Friday, November 19, 2010

Coming of age in the Milky Way


Tom emailed me this link to a nifty interactive scale of the universe.

This sent me to the back room upstairs to see if I could find the granddaddy of scales of the universe, Kees Boeke's delightful little book from 1957, Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. I don't remember exactly when I obtained my copy, but it can't have been long after it first appeared in English. And, yes, here it is, coffee-stained, dog-eared, frazzled from use.

The book begins with a picture of a girl sitting in a deck chair in the courtyard of the alternative school established by Boeke in the Dutch village of Bilthoven. A succession of drawings zooms out by 26 orders of magnitude to a view that includes the most distant visible galaxies, then zooms in by 13 orders of magnitude to the nucleus of an atom. The book has an Introduction by the eminent physicist Arthur Compton.

Boeke was an interesting fellow -- a pacifist, a Quaker missionary, and an innovative educational reformer. Cosmic View had its origin as a classroom project. He writes in the Foreward:
We tend to forget how vast are the ranges of existing reality which our eyes cannot directly see, and our attitudes may become narrow and provincial. We need to develop a wider outlook, to see ourselves in our relative position in the great and mysterious universe in which we have been born and live…It is therefore important in our education to find the means of developing a wider and more connected view of our world and a truly cosmic view of the universe and our place in it.
Boeke took his students on a cosmic adventure, engaging them as much as possible in working out the details. His book has inspired numerous imitations, most notably Charles and Ray Eames' film Powers of Ten (1977, watchable on YouTube) and Philip and Phylis Morrison's book elaboration of the film, Powers of Ten: About the Relative Sizes of Things in the Universe (1982). For years I used the Morrison book as a supplementary text for my general studies course The Universe. It is the best one-volume introduction to science I know of. I'd tell my students: Don't think of this book as a text to resell at the end of the semester; think of it as a first element of a family library for your children and grandchildren.

My course The Universe pretty much recapitulated the outward half of Boeke's journey. We began with the first step of a walk with a surveyor of the Pharaoh from Alexandria to Syene, down the valley of the Nile, then in just about 26 lectures traveled outward to the Big Bang, discovering how distances were measured every step of the way, with exercises that let the students play with real data. When we got to the Hubble Deep Field Photograph at the end of the course, I like to think they had stretched their imaginations to the point where they knew what they were looking at.

Thanks, Kees Boeke. You never knew me, but I was one of your students.