Sunday, December 20, 2015

The astronomer and the monks

When I heard Chris Impey interviewed on radio, I knew I had to read his story. Humble before the Void: A Western Astronomer, his Journey East, and a Remarkable Encounter Between Western Science and Tibetan Buddhism was worth the effort, though the science this University of Arizona astronomer was teaching frequently exceeded my grasp. This was partly due to my mistake, as I'll explain at the end.

Here's how Impey describes his project:

It was a modern day encounter between Buddhist philosophy and science. I'd been given the opportunity to teach a select group of three dozen Tibetan monks about modern astronomy, physics and cosmology. We met under the aegis of the Science for Monks program, an initiative supported by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

... At home in Arizona I work at an observatory in the desert, ringed by mountains. I use telescopes with giant mirrors and powerful digital cameras, able to snare light from the beginning of time. During my time in Dharmsala, India, we had only handheld telescopes and the naked eye. But we also had a place at the edge of the rooftop of the world, and a ringside view of the pristine sky that backs the haunting, timeless Himalayas.

This technological and geographical contrast alone could tell much of the story of my experience as a Western scientist immersed in a distant world of Buddhist tradition, which anchors itself in so much that is ancient. The West seeks to understand and control the material world. Buddhism views the material world as, in many ways, illusory. ...We were engaging in a freewheeling dialogue after centuries of persistent antagonisms between science and religion.

In that spirit, Impey led his little flock of monks through the Western mathematics of scale, the scientific description of the universe and its origins in the Big Bang, some quantum theory, and our understanding of the evolution of life. All in three weeks, and with marvelous imagination and creativity. Any teacher of math and science at any level would gain from reading about his teaching methodology; if I'd had teachers like him, I might have absorbed more science.

And Impey is well aware that he is teaching students with an extraordinary capacity for patience and curiosity. These are men who will spend days moving individual grains of sand into mandalas -- and then sweep their creations away in moment. Impey's undergraduates are nothing like this.

So where did Impey and his crew arrive at the end of three weeks? Here's a bit of his conclusion, arrived at when he has arranged for the monks to spend some time looking through small telescopes:

We've done the science. Later we will simply look out on the universe. By falling silent, we can all think about what's left -- the meaning we want to give to what we see. I'm not sure science can help with meaning. Science is still in its childhood, an unruly teenager of great promise that doesn't know its own strength. It's capable of great good and it also has the potential for harm. As a singularly human enterprise, science reflects all our strengths and faults.

... In a universe with 10,000 billion billion stars and probably a myriad of life forms, we are special in some ways, yet we are not in a cosmic sense. The profound question science is unable to answer: Why are we here? ... Buddhist cosmology has the idea of a trichiliocosm, a system of a billion worlds, and a highly enlightened being, or supreme nirmankaya, with a purview over that number of worlds. It occurred to me when I first heard this that the concept maps perfectly to the likely number of habitable worlds in a galaxy and the most advanced life form in that galaxy. I doubt that it's us.

Impey and the monks are worlds apart and not so different after all.
I made a major mistake by reading this book by ear (as I often do with works I mention here). It worked poorly as an audiobook for me. This was in part because I'd heard Impey interviewed: he's a Brit with the accent you might expect. The reader of the audio edition is an American with a bit of a southern tinge. I found the contrast to the voice I'd heard very jarring.

But in addition, the reader needs the illustrations that accompany the text. By this I mean not only the line drawings that illustrate the science, but also the wonderful photos of the monks, learning with playful joy. It would be worth looking at this book just for those images.

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