March 10, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Divining Violent gods as Natural Cosmic Creators

Ancient stargazers imagined the violent actions of gods in the heavens giving rise to the stars, earth and man.  Today’s secular astronomers engage in a similar kind of lore.  While not naming their gods after mythical heroes, they describe them as forces of nature whose violent clashes give rise to order and design.  Sometimes they even personify these forces.  Maybe the only thing that has changed since Greek times is the sophistication of the observations.

  1. Modern Asteria:  A cosmic war of titanic proportions is occurring in the heavens, but out of the struggle comes spiral jewelry fit for Asteria, goddess of the stars.  As she gives birth, she in rage rips open the wombs of her rivals, preventing them from bearing sons and daughters, but some of the barren escape.  So the oracles have determined.
        A press release from University of Durham would not be altered much by replacing Asteria with galaxy, sons and daughters by suns and debris, and oracles by theorists.  Astronomers using the Gemini Observatory’s Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer said of the galaxy with its violent outflows:

    The explosions scattered the gas needed to form new stars by helping it escape the gravitational pull of the galaxy called SMM J1237+6203, effectively regulating its growth, the scientists added….
        Effectively the galaxy is regulating its growth by preventing new stars from being bornTheorists had predicted that huge outflows of energy were behind this activity, but it’s only now that we have seen it in action.”
        We believe that similar huge outflows are likely to have stopped the growth of other galaxies in the early Universe by blowing away the materials needed for star formation.

    One wonders, upon reading this tale, whether the explosions helped the gas escape on purpose, and whether there was a plan to regulate the growth of the galaxy.  Whatever it was, it was “effective,” we were just told.
        Perhaps the modern myth is an improvement in its explanatory power.  “They believe the huge surge of energy was caused by either the outflow of debris from the galaxy’s black hole or from powerful winds generated by dying stars called supernovae.”  This is known as a disjunctive theory: kind of like your shrink saying you are neurotic either because your mother didn’t breast-feed you or because space aliens are sending energy pulses into your head.  There might be a black hole in this galaxy, or there might be supernovae, but those were not observed.  Even so, both are violent, destructive phenomena not intuitively known for creative acts like star birth (which was also not observed).
        The outflows are so violent, in fact, it’s not even sure that supernovae are up to explaining them.  “According to their findings the galaxy exploded in a series of blasts trillions of times more powerful than any caused by an atomic bomb.  The blasts happened every second for millions of years, the scientists said.”  For one thing, it’s hard to imagine anything creative coming out of that kind of violence.  But for another, that would seem to require so many supernovae going off for so long, the problem shifts from whether any stars formed as a result to how the stars formed that exploded as supernovae in the first place.  The reader can pick a preferred oracle and explanation.

  2. Modern Atreus:  There were rare cases of cannibals among the gods, but in modern cosmology cannibalism is the preferred heavenly vice.  Our own Milky Way is a cannibal, we were told by  How do we know?  The Missing Link told us, according to PhysOrg.
        Cannibalism may be the mark of the uncivilized, but in astronomy, the vice is nice.  A leading theory claims that the large spiral galaxies we love so much, including our own, grew by cannibalizing the midgets.  Trouble was, astronomers had no evidence for this “bottom-up” approach to galaxy-building.  (It also leaves unanswered what the midget galaxies ate for growth and health.)  But now, the presses are rolling with gladness, now that the Missing Link has spoken.
        That missing link is a metal-poor star found in a nearby dwarf galaxy; it was announced last week in Nature.1  One might think that a large galaxy would need quite a few candidates to grow into the range of 100 billion stars, but astronomers were relieved for small progress.  They had been looking for a metal-poor star for years, and frankly, were getting a little worried.  The paucity of metal-poor stars in dwarf galaxies suggested, scientifically speaking, that their theory might be proven wrong.  But rather than letting that happen, they rejoiced to find one small red star with 1/4000 the metals2 of our sun and one-fifth the metallicity of any star measured in a dwarf galaxy before.  The idea is that the dwarf galaxies, being the first to form, had to form before metals were produced by supernovae.  Only after the cannibal party was over would mature galaxies have lots of metals in their systems; who knows, maybe they ate the forks, too.
        Finding this star was like finding a needle in a stack of needles, one astronomer said.  Why that should be, he did not say; it would seem the theory would predict metal-poor stars would predominate in dwarf galaxies.  Be that as it may, here’s how the paper put a happy spin on the change of fortune:

    Current cosmological models indicate that the Milky Way’s stellar halo was assembled from many smaller systems.  On the basis of the apparent absence of the most metal-poor stars in present-day dwarf galaxies, recent studies claimed that the true Galactic building blocks must have been vastly different from the surviving dwarfs.  The discovery of an extremely iron-poor star (S1020549) in the Sculptor dwarf galaxy based on a medium-resolution spectrum cast some doubt on this conclusion.

