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Coming of Age in the Milky Way – by Timothy Ferris

In this book, Ferris takes us on the journey of astronomical thinking: Aristotle’s geocentric approach, the ptolemaic model, Newton’s laws of motion, Eisntein’s revolutionary e=mc2, Hubble Space Telescope, etc. Every chapter helps us understand that, as scientists develop their approaches, every small scientific step is but one giant leap for mankind.

Ferris explains us thinkers had to distance themselves from the perfectionist approach of Plato to go towards confronting ideas to facts and reality. Discovering the Earth is a sphere or understanding the distance between the Sun and the center of the Milky Way is done by the combination of two things: observation and concrete experimentation. This is where the book gets really interesting. We discover so many wrong ideas that dictated science until someone could prove by experimentation they were misleading. The main way to prove so is by using and developing technology. Thus, the book does more than only drawing the map of men’s knowledge on the skies. It is a book on how humans have always built themselves technical frames of thought to understand the world and deal with their own fragility.

Technology is the lens humans have always used to try to make sense of who they are and why they are here. Scientists have spent years developing telescopes lenses or mercury thermometers before they could use them to read reality properly and make sense with it. Until recently in history, humans were using technology mainly to try to understand the celestial word and nature. Nowadays, technology is not only used by scientists, it forms the daily framework of the majority of us. Almost every gesture we make now depends on it. In between the stars and us, it feels like there is now a meta reality that has been constructed with technology. We humans have now created a virtual interconnected celestial world and it is through this world we are now trying to live our lives. Is technology still helping us to comprehend reality or has it built a reality of its own? Ferris books does a great job at explaining how technology has helped us understand nature. But does technology still do so? Or is it bringing us further from it? I do not understand the mechanics of the universe, but I really appreciate I can navigate it though. Where is technology leading us to?

1,002 comments to Coming of Age in the Milky Way – by Timothy Ferris

  • arc507

    Interesting post and even more interesting questions… Nowadays we grow up surrounded by so much technology that this has, to some extent, become second nature for us. I was not around at the time were most tech was primarily used for observing and understanding nature but I am sure I would have been just as in awe of it then as I am of new developments in our time. At the end of your post you ask “Does technology still help us understand nature or is it bringing us further away from nature?”. I do not think this is an either or; it’s both. There is no doubt that modern technology aids us in exploring, understanding and even manipulating nature to every extent we can. At the same time, everyday consumer technology is definitely pulling us away from experiencing nature in a… well… natural way. Children grow up having iPads in their hands and having all the information, pictures and stories at the swipe of a finger. Why bother to go outside to experience something is not the mainstream anymore that is slowly being considered “niche”? The question is not “Does technology do this?” but “Is the trade-off for technological progress really worth it?”

  • Nancy

    Interesting start of a discussion. A couple of questions:
    1) What is Science?
    2) What is Reality?

  • Nadine Coleman

    I think that technology has made me appreciate and have a better understanding of nature and life in general, especially when it comes to people. With so much information that is so accessible via the internet, mobile devices, and being in almost constant contact with the world. Now because of the internet, we are able to become connected and stay connected with people much longer than say even 10 years ago. The whole concept of a high school reunion is slowly and seemingly becoming somewhat obsolete. Why go and meet up with people face to face to see what they’ve been up to, when you have facebook?

    Since the advent of social media platforms, we are able to learn more about people faster. We are able to learn more information about the news, politics, pop culture, technology, research, and so on faster. People post their live status updates, often about the state of their lives (though of course, we can’t take it for more value). Each piece of information that is shared in a facebook feed has the power to disinterest us, interest us, frighten us, enlighten us, and so on. The amount of information that is retrieved almost effortlessly due to social media, gives us the capacity to handle more information faster. To this end, I think that I am more in tuned with human nature and people from many more walks of life, than I would be, if there was no internet technology.

    People often post their photos from different places they’ve visited online. From them sharing this information, one can become engaged, excited, and motivated to travel some of the places they have traveled to explore nature and the surrounding areas.

    I do not think that technology pulls one from nature, but our own motivations and desires do. One has a choice to decide how much of an explorer of nature and the world they would like to be. In fact, by using technology, one can become more excited and motivated to explore the world around them.

  • Ben Kauffman

    I think I agree with ARC507 (whoever you are!) in the sense that technology is a TOOL. It doesn’t have an inherent value. It is both pulling us away from nature, and capable of bringing us closer to understanding nature.

    I would also argue that empirical science (the accuracy of which is based on technology) isn’t the only way that we “know” the world or understand nature. Yes, we may have acquired amazing data about our universe, our planet, and our bodies in the last 100 years but we also must make sense of that information and its context. I believe we do this by telling stories, by engaging with each other, by making things. Does CERN’s research on the Higgs Boson bring us closer to communing with our world than Plato or Shakespeare or Frank Lloyd Wright? I’m not sure it does…

  • Erin Smith

    I think there is a key difference between “understanding” and “knowing” the natural world. While it’s entirely possible for me to go to a website, study photos of rock formations, and read about how they were formed, it will provide entirely different information than being in that space, climbing over the landscape, and feeling the weight of the rock in my hand. I can easily understand that people sometimes experience altitude sickness when they’re high above sea level, but unless I’m up there on the mountain, it’s practically impossible for me to know what that means.

    What the internet is most skilled at is taking the real life study and knowledge of other people and providing me with direct access to that information, but I think it’s important to remember that the most valuable knowledge of the natural world originated with a real person immersing themselves in and really knowing a place, a rock, a tropical bird.

    It’s absolutely true that we have greater access than ever before to the nuts and bolts information about the natural world, but that’s not all there is to know. Just as none of us really believe that someone could know everything about us as individuals from what they read on facebook. In the same way it’s impossible to believe that the complexity of the natural world is something you could ever really know without meeting it in person.

  • Natalie "Tschechaniuk"

    I like the thread in the comments/discussion (not including those wacky spammy comments) concerning whether a technology-based experience stands alone or whether it’s only part of an experience that also includes a “real world” component.

    This question is one that’s central to the operations of cultural institutions. If people can get the same (or more complete) information from a Google search, why would anyone ever leave their home, take the subway, and pay admission to a museum? Or attend a film festival? Or go to a lecture?

    Or is having a real-world experience part of the process of “knowing” (I mean this in the way that Erin describes it, as different from the process of “understanding”)? I think yes, even if you cannot touch a painting in a museum, experiencing it three dimensions contributes to knowing. Also, I think that Ben makes a good point. That we make sense of information “by engaging with each other”. There’s value in social experiences. We learn from the reactions of the people around us as we look at the same work of art, we consider points in a new way when we have a conversation with the person next to us in the audience. To this end, I would argue that a “virtual” experience is only part of a complete experience. In order to round it out, we need a “real world” component.

  • Louise Foo

    I agree with Natalie in her argue that “a “virtual” experience is only part of a complete experience. and that we need a “real world” component” When Dan’O’Sullivan is talking about Hacking Higher Ed, it seems like he is suggesting that we could make online schools and save a lot of money. I think it is super interesting to think about the potential of using an online community to create some sort of self-organized higher education, but on the other hand, I really think sharing the physical space at ITP is so super important and almost more valuable in terms of learning than the actual lessons.