The astronomical basis of the modern world | The Middle East

On July 12, Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is scheduled to begin sending out the first scientific images, after decades of design and preparation, and an experimental period that lasted more than half a year. The project has several scientific goals, including the search for planets capable of hosting life around stars other than the sun, and the discovery of the first stars and galaxies in the universe. Interesting and eye-catching goals, no doubt, but they seem far from our everyday concerns. It appears as such, especially in our Arab world, where public awareness of the close link between the mutations of basic sciences and the developments of the social world is absent. This is what I want to address here.

Astronomy was at the basis of the historical transformation that brought modern civilization. This is a phrase that may seem strange to some, even if they have heard about the contributions of the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. So; The great leaps that we follow across the oceans, in astronomy and the basic sciences in general, seem a bit of an anecdote. Among the achievements of a luxurious world, the conditions of progress have allowed him to take care of such luxuries, but they do not have important repercussions on our lives. Perhaps only a minority of observers will contemplate the possibility that progress, on the contrary, came originally as a result of attention to basic cognitive issues, and starting from more difficult circumstances than the Arab world is currently experiencing. Kepler, for example, was living and working in the misery and horror of the Thirty Years’ War, and his mother was kidnapped in the middle of the night to be tried as a witch.

Then the intellectual horizon was launched with the expansion of the material universe, and the reality of the Western human being changed with it. For thousands of years, the prevailing human perception has been that he is at the center of the universe, both spiritually and geographically. Then the established perception collapsed, and with its collapse, the scientific revolution erupted, and with it successive knowledge booms. As for our place in the physical universe, it turns out first that the sun is at the center of the solar system; Then the other stars that we observe are suns like our own; that we inhabit the outskirts of a galaxy with hundreds of thousands of millions of suns; and that our galaxy itself is but one of an astounding number; In a universe in which the number of galaxies exceeds the number of all humans who have walked on Earth since modern humans evolved on it about a hundred thousand years ago.

Webb will search for the origin of these galaxies in the early universe; To test our current theoretical perceptions of it, by carefully and sensitively monitoring the rays of light that took nearly 14 billion years to reach us. In this way, the observed universe will expand again, and the horizons of our perceptions of our place in it will be opened.

The show will be impressive, but it may seem to many in the Arab world as if it is part of a movie whose details are difficult to follow. Because we started in the middle. We will be fascinated by the first images of the universe, and perhaps by the societies that produced them, but perhaps only a few of us will find an opportunity to contemplate the basics of the civilizational project in which these images came, and which links them with the knowledge and organizational basis of the societies that produced them.

In fact, James Webb’s pictures represent the latest breakthroughs in an intellectual journey in which scientific development was radically linked to important social and political transformations. For example, John Locke (a pioneer of Anglo-Saxon liberal thought, which deeply influenced the founders and political system of the United States) was a confidant of Newton, and his thought was greatly influenced by his friend’s scientific achievements. Indeed, it is difficult not to notice the line connecting the mechanisms of the pluralistic liberal system, which emerged from Locke’s political philosophy, and the scientific method; In being a system based on fixing mistakes, following the principle that no individual or idea is above accountability and refutation.

Newton’s successes in deciphering the natural universe also helped crystallize the idea that man, crowned with a mind capable of deciphering the secrets of the universe, must preserve his humanity represented in his complete independence of free choice, and nothing can be imposed on him except by persuasion. Thus, the foundations of the rational order are guarantors of freedom; Because in its absence, control is for the most capable of oppression, subjugation and oppression, but in its absence, the argument and thesis will be the strongest, with the dismantling of the restrictions on criticism and innovation imposed by traditional societies.

These ethical theses, with important political implications, are associated in particular with the name of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, a professor of astrophysics who created (on the basis of Newton’s laws), a conception of the origins of the solar system. The theory developed by the French mathematician Laplace, which is currently also the most successful in representing the emergence of external solar aggregates, such as the one that Webb will research. Rather, Kant was also the first to speculate about the existence of exo-galaxies, independent of our own, of the kind that Webb would observe. As a philosopher and astronomer, he summed up his vision by expressing his fascination with two things: “the starry sky above me, and the moral law within me.”

I do not, of course, want to give the impression that all this will come to the mind of the average individual in the industrialized West when following the results that will soon flow from the James Webb Telescope. But the general intellectual and historical background will be implicit in the minds of many. Because its fundamentals permeate the educational system and the public sphere. Rather, the events of launching expensive mega-projects like James Webb can be seen as rituals of affirming, reviving and revitalizing social beliefs and cultural foundations related to that background – as opposed to being considered anecdotes or luxuries.

Also, most people in the West do not understand the details of Einstein’s general relativity, which went beyond Newton’s mechanics in explaining the motion of planets, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. They will not be aware that GPS navigation devices cannot operate accurately without taking into account the phenomenon of space-time curvature (as predicted by general relativity) when calculating the distance between the satellite and the device. But many of them will be generally familiar with the close relationship between evolution in deciphering the natural world and the use of what was thus discovered to improve and develop our daily lives.

On the other hand, the basis linking the development of our perceptions of the world and our place in it on the one hand, and technical progress on the other hand, is not sufficiently clear in our Arab world. On the contrary, you will find a strong tendency to separate technological progress from the intellectual basis of the scientific method of knowledge, claiming that it embodies a materialistic method dominated by moral poverty and spiritual bankruptcy.

But this confusion was also touched upon by Kant, who separated between scientific knowledge and the ethical one, related to the moral aspect of existence. Analytical science does not necessarily reveal the “thing in itself,” but rather about causal relationships between the phenomena we observe, in order to create a logical system that successfully simulates the observed effect. Thus, devices like James Webb look for the conditions of origin and development of the physical universe, not the meaning of existence. Therefore; It does not, and cannot, address questions such as: Why does anything exist at its base and not just nothingness. Therefore; Scientific quest is not a complete substitute for other disciplines that provide answers to such questions.

To the extent that the scientific project touches the realm of ethics; It establishes the respect for the facts of the observed reality, the sincere search for them in a torrent that tests our perceptions of the concrete world, and the acceptance of the result, even if it destroys comfortable postulates as long as we cling to them. From this perspective, the larger physical and intellectual universe is born, and it is the framework of knowledge that has moved the human world since the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. It is within it that the deeper cultural meaning of projects such as James Webb can be realized; As a tool in a cognitive approach driven by the search for information that opens up new intellectual horizons, and pushes the social and economic world towards a continuous dynamic transformation.

Director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at the British University in Egypt