    “Some doubt” is right.  The astronomers said later in their paper, “we cannot rule out the possibility that some metal-poor stars in the halo came from more massive systems than the ones considered here.”  They also recognized it was a poor showing: “future discoveries of extremely metal-poor stars in these galaxies would be required to demonstrate the feasibility of this picture,” they said – a picture that includes the popular Cold Dark Matter model of the Universe.  Can the discovery of this one metal-poor star resurrect the cannibal theory?  Can it account for the enthusiasm in the popular press?  You decide:

    But were enough dwarf galaxies accreted to account for all of the metal-poor halo stars?  The surviving ultra-faint dwarfs are the least luminous and most dark-matter-dominated galaxies, and they possess very few stars despite containing some extremely metal-poor stars.  It is thus unclear whether the accretion of even large numbers of analogues to such systems can provide enough stellar mass to account for the entire population of low-metallicity field stars.  On the other hand, massive satellites like the progenitors of the Magellanic Clouds are thought to have provided the vast majority of the inner halo.  Galaxies, like Sculptor, with stellar masses in between massive gas-rich objects (early versions of today’s Magellanic Clouds) and less luminous systems (appearing today as ultra-faint dwarfs), hence appear to be more natural candidates for providing the metal-poor stellar content of the outer halo.

    Bosh with this pessimism, Science Daily thought, as it announced gleefully, “First of Missing Primitive Stars Found.”

  3. Modern Bacchus:  Some astronomers believe they can peek into the food fights of the star gods.  PhysOrg reported on work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics about the birth of large stars, to see whether it involves cannibalism or not.  Readers might be surprised to learn that the process of star formation for giant stars is poorly understood.  There were fears that large stars would blow away their food due to ionizing radiation and star formation would stop.  It turns out, the astronomers simulated on computers, that small stars capture some of the outflowing material, resulting in riotous feasts of big and small stars.  They called this “fragmentation-induced starvation.”  The obese giants can prevent their own demise by sharing some of their food with the midgets.  The article says that it “appears to offer realistic answers to many of the outstanding puzzles of massive star formation in clusters.” 
  4. Modern Medea:  “Medea took her revenge by sending Glauce a dress and golden coronet, covered in poison,” the Greeks taught.  Modern mythmakers love poison.  Whenever they find it, they believe that life cannot be far behind.  PhysOrg announced that the orbiting Herschel Telescope discovered carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, methanol, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur oxide and sulfur dioxide in the Orion Nebula.  Conclusion?  “Herschel Finds Possible Life-Enabling Molecules in Space.”  William Herschel and John Herschel were not consulted on this announcement, because they might have objected to having their names associated with a naturalistic myth.  Science Daily bested it with this title: “Precursors of Life-Enabling Organic Molecules in Orion Nebula Unveiled by Herschel Space Observatory.”  Later, that article called these poisons the “direct precursors to life-enabling molecules.”  Warning: do not try these molecules on yourself to see if they are life-enabling.
        One of the Herschel astronomers was enamored not only with the poisons but with the violence in the cloud.  “The high spectral resolution of HIFI shows the breath-taking rechness [sic] of molecular species, which are present, despite of the hostile environment, in the stellar nurseries and sites for planet formation,” he said.  To some astronomers, poisonous violence is what to look for when you want to witness a baby boom of stars, planets and life.
  5. Modern Nemesis:  Death and destruction is raining down on Earth from the jealous god Nemesis. said that Sol’s alter ego, an unseen star nicknamed Nemesis, may be perturbing comets from an unseen Oort Cloud onto the planet at 26 million year intervals.  The article explained that observations are not required:

    While there’s little doubt about the destructive power of cosmic impacts, there is no evidence that comets have periodically caused mass extinctions on our planet.  The theory of periodic extinctions itself is still debated, with many insisting that more proof is needed.  Even if the scientific consensus is that extinction events don’t occur in a predictable cycle, there are now other reasons to suspect a dark companion to the Sun.

    The existence of odd minor planets with weird orbits may be the footprint of Nemesis.  The destructive star may have come from the tribe of the Red Dwarfs.  The article, with a section entitled “Finding Dwarfs in the Dark,” ended with an occult suggestion: “Even if Nemesis is not found, the WISE telescope will help shed light on the darkest corners of the solar system.”

1.  Frebel, Kirby and Simon, “Linking dwarf galaxies to halo building blocks with the most metal-poor star in Sculptor,” Nature 464, 72-75 (4 March 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08772.
2.  By metals, astronomers mean any and all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.  Metallicity is the ratio of heavy elements to hydrogen and helium.  Presumably, metallicity increases with age, as more supernovae seed the cosmic clouds with elements forged in the interiors of stars.  The first stars (not observed) would have been made entirely of hydrogen and helium.

It takes many years of training to become a modern scientific priest.  The math and science is admittedly difficult.  Not everyone can survive the ordeal.  Once inducted into the order, though, the priest earns free rein to add to the cultural mythology.  The press adores the priests and never questions their wisdom.  Once in a while they have to employ the hard math they learned, but only for the observational parts.  The interpretive activity is liberated from that requirement – all it takes is a good imagination.  Some linkage to observation helps, on occasion, to keep the peasants from suspecting they are speaking beyond their knowledge.
    Willard van Orman Quine famously said in 1951 that scientific theories and the Greek gods are in the same business – providing categories to organize experience.  Though he later moderated that position, the comparison may be more apt than he realized.  Both the Greek gods and their modern counterparts described above are not transcendent Creators, but rather elements of the cosmos that emerged from the void with special powers.  Both priestly orders assumed a philosophy of naturalism: a bottom-up assumption about the way the cosmos came to be.  Neither were dependent on empirical evidence (though it helped if the Delphic Oracle got the prediction right occasionally).  Both ascribed personality to natural forces.  Both used the myths to teach the peasants how to understand the mysterious forces around them.  And both provided power and prestige to the priestly class.

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