38
arches
spring
2013
W
e tend to think of science as
objective and analytical, but in
ancient times astronomy was
heavily influenced by societal
beliefs. “Cosmos and Connection” will be a look
at the big picture and the cultural echoes of an-
cient science and its connections with philoso-
phy, art, and literature, Professor Evans says.
The cultural imprint on astronomy is clear.
The names of planets and constellations are
taken from mythology, from back when people
believed the gods used the stars to send warn-
ings about war, famine, and other impending
catastrophes. Those are things a king would pay
to know.
Astronomy got started in antiquity be-
cause there was a class of bureaucrats in
Mesopotamian cities whose job it was to keep
track of the heavens,” Evans says.
We’re fortunate to have their records. The
Mesopotamians used a durable storage me-
dium, clay tablets, and recorded their observa-
tions in the Akkadian language.
In the 19th century, when the tablets were
dug up, it was possible for scholars to learn to
read again a language that had been dead for
nearly 2,000 years,” Evans says. “I don’t think a
flash drive or DVD would have withstood 2,000
years in the sand.”
The record is a treasure for scientists and
historians.
It gives us an insight into the complexity of
the ancient intellectual culture that we wouldn’t
otherwise have any way to appreciate,” Evans
says. “There were people who were devoting
most of their adult lives to doing scientific work
in pure mathematics or in astronomy.”
The ancients were correct with much of their
astronomy. Evans notes that the Greeks figured
out that the Earth is a sphere, how big it is, and
how far away the Moon is. “Other ‘science’ rep-
resented fantastic flights of imagination that
were guided more by philosophy and religion,”
he adds.
Now, after centuries of more conservative
approaches, science is again getting creative.
Alumni College
syllabus
Sure, Reunion is about
coming back and seeing how
the campus has changed
and catching up with old
friends, but it’s also a chance
to throw a little down that
bottomless well of curiosity
you acquired around here.
Like with the minicourse
physics prof Jim Evans will
be teaching on Saturday
morning, June 8: “Cosmos
and Connection.” A preview:
Twenty-first century physics and cosmology
are more boldly speculative than at any other
time in the past except for the period of the pre-
Socratic philosophers, when people were putting
out wild, original, and interesting ideas,” Evans
says—ideas like string theory, dark matter, and
dark energy. “You’ve got to be able to test the
ideas, but there’s an openness that is pretty re-
cent for modern science,” he notes.
Evans says the session will include lots of
visuals of ancient astronomy artifacts and tips
about visiting interesting historical sites.
Two other Alumni College sessions will look
back at social and political events since Puget
Sound was founded 125 years ago. Professor
Nancy Bristow will examine the fight for ra-
cial justice, and Professor Karl Fields will track
China’s quest for prosperity and security—an
effort in which he says Puget Sound has played
a part.
Greg Scheiderer
More info is available at
/
reunionweekend
at reunion
Ty Milford