Philosphical implications of astronomy

As I was leaving the planetarium a couple of nights ago, an undergraduate college girl said to her boyfriend, "I don't, like, understand how these guys can study the stars and all that without, like, freakin out philosophically." Her boyfriend grunted. She went on, "I mean like they say 'oh the sun's going to burn out' and 'this star's going to blow up'--I'm like--wait a minute!"

The boyfriend didn't get it. He mumbled something about the sun not burning up for 50 million years, so it really doesn't matter.

The girl is right--I think the study of astronomy must have broad philosophical implications. I don't think the thoughts which result from studying the universe are remotely the same from person to person, but the questions raised are the right ones.

Carl Sagan, for example, used images of the a tiny earth taken from far out in space to illustrate that we better save our little dot in the universe because nobody else will. Some use the evidence of the universe to argue that their must be a divine plan, others use the same evidence to argue that things are just putzing along on their own.

Whatever the results, I find that the debates raised by astronomy are amongst the most interesting philosophical discussions of our time.

There will be a spate of new astronomical information coming down in the next weeks and months. A new space telescope, the Spitzer, just sent back its first images this week. Even those first images have answered some long-posed questions about areas of space which weren't visible before. The telescope has a life-span of five years, so astronomers are lined up for their turn.

In the next three weeks, four separate landing craft are set to land on the surface of Mars. I suspect such landings will make the news, however briefly. The landing craft are attempting to determine the possiblity of there ever having been life on Mars. That question is still very much open, made more open by the discovery of microbes on earth which can survive in conditions previously thought to be inimicable to life.