/ El establo de Pegaso: Ciencia y belleza

jueves, 6 de diciembre de 2018

Ciencia y belleza


Science and the Sense of Wonder, escrito por Isaac Asimov el 12 de agosto de 1979, en The Washington Post.
A proposito del poema el astrónomo de Walt Whitman, Asimov escribe sobre la belleza y el asombro de la ciencia.

“Cuando escuché al astrónomo erudito;
cuando las pruebas, las figuras, se alinearon ante mi;
cuando me mostraron los mapas celestes y las
tablas para sumarlos; dividirlos y medirlos;
cuando, sentado, escuché al astrónomo
que hablaba entre aplausos en la sala de conferencias,
de repente, sin motivo, me sentí cansado y hastiado;
hasta que me levanté y salí, para vagar solo,
en el húmedo y místico aire nocturno,
y de vez en cuando,
levantaba la vista en silencio hacia las estrellas”.

Me imagino que muchas personas, al leer los versos de uno de los poemas más famosos de Walt Whitman se dirán a sí mismas, con entusiasmo: “¡Qué gran verdad! ¡La ciencia le quita toda la belleza, reduciéndola a números y tablas y medidas! ¿Para qué molestarse en saber todo eso cuando puedo salir y mirar las estrellas?
Ese es un punto de vista muy conveniente, ya que no solo convierte el conocimiento en innecesario, sino en estéticamente equivocado al hecho de tratar de comprender esas ‘cosas difíciles de ciencia’. En su lugar, se puede echar un vistazo al cielo nocturno, obtener una impresión de su belleza e irse de fiesta a un club.
El problema es que Whitman hablaba de lo que no sabía, pero el pobre no conocía nada mejor.
No niego que el cielo nocturno es hermoso, yo también me he tumbado en una ladera durante horas contemplando las estrellas y quedándome impresionado por su belleza (recibiendo picaduras de insectos y con marcas que tardaron semanas en desaparecer).
Pero lo que veo con mis ojos, esos puntos de luz parpadeantes y silenciosos, no es toda la belleza que existe. ¿Debo mirar ensimismado una sola hoja e ignorar todo el bosque? ¿Debería conformarme con ver el sol brillar en un solo grano de arena y despreciar el conocimiento de toda la playa?
Esos puntos brillantes en el cielo que llamamos planetas, en realidad, son mundos.
Hay mundos con atmósferas densas de dióxido de carbono y ácido sulfúrico; mundos de líquido candente con huracanes que podrían tragar toda la Tierra; Mundos muertos con marcas silenciosas de cráteres; mundos con volcanes arrojando penachos de polvo hacia el cielo sin aire; mundos con desiertos rosados y desolados, cada uno con una belleza extraña y sobrenatural que se reduce a una simple mota de luz si solo miramos el cielo nocturno.
Algunos de una incomparable grandeza, cada uno de ellos resplandeciendo con la luz de mil soles como el nuestro; hay mundos con atmósferas densas de dióxido de carbono y ácido sulfúrico; mundos con huracanes rojos de líquido candente que podrían tragarse toda la Tierra; mundos muertos con pacíficas marcas de cráteres; mundos con volcanes que crean penachos gigantes de polvo debido a la ausencia de viento; mundos con desiertos rosados y desolados —cada uno de esos mundos tiene una belleza extraña y sobrenatural que se reduce a simples manchas de luz si solamente miramos el cielo nocturno.
Esos otros puntos brillantes, que son estrellas en lugar de planetas, son en realidad soles. Algunos de ellos de incomparable grandeza, cada uno resplandeciendo con la luz de mil soles como el nuestro; algunos no son más que brasas que entregan su energía de manera mezquina. Otros son cuerpos compactos tan masivos como el Sol, pero con toda su masa comprimida en una bola más pequeña que la Tierra. Algunos son aun más compactos, con la masa del Sol comprimida en el volumen de un pequeño asteroide. Y los hay que todavía son aún más compactos, con su masa reducida a un volumen de cero, cuyo emplazamiento está marcado por un campo gravitatorio tan intenso que lo engulle todo y no devuelve nada; con la materia cayendo en espiral en ese pozo sin fondo y lanzando un agónico grito salvaje en forma de rayos X.
