 – one of the first descriptions of the motions of the planets was the Ptolemaic model, consisting of spheres and epicycles.  Although ungainly, it was able to do a decent job of predicting the planetary locations.  Yet is was not the true order of things, as we have seen upon venturing out into the solar system via probes, etc.  This is a good example of the definition and proper frame of thinking about any scientific theory.  It may provide useful results, but is it the truth?  Not always.  We simplify things and try to make them fit observations, and when we are done we may have something that helps predict future results, but we still cannot claim complete understanding of the event.

pg. 116 – “When <Isaac> Newton was asked years later how he had discovered his laws of celestial dynamics, he replied, ‘By thinking of them without ceasing.'”  Wouldn’t it be great if more people thought without ceasing more often?

pg. 120 – Newton admitted that while the law of gravitation predicted planetary motion, he could not explain why it was so.  He maintained a faith that “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

pg. 192 – Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts that the faster a particle is traveling, the more massive it becomes, and the slower its time relative to non-moving objects.  Weird.  This has all been experimentally confirmed, too.

pg. 262 – Quantum theory predicts what is known as “quantum tunneling,” which enables protons to approach close enough to each other to fuse.  Ferris analogizes this to a cannonball probabilistically penetrating a ten-foot-thick wall sometimes, without passing through it.  Weird yet again.  (pg. 288 – Neils Bohr – “If anybody says he can think about quantum problems without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them.”)  Quantum theory makes me think of the Ptolemaic system sometimes – it is bizarre, but it does help predict an awful lot of things. But is it truly the way things happen?

pg. 290 – Einstein didn’t like the probabilistic nature of quantum theory, either: “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing, but an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.  The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one.’  I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice….I am quite convinced that someone will eventually come up with a theory whose objects, connected by laws, are not probabilities but considered facts.”

pg. 298 – Leon Lederman, on particle physics: “The standard model … explains so much, but it’s not complete….One of it’s greatest flaws is aesthetic.  It’s too complicated.  It has too many arbitrary parameters.  We don’t really see the creator twiddling seventeen knobs to set seventeen different parameters to create the universe as we know it.  The picture is not beautiful, and that drive for beauty and simplicity and symmetry has been an unfailing guidepost to how to go in physics.”

pg. 373 – on the probability of extraterrestrial life – some combine the probability another Earth-like planet existing, where water is neither frozen or boiling, with the right mixture of elements, and all the biological, social, and cultural variables that must work out so intelligent life can exist and progress to a detectable (ie radio wave generating) state, and come up with some pretty small numbers – something like one in 10^18, which is more than the total of planets in the galaxy.  Ferris points out some faults with this reasoning.  One, we are working with a single example of life…it’s pretty hard to draw general conclusions about anything with just a single example.  Plus, we don’t know everything about Earth or life on it.  So how can we make guesses about the probability of life on other worlds when we don’t fully comprehend ours.  Second, Ferris points out that by the same reasoning, it is extremely unlikely that you would be reading his book – that you exist, were born and educated and went down the path of experiencing everything leading up to reading the book, and he likewise went through all he did before writing it.

Ferris has a neat SciFi-ish idea about how future civilizations in space could communicate via networks of self-replicating probes that go throughout the galaxy and rely information back to each other.  It could take thousands or millions of years to communicate information between two points, but information about distant points were stored and archived more locally, then the time penalty is not nearly so bad.

In the concluding chapter, Ferris writes about how as we have “come of age” as a species and gained some understanding of our place in the universe, we have come to a realization of our ignorance.  The quest for knowledge will be never-ending due to the immense size and variety of the universe.  As we observe and gain more knowledge, our theories will become more and more refined.  Ernst Mach – “Theories are like withered leaves, which drop off after having enabled the organism of science to breathe for a time.”

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