Recently, a teacher at ISCED, Eugênio Calei, contacted me about obtaining a telescope. I spoke to Zoe Chee at Astronomers Without Borders (AWB), a remarkable organisation that “builds and cultivates community through astronomy”.
After asking some excellent questions to learn more about ISCED’s needs, Zoe came up with a donated Orion SpaceProbe 130ST telescope that has never been used:
Even though the wiring of the human brain evolved in an exceptional way, if novelty had remained below a certain threshold, early humans may not have received a sufficient trigger to begin forming the concept of reasons.
Our team of programmers, astronomers, and enthusiasts at timeanddate.com wanted to visualize the roughly 400-year rhythm of super-close conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn. For fun, we created an algorithm to run through a mathematical model of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s movements over a 16,000-year period.
Image credits: Steffen Thorsen & Graham Jones, Sky & Telescope
The Milky Way contains 100 billion stars. So where is everybody? (The spacecraft shown in this artist’s impression is one of ours: it’s ESA’s Gaia space observatory.) Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier
One of the highlights of IAUS 367 is Nikos Prantzos, from the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, on “the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence and the Fermi paradox”. He’ll be presenting a general overview of the topic, as well as an original analysis of the Fermi paradox in terms of the Drake formula — a framework for thinking about the number of technological civilizations within our galaxy.
Other highlights include Jay Pasachoff on “the science and the magnificence of observing total solar eclipses”, and Alex Young on “engaging the public through solar eclipses”.
The symposium was originally scheduled to take place in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, close to the path of totality for the 14 December solar eclipse. However, covid-19 restrictions mean it will now be an online event.
My poster session will extend the Rare Earth hypothesis to ask: does the Earth have some special ingredient that led not only to complex life, but to curious life?
Solar eclipses: A pump of curiosity for early humans?
Graham Jones, University of Shiga Prefecture
A central and unique feature of the human species is our desire for explanations. Where did our sense of curiosity come from? And why, on the current evidence, are we the only species in the Universe to possess this feature? Traditionally, these have been treated as separate questions; in this presentation, I will suggest a way to combine them into a single line of inquiry. I will also draw on the Symposium themes of cultural astronomy and solar eclipses to propose a speculative answer.
I will begin by considering the Rare Earth hypothesis, which states that the development of complex life depended upon a set of physical, chemical and biological circumstances that may be vanishingly rare within the Universe. I will extend this idea to open up a new line of inquiry: does the Earth have some special ingredient that led not only to complex life, but to curious life? I will speculate that solar eclipses may be such an ingredient.
We can confidently say that solar eclipses are not rare within the Universe. However, the ‘perfect’ total and annular eclipses we experience on the Earth, together with their mean frequency of once every few hundred years for a given location, may be exceedingly rare. Although these eclipses have no lasting effect on the Earth and its environment, they have an overwhelming effect on humans and human communities. I will tentatively propose that solar eclipses provided early humans with novelty on a scale large enough to help trigger the development of curiosity.
In effect, solar eclipses may have acted as a finely tuned ‘pump of curiosity’: if they occurred more frequently, they would not have provided sufficient novelty to stimulate the brains of early humans; if they occurred less frequently, they would not have provided enough stimuli to different communities, at different times, to kindle the first flames of curiosity.
This presentation will provide Symposium delegates with an opportunity to engage in fun speculation across a range of disciplines. To help generate discussion and debate, I will present comments from my interviews and correspondence with practitioners working in a variety of areas, including:
astronomy and physics – eg, Stephen Webb, author of «Where is everybody? Seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life» (Springer, 2015)
exoplanet and exomoon research – eg, Cecilia Lazzoni, lead author of «The search for disks or planetary objects around directly imaged companions: A candidate around DH Tau B» (arXiv:2007.10097, 2020)
neuroscience and philosophy – eg, Daniel C Dennett, author of «From bacteria to Bach and back: The evolution of minds» (WW Norton, 2017)
primatology and anthropology – eg, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, editor of «Primate origins of human cognition and behavior» (Springer, 2001)
solar eclipses and human culture – eg, Jay Pasachoff, co-author of «Cosmos: The art and science of the Universe» (Reaktion Books, 2019).
“The distribution of solar flares is similar to earthquakes: we have many small solar flares, and a big one is very rare. However, when a big flare occurs, the impact on our economy and society may be enormous. Satellites may be damaged, and the electrical power grid may be damaged over a very wide area. The only way to mitigate such kind of impact is with prediction.”
As Daniel C Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, has observed, searching for explanations is a central feature of our species. Where does our sense of curiosity come from? As an exercise in fun speculation, I propose it could have been influenced by two rare-earth factors.
The (extremely tentative) idea is that solar eclipses may have acted as a ‘pump of curiosity’ for early humans.
We can safely say that eclipses are not rare in the universe. But the perfect solar eclipses we experience on earth, where the moon and sun combine in spectacular fashion every couple of centuries or so, may be exceptionally rare. Even if these eclipses are one among many factors that led to the development of curiosity, it means that a key human trait is partly a consequence of two things that are nothing more than coincidences: the ratio of the moon’s and the sun’s diameters is the same as the ratio of their distances, and the moon’s orbit is tilted.