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Feb. 23, 2010

The Cosmos As We Know It

by Shelley DuBois

Click to enlarge images

When you think of the universe, you might picture this:

andromeda

But across centuries and cultures, people have seen it like this:

goduniverse

Or this:

churngalexy

And these different depictions have more in common than you might think.

That became clear at one of the events in the Rubin Museum of Art’s Brainwave 2010 series. In the series, expert speakers mesh culture with the science surrounding the human brain. Speakers at a talk on February 20 used images from the Rubin’s Visions of the Cosmos exhibit to explore how people perceive space.

About 80 listeners sat around tables topped by flickering LED candles to hear the discussion. Astrophysicist Steven Soter highlighted what scientists have figured out about the known universe, and Martin Brauen, the museum’s curator, linked the facts to art. But the line between the two perspectives got mushy. Soter started to wax poetic.

“We are children of the stars,” he said, referring to the fact that every element on Earth leaked out of stars created after the big bang. Those elements are in everyone. In fact, he said that every person has about a teaspoon’s worth of elements that haven’t been reprocessed since the big bang.

Powerful stuff.

It fits nicely with the Buddhist idea that everybody’s got a little bit of cosmos inside. Look at this image from a 16th century Buddhist cosmological scroll:

elements

The human body contains all the elements–in this case, air, fire, water, earth and space–which line up with bodies in the skies.

The same idea comes through in Hindu mythology. According to Brauen and Soter, Hindu religious texts are just about scientifically accurate in their description of the size and scale of the universe.

The talk also pitted these eastern depictions against Copernican and other western views of space:

copernicus

But the highlight was the way that Soter communicated conceptually vast topics— the horizon of the universe, dark matter, the possible worlds born out of black holes—and Brauen used art to rope them, seamlessly, into the philosophical struggles of man.

For more of a brain trip, go see the Visions of the Cosmos exhibit. Then look at this video that that shows the universe as we know it based on the data we have.

There are big, interesting ideas in the overlap.

[Image Credit: The Rubin Museum of Art.]
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About Shelley DuBois

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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