February 4, 2008
Ptolemy had his work cut out for him back in the second century. The night sky fascinated him. He would start with the only fixed point in the sky, the North Star (as we call it). Night after night, from his home in Egypt, he would record the motion of the stars and the planets visible to his naked eye. (Telescopes came later. Much later.)
He operated under the generally accepted assumption that the earth, Terra Firma, remained stationary. The points of light in the far distance were set on the surface of a spherical dome that rotated around planet earth; as did the sun and moon. The planets were somehow suspended in space floating in perpetual motion in cyclical patterns that from the earth look like the looping scramble of cables behind the PC, or the home theater. Mercury and Venus and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn moved in cycles, strange swirling cycles in complicated but as Ptolemy learned, predictable patterns.
The scientist was obsessed with the journey of these celestial objects. He recorded their progress night after night, month after month, year after year. The perplexity of their looping gyrations fascinated him; what emerged was a triumphant work he called Planetary Hypotheses. His network of “nested spheres,” which could predict the position of the planets in the night sky with remarkable precision, became the accepted view of the universe for the next fifteen hundred years. To understand the model required advanced academic studies in Astronomy, Mathematics and Physics.
You and I know that Ptolemy’s complicated theory of nested spheres missed a fundamental point. It wasn’t until Copernicus and then Galileo, that Ptolemy’s “discoveries,” considered to be “brilliant,” the work of a “genius,” were summarily dismissed; placed forever on the trash-heap of discarded ideas. Galileo’s primitive telescope confirmed it.
It was a simple test, really. Galileo observed the light and shadow moving across the face of the giant planet Jupiter. He compared it to Ptolemy’s cycle in the text-book. Impossible, he concluded. The only way to explain the movement of the shadows, Galileo proclaimed, is for Jupiter to orbit around the Sun.
Heliocentism. Copernicus suggested that Ptolemy was wrong. Galileo confirmed it. The earth is a rotating sphere, orbiting the Sun, just like the other planets.
Those who had mastered the complicated concept of nested spheres shrugged. It was so obvious. The motion of the planets suddenly became simplified. They fell into place. The solar system went from celestial scramble to orderly rotations. The series of complicated loops were reduced to a series of concentric, symmetrical ellipse.
It was a paradigm shift. And a satisfying one. But it required that humankind let go of the solipsistic notion that the earth was the one stationary point in the universe. Not an easy concession.
I met this week with a group we call The Desert Fathers. One of them told this story of this Astronomical shift in paradigm. It was Henri Nouwen, he said, who made the point that when we place ourselves at the center, our universe appears to be as convoluted as Ptolemy’s collection of nested spheres. It’s only when we place God at the center that our world makes any sense at all.
Curiously, the same story was told again when I took my grandson, Kenny, to the Griffith Park Observatory just a few days later. He passed a milestone just the week before when we celebrated his fifth birthday. The sign on the Planetarium Kiosk confirmed it. You can’t see the show if you are anything less than five. “If you aren’t five,” Kenny told me, “you get too scared.” As we walked up to the landmark structure perched on the bluff a thousand feet above Los Angeles under a bright blue sky, Kenny walked and talked like a grownup.
I passed a milestone the same week. The Kiosk confirmed this one, too. I qualified for the senior discount.
So with eyes wide, together we watched the spectacular Planetarium show, Kenny and me. I’m not sure he got the “nested spheres” thing or Galileo’s radical challenge to Ptolemy’s world view. But he did find out why the under five crowd should take a pass on the presentation. Under the dome, in high-definition clarity, on an IMAX sized screen, in surround sound, the BIG BANG is truly startling. Kenny jumped in his high back seat, grabbed my arm and said, “It’s OK Grandpa.
“I’m not scared.”
* * * * * * *
On this Monday morning, as a leader, you’ll agree with me that the world makes a whole lot more sense when heliocentric becomes theo-centric; God centered. When BIG BANG illustrates the biblical assertion: “in the beginning… God…”
There’s no better way to re-discover Nouwen’s point than to spend a day with your grandson, particularly a five-year-old who is fascinated by outer space and astronauts and starry starry nights, so full of questions. So eager to learn.
If senior citizen means more days like Saturday up at Griffith Park hand in hand with a curious grandson, then I’m all over it.
Copyright 2008 Kenneth E Kemp