Hay estrellas que pulsan infinitamente en una gran respiración cósmica; y otras que, tras haber consumido su combustible, se expanden y enrojecen hasta que engullen a sus planetas, si es que tienen alguno (algún día, dentro de miles de millones de años, nuestro Sol se expandirá y la Tierra se quemará y se evaporará hasta convertirse en un gas de hierro y roca, sin dejar rastro de la vida que alguna vez tuvo). Y algunas estrellas explotan en un vasto cataclismo cuya feroz ráfaga de rayos cósmicos se desplaza hacia casi a la velocidad de la luz, y atraviesa miles de años luz hasta llegar a la Tierra y suministra parte de la fuerza motriz de la evolución a través de mutaciones.
A esa ínfima cantidad de estrellas que vemos al mirar hacia arriba en perfecta calma (no llegan a las 2.500, incluso en las noches más oscuras y despejadas) se le suma una vasta horda que no vemos, hasta trescientos mil millones – 300,000,000,000 – Para formar una gran espiral en el espacio. Esa espiral, la Galaxia de la Vía Láctea, se extiende tanto que a la luz, moviéndose a 300.000 kilómetros por segundo, le lleva cien mil años para atravesarla de un extremo al otro; y al tiempo rota alrededor de su centro en un giro amplio y majestuoso que tarda 200 millones de años en completarse, y el Sol, la Tierra y nosotros también hacemos ese giro.
Más allá de nuestra Vía Láctea hay más, una veintena de galaxias unidas a la nuestra en un cúmulo; la mayoría son pequeñas, con no más de unos pocos miles de millones de estrellas en cada una; pero al menos una, la galaxia de Andrómeda, es el doble de grande que la nuestra.
Más allá de nuestro propio cúmulo, existen otras galaxias y otros cúmulos; Algunos formados por miles de galaxias. Se extienden hacia el exterior tan lejos donde nuestros mejores telescopios pueden ver, sin signos visibles de un final, tal vez cien mil millones de ellos en total.
Y cada vez más estamos encontrando que en el centro de esas galaxias existe una intensa violencia cósmica, grandes explosiones y emanaciones de radiación, señalando, tal vez, la muerte de millones de estrellas. Incluso en el centro de nuestra propia galaxia existe una gran violencia, oculta de nuestro sistema solar y sus alrededores por enormes nubes de polvo y gas que se encuentran entre nosotros y el centro agitado.
Algunos centros galácticos son tan brillantes que pueden verse desde distancias de miles de millones de años luz; distancias desde las que las galaxias mismas no pueden divisarse, de modo que solo los centros brillantes y voraces de energía se dejan ver en forma de quásares. Algunos de estos se han detectado a más de 10 mil millones de años luz de distancia.
Todas estas galaxias se alejan unas de otras, en una vasta expansión universal que comenzó hace 15 mil millones de años cuando toda la materia en el universo estaba en concentrada en una pequeña esfera que explotó en la expansión más grande que se pueda concebir para formar las galaxias.
El universo puede expandirse eternamente o puede llegar el día en que la expansión se ralentice y se invierta en una contracción que vuelva a formar una pequeña esfera y comenzar el juego de nuevo, de manera que todo el universo estaría exhalando e inhalando alientos que quizás, tarden un billón de años en completarse.
Y toda esta visión, que sobrepasa la escala de la imaginación humana, fue posible gracias a los trabajos de cientos de astrónomos éruditos’. Todo esto se descubrió después de la muerte de Whitman, en 1892, y la mayoría en los últimos 25 años, de modo que el pobre poeta nunca supo qué belleza tan insignificante y limitada observó cuando miraba en silencio a las estrellas.
Tampoco nosotros podemos saber o imaginar ahora la belleza ilimitada que la ciencia nos revelará en el futuro.




