Quick Hitter: A Day at the Museum

I ended up with a free day (or, really, two thirds of a day) in New York City--my youngest sister who lives in New York was at work, and my work-related reason for being in the city got cancelled.  There are essentially unlimited choices for what to do in New York with a free morning and part of an afternoon, but I decided to go to the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West.  It has been a long time since I have been to the Natural History Museum--when I was ten, Mom took my brother and I all the way up to New York from central New Jersey on a snowy day to go to the Museum.  I was really curious to see if it was as awesome as I remember it from from 28 years ago.

Mostly, yes, it was.  The dinosaurs on the fourth floor are fantastic (highlighted by a 122 foot long "Titanosaur"), and the Hayden Planetarium and the associated "space stuff" is great.  There is a section of Mesoamerican artifacts, including a number of Mayan stelae, that I don't remember at all from when I was a kid, but were really interesting.  There are some sections that feel very dated--a great deal of space on the second and third floors are taken up with static, stuffed animal displays, which seems to be a strange use of space (especially in light of the fact that you can get on the subway and see all of those animals alive at the Bronx Zoo).  But, minor things like that aside, it's great and you should definitely add it to your list if you ever go to New York.

Two related things jumped out at me from my walk around the museum.  The first could be found in the explanatory material that went along with the dinosaur exhibit.  I detected a consistent tone of humility regarding the limits of what science can actually determine about dinosaurs.  So, instead of saying "we don't yet know whether dinosaurs had feathers," the displays said things like "we will likely never know for sure whether dinosaurs had feathers."  I'm not going to pretend I remember what the displays said 28 years ago, but I suspect that this is a change in tone from what I read as a kid (all the display materials looked very new, for what it is worth).  It struck me that science, at least in this area, is backing away from the idea that answers to all possible questions are only a matter of time and effort.  To be sure, science can do many wonderful and amazing things, and it is right to celebrate them, but perhaps there is a growing recognition that there are limits to what science can do and know.

Along the same lines, I went to a planetarium show narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium.  Tyson, at least in his public persona, is a doctrinaire scientific materialist of the old school.  And yet, during the planetarium show, Tyson told the story of dark matter and dark energy.  See, based on the universe as we can observe it, galaxies should never be able to cluster together as they do, and the expansion of the universe as a whole should be decelerating.  In fact, neither of these things are true--galaxies do group together, and the expansion of the universe is accelerating.  To explain this, scientists have come up with the term "dark matter" for some undefined "stuff" that keeps galaxies together and "dark energy" for the force that is causing the universe to accelerate its expansion.  Tyson said that the matter and energy we can observe in the universe is only 5% of the total mass/energy of the universe--the rest is this dark matter and dark energy.

But here's the thing--the sense I got from the presentation, and this is confirmed by a little reading on line, is that "dark matter" and "dark energy" are really just placeholders.  Dark matter is not like any of the matter that we observe and experience, and dark energy might be some sort of property of the universe itself.  No one really has any clear idea what these things really are.  In other words, 95% of the universe is made up of "stuff" for which science has no real model for what it is.  And, since it appears that either of these things cannot be observed directly, maybe it never will.

The history of the West has been defined by a series of narratives about certainty, attempts to explain the world as it "really is."  It starts with the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle, and goes through the Scholastic theology, to the certainties of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and to the competing narrative of Epicurean scientific materialism.  The idea linking all of them is that if we had the right model, we could explain everything and put everything in its proper place.

Science seems to me to be moving off of that hard line, toward a vision of itself that has space for mystery.  Likewise, the readings I have been doing in process theology (which I will probably write about soon) seems to be trying to pull religion, especially the Christian religion, toward mystery from the opposite direction.  Maybe there is a space to meet in the middle, some sort of shared ground where we can avoid the religion vs. science wars of the last 300 years.  That is certainly one of the motivations behind process theology.  If so, that's great, because this trench warfare has been, as far as I can see, entirely unproductive for both sides.  Plus, it's nice to go church on Sunday and the Natural History Museum on Monday and not have to worry about playing one off of the other.


Heather Coleman said…
How beautifully this captures my own struggle with certainty. Meeting in the middle of the mystery sounds perfect.
~ Heather

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