.::..Nicholas Sagan..::. …:.::..artworks and experiments…::.:…nicholassagan@gmail.com

Fictions of the Real

July’s issue of Astronomy Magazine holds some content that is of particular interest to me in terms of the exploration of the blur between truth and fiction and the empirical paradox.  As it has been discussed in earlier posts, the history of astronomy is riddled with curious observations and hysteria.  One of the most famous ‘misnomers’, if you will, are the canal systems on Mars that of course could have only been constructed by the engineers of some vast planetary government.  Its not only that this incident was observed once, but it was then verified by other people once the announcement was made!  What’s more is that this is hardly the only instance where a single observation has been confirmed and questioned.

ONeills Sketch

Which brings me to the first article, by Stephen James O’Meara, I wish to discuss about O’Neill’s Illusion, or more recognizably O’Neill’s Bridge (another article here).  In 1953 the science editor for the New York Herald Tribune, John O’Neill, observed an object bridging the gap in a crater ridge on the lunar surface.  Since this object was obviously so large and even looking AND had not been previously observed (even days before!) he deduced that it must have been a result of artificial engineering enterprise.  Now at first fellow astronomers dismissed this observation because it implied the existence of what O’Neill called “saucer people” and because the object disappeared a few days after the initial observation, the “saucer people” must have taken notice of our interest in the object.

Diagram of ONeills Bridge

While it is still unclear as to what exactly causes this illusion, other ‘objects’ of similar form have been observed, it is now thought that what O’Neill actually observed was the edge of a partially covered crater, that just happen to fall between two points along the ridge of a much larger crater.  The facts that such an observation a) caused such a stir and that b) it is not the first time something like this has happened are good examples of the paradox that is intrinsic to observational astronomy.  Even though something is observed and confirmed multiple times throughout the years, it can still be an invention of our imaginations.  It is in these cases that observational astronomy’s paradox and greatest weakness is exposed.  We must rely on forms of mediation and tools to assist our limited human physiology in order to observe the universe at large.  And even though these tools help us to gain knowledge and insight into the workings of our universe, it is still with a subjective eye that we view them.  It is also the case that with observations at such large scales, it is that same mediation that makes them seem more real.

The other article is by Glenn Chaple and is an interesting take on what astronomy was about a hundred years ago.  It is essentially a book review of the times more influential or readily available popular astronomy books, The Friendly Stars by Martha Martin, Astronomy with the Naked Eye by William Olcott and Astronomy with an Opera-Glass by Garrett Serviss.  They all present a form of stargazing that retains the natural sense of wonder that is too often overlooked in favor of quantizing and analyzing whats out there.  Agrees, knowing and wondering are two very different ways of thinking in terms of exploring the night sky, but they are not mutually exclusive.  And even though the language all three authors used is a bit wishy-washy for my taste, it is good to know that those times are not forgotten and we can reinvigorate the sense that astronomy can be a grassroots movement.  As a matter of fact, the August issue has a really fantastic article about amateur astronomy and how much it has progressed the field…

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