Science and the Sense of Wonder by Isaac Asimov, August 12, 1979.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lectureroom,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I imagine that many people reading these lines from one of Walt Whitman’s best-known poems tell themselves, exultantly, “How true! Science just sucks all the beauty out of everything, reducing it all to numbers and tables and measurements! Why bother learning all that junk when I can just go out and look at the stars?”
That is a very convenient point of view since it makes it not only unnecessary, but downright esthetically wrong, to try to follow all that hard stuff in science. Instead, you can just take a look at the night sky, get a quick beauty-fix, and go off to a nightclub.
The trouble is Whitman is talking through his hat, but the poor soul didn’t know any better.
I don’t deny that the night sky is beautiful and I have in my time spread out on a hillside for hours looking at the stars and being awed by their beauty (and receiving bug-bites whose marks took weeks to go away).
But what I see with my eye – those quiet, twinkling points of light – is not all the beauty there is. Should I stare livingly at a single leaf and willingly remain ignorant of the forest? Should I be satisfied to watch the sun glinting off a single pebble and scorn any knowledge of a beach?
Those bright spots in the sky that we call planets are worlds. There are worlds with thick atmospheres of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid; worlds of red-hot liquid with hurricanes that could gulp down the whole Earth; dead worlds with quiet pockmarks of craters; worlds with volcanoes puffing plumes of dust into airlessness; worlds with pink and desolate deserts – each with a weird and unearthly beauty that boils down to mere specks of light if we just gaze at the night sky.
Those other bright spots, that are stars rather than planets, are actually suns. Some of them are of incomparable grandeur, each glowing with the light of a thousand suns like ours; some of them are merely red-hot coals doling out their energy stingily. Some of them are compact bodies as massive as the Sun, but with all that mass squeezed into a ball smaller than the Earth. Some are more compact still, with the mass of the Sun squeezed down into the volume of a small asteriod. And some are more compact still, with their mass shrinking down to a volume of zero, the site of which is marked by an intense gravitational field that swallows up everything and gives back nothing; with matter spiraling into that bottomless hole and giving out a wild death-scream of X-rays.
There are stars that pulsate endlessly in a great cosmic breathing; and others that, having consumed their fuel, expand and redden until they swallow up their planets if they have any (and some day, billions of years from now, our Sun will expand and Earth will crisp and sere and vaporize into a gas of iron and rock with no sign of the life it once bore). And some stars explode in a vast cataclysm whose ferocious blast of cosmic rays, harrying outward at nearly the speed of light, reaching across thousands of light years to touch the Earth and supply some of the driving force of evolution through mutations.
Those paltry few stars we see as we look up in perfect slience (some 2,500, no more, on even the darkest and clearest night) are joined by a vast horde we don’t see, up to as many as three hundred billion – 300,000,000,000 – to form an enormous pinwheel in space. This pinwheel, the Milky Way Galaxy, stretches so wide that it takes light, moving at 186,282 miles each second, a hundred thousand years to cross it from end to end; and it rotates about its center in a vast and stately turn that takes 200 million years to complete – and the Sun and Earth and we ourselves all make that turn.
Beyond our Milky Way Galaxy are others, a score or so of them bound to our own in a cluster of galaxies; most of them small, with no more than a few billion stars in each; but with one at least, the Andromeda Galaxy, twice as large as our own.
Beyond our own cluster, other galaxies and other clusters exist; some clusters made up of thousands of galaxies. They stretch outward and outward as far as our best telescopes can see, with no visible sign of an end – perhaps a hundred billion of them in all.
And in more and more of those galaxies, we are becoming award of violence at the center – of great explosions and outpourings of radiation, marking the death of millions of stars, perhaps. Even at the center of our own galaxy there is incredible violence, masked from our own solar system far in the outskirts by enormous clouds of dust and gas that lie between us and the heaving center.
Some galactic centers are so bright that they can be seen from distances of billions of light years; distances from which the galaxies themselves cannot be seen so that only the bright starlike centers of ravening energy show up – as quasars. Some of these have been detected from over 10 billion light-years away.
All these galaxies are hurrying outward from each other in a vast universal expansion that began 15 billion years ago when all the matter in the universe was in a tiny sphere that exploded in the hugest conceivable shatter to form the galaxies.
The universe may expand forever or the day may come when the expansion slows and turns back into a contraction to re-form the tiny sphere and begin the game all over again so that the whole universe is exhaling and inhaling in breaths that are a trillion years long perhaps.
And all of this vision – far beyond the scale of human imaginings – was made possible by the works of hundreds of learn’d astronomers. All of it; all of it was discovered after the death of Whitman in 1892 and most of it in the last 25 years, so that the poor poet never knew what a stultifed and limited beauty he observed when he look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Nor can we know or imagine now the limitless beauty yet to be revealed in the future – by science.

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