Thursday, January 19, 2006

Walking zero

The bound galleys for my new book arrived yesterday. Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. Looks good, especially the lovely illustrations supplied by my son Dan. The book will be out in April.

Here's the Preface:

In the fall of 2003 I set out to walk along the prime meridian -- the line of zero longitude -- across southeastern England. My choice of the Greenwich Meridian was not arbitrary; through various accidents of history, the Meridian is the touchstone by which the entire world measures place and time. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, founded by King Charles II in 1675, has defined a common standard for maps and clocks since 1884. The Meridian also passes close to a surprising number of other locations important in the history of science. Isaac Newton's chambers at Trinity College, Cambridge, are not far from the line, as is his place of birth in Lincolnshire. Charles Darwin's house at Downe, in Kent, is two-and-a-half miles from the Meridian. And more, much more. It would be hard to think of a walk of equivalent length anywhere in the world that would provide so rich a thread on which to hang a story of human curiosity.

Walking Zero is about the epic struggle to understand cosmic space and time. It is a story of constantly expanding horizons, of intellectual courage and physical adventure, of men and women who dared to believe that the universe was not centered upon themselves. It is a story of the breaking of the cosmic egg, of a planet becoming conscious of itself, and of the discovery of an abyss of space and time that might in fact be infinite.

Science is often imagined as a soulless activity administered by men and women in white coats bent on removing spirit and meaning from the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many courageous individuals have bucked reigning orthodoxies to let their imaginations soar where no one had gone before. Pioneers such as Nicholas Copernicus and Charles Darwin were reluctant revolutionaries who understood that their ideas would be resisted by those who preferred familiar truths. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, paid the ultimate price for (among other things) surmising the multitude of worlds that we now take for granted. Galileo Galilee, as a blind old man, was forced to kneel before assembled churchmen and deny what he knew to be true, the mobility of the Earth.

Our ancestors, perhaps naturally, believed themselves to live at the center of space, coevally with time. "All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare, and he meant it literally: a stage for the drama of human affairs. Creation myths from around the world assume that the cosmos was created for us, that it is centered upon us, and that time has no meaning other than as a frame for human history. Our discovery of cosmic space and time -- a universe of galaxies and geological eons that makes no reference to human history -- must be counted a glory of our species, a triumph of human pluck and cunning. After all, who among us would not like to live at the center of the world? Surely, nothing can be more flattering to our sense of importance than to think that we are the measure of all things. To forego the cozy human-centered cosmic egg of our ancestors requires courage, and a willingness to make our own meaning in a universe that is vast beyond our imagining. In making the journey into cosmic space and time we surrender certainty for curiosity, simplicity for complexity, comfort for adventure. We are perhaps a bit frightened by the light-years and the eons, but we are proud of all that the human mind has come to know and privileged to share, even as spectators, in that epic quest.