Friday, 29 May 2009

The Scientist and the Universe II

Extracts from a speech made by the then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the official inauguration of the Southern Africa Large Telescope (SALT) November 2005

Even those of us who know nothing about astronomy have awaited this day with great anticipation, feeling, perhaps instinctively, that this giant eye in the Karoo would tell us as yet unknown and exciting things about ourselves.

We have felt our heartbeats quicken as we were told that SALT would have the power to tackle fundamental questions about the Universe, such as:
* what was the universe like when the first stars and galaxies were forming?
* what kind of worlds orbits other suns?
* how are the stars in nearby galaxies different from those in the solar neighbourhood?
* what can these stars tells us about the scale and age of the universe?
* how do quasars and gamma rays outshine trillions of stars like the sun?

This observatory is a place dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Its sole purpose is the discovery of the unknown, and therefore the further liberation of humanity from blind action informed by superstition that derives from failure to fathom the regularities and imperatives of the infinite natural world.

Hopefully, the daily voyages of discovery into outer space that will be undertaken from this place of scientific inquiry will help millions in our country, our continent and the world to repudiate the fear of knowledge that the Englishman, Thomas Gray, an Old Etonian, sought to celebrate when he said, in his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”,

To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan,
The tender for another's pain;
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Out of this place, enveloped by the quiet peace of the Karoo and its starlit skies, must and will come the message that thought is humanity’s stepladder out of Hades - that ignorance is nothing but condemnation to live for eternity in the world inhabited by the souls of the dead.

By communicating to all humanity the evolving and ever-changing truths about the universe, this observatory, empowered by cutting edge science, engineering and technology, and staffed by the most excellent and daring inquiring minds, must help to free us from the seductive grip of the astrologers and the false consciousness that wears the fine apparel of pernicious common sense.

Thus would we gain further mastery over our actions as human beings, as did Edmund, son of the Duke of Gloucester born out of wedlock, when, in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, repudiating the falsification of the influence of the universe of the stars on his fate, he said:

“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune - often the surfeit of our own behaviour - we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whore master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa major; so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardising.”

The great minds gathered here today to inaugurate the Southern Africa Large Telescope have the possibility to peer into ordinarily unimaginable vistas of time and space, to discover what the universe was like, when the first stars and galaxies were forming.

You will therefore not find it difficult to understand our excitement that even as we probe outer space from here, elsewhere in our country, the host of SALT, we also have the possibility to continue investigating what happened on the tiny planet we call the earth, relevant to the formation and evolution of plant, animal and human life as we have come to know them.

Let me illustrate what I am talking about. Fossils of some of the oldest organisms on earth have been found in the Barberton sequence, towards our North East, dated at approximately 3 billion years. In the period before some of the world’s first dinosaurs walked the earth, there was already abundant plant and animal life in the same Karoo basin where SALT stands, leaving behind an unsurpassed record of the ancestry of mammals.

The largest collection of synapsids (mammal-like reptiles) are to be found in the Karoo succession, documenting step by step, over a period of 50 million years, the origin of mammals from primitive reptilian stock.

250 million years ago during the late Permian age, this area consisted of an inland sea surrounded by a vast alluvial plain. At the time, several Mississippi-sized rivers flowed northwards out of a mountain range some 1 000 km to the South. The most common animals living on the flood plains during this period were therapid reptiles, more commonly known as mammal-like reptiles.

Fossils found here and South America has provided evidence to substantiate the hypothesis of continental drift, and therefore the existence in the distant past of the so-called super-continent of Gondwanaland.

Three million years ago, South Africa was also home to a vulnerable new line of primates, the Australopithecines, which eventually gave rise to humans. Adding to the long list of South African hominids, which include fossils of Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, Homo habilis and Homo sapiens, the oldest identifiable Homo sapiens fossils in the world (dated at approximately 110 000 years) have been found here.

It is on the basis of this vast paleontogical storehouse, supported by additional evidence from elsewhere on our continent, that scientists have come to the firm conclusion that our country is the Cradle of Humanity.

It therefore seemed right, and a perfect expression of the discovered symmetry of the evolution of nature, that this extraordinary construct of the human intellect, the Southern Africa Large Telescope, constructed to probe the formation of our Universe, should be based here, the domicile of so much that represents what constitutes historical and living reality of all life on Planet Earth, itself the product of billions of years of the evolution of the Universe.

To us, as South Africans, it has seemed right that for us as human beings to continue the search for the origins of the infinite beginnings of the universe, we should locate that inquiry, as represented by SALT, in the very geographic space that gave birth to homo sapiens.

We have said this to ourselves knowing that the outward journey of homo sapiens from Africa into the rest of our planet, though resulting in the formation of a diverse human family, has nevertheless never subtracted from the fact that the Cradle of Humanity remains, still, the home of all humanity, as demonstrated by the population inflows since our liberation in 1994.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet was outraged to discover the cold disloyalty of his mother, who would not give even limited time to mourn the death of her husband and Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, before entering into an amorous relationship with the King’s brother, Hamlet’s uncle. These goings-on seemed as unnatural as they were unconscionable.

Seeking to escape from this confirmed but painful and unbearable knowledge, Hamlet cried out:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

The scientific journey on which we will embark from today onwards at this Large Telescope will take us far beyond a world that presents itself as an unweeded garden that grows to seed, populated by things rank and gross in nature.

It will not give birth to images that suggest that the uses of the universe are but weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.

Surely, this new journey will speak of a world made exciting by the rapid progression away from everything that is weary, stale, flat and unprofitable in human knowledge, the lifting of the dark and menacing shadows of ignorance and prejudice about the origin of the universe, that circumscribe our very ability to eat, live and think.

With thanks to Philip Wetton (who has endowed the Chair of Astrophysics at Oxford) for pointing me to this speech - as well as describing his visit to CERN

For a view with which Mbeki might disagree, see The Scientist and the Universe