From Astronomy Picture of the Day:
Milky Way over Erupting Volcano (Photo: Sergio Montúfar)
Explanation: The view was worth the trip. Battling high winds, cold temperatures, and low oxygen, the trek to near the top of the volcano Santa Maria in Guatemala — while carrying sensitive camera equipment — was lonely and difficult. Once set up, though, the camera captured this breathtaking vista during the early morning hours of February 28. Visible on the ground are six volcanoes of the Central America Volcanic Arc, including Fuego, the Volcano of Fire, which is seen erupting in the distance. Visible in the sky, in separate exposures taken a few minutes later, are many stars much further in the distance, as well as the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy situated horizontally overhead.
After reading my previous post about hiddenness, Mike Dickman alerted me to an article by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker, Sight Unseen: The hows and whys of invisibility.
Hiddenness and invisibility are different of course. Schulz is less focused on the metaphysical realms of hiddenness that Jane Hirschfield explores in her book, Hiddenness, Uncertainty and Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry (and discussed here.) Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is a writer with an eye for the rational. She starts her piece lightheartedly by taking the counterposition—an actual 17th century magic spell believed to bring on invisibility (“Begin by acquiring the severed head of a man who has committed suicide…then bury the head, together with seven black beans, on a Wednesday morning before sunrise, and water the ground for seven days with fine brandy. On the eighth day, the beans will sprout, whereupon you must persuade a little girl to pick and shell them. Pop one into your mouth, and you will turn invisible.”) She quickly moves back to her more rational comfort zone however, discussing a new book by the very engaging science writer Philip Ball: Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. The article then delves into the darker psychological implications of invisibility through a smorgasbord of references: Harry Potter (that cape of course!), Dr. Who, science fiction writer Douglas Adams and the story from Plato‘s Republic of a shepherd who finds a ring that renders him invisible (and all the trouble it causes, like sleeping with the queen, murdering the king and claiming the kingdom for himself.) As Schulz points out, “Broadly speaking, there are two reasons for wanting to turn invisible: to get away from something or to get away with something.”
But while Schulz does unpack many of the darker psychological aspects of our natures, she does not leave the sublime behind. Her final paragraphs touch into the enormity that is The Great Invisible, floating in its immensity as we are:
Almost everything around us is imperceptible, almost all the rest is maddeningly difficult to perceive, and what remains scarcely amounts to anything. Physicists estimate that less than five per cent of the known universe is visible—where “visible” means only that we could, theoretically, observe it, given the right instruments and sufficient physical proximity. A far smaller amount of the known universe, roughly 0.3 per cent, is dense enough to form stars. Perhaps 0.000001 per cent exists in earthlike planets. As for the part that exists in or near our own planet, the stuff that is visible to us in any literal sense: that is a decimal attenuating out almost to nothing, a speck of dust in the cosmic hinterlands.
Even here on earth, with our senses seemingly full to the brim, we see almost nothing of what matters. Molecules, microbes, cells, germs, genes, viruses, the interior of the planet, the depths of the ocean: none of that is visible to the naked eye. And, as David Hume noted, none of the causes controlling our world are visible under any conditions; we can see a fragment of the what of things, but nothing at all of the why. Gravity, electricity, magnetism, economic forces, the processes that sustain life as well as those that eventually end it—all this is invisible. We cannot even see the most important parts of our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, psyches, morals, minds, souls.
And more remarkable still: from our own tiny bulwark against the invisible, we have looked into what we cannot look at—inferred its existence, and, to a stunning extent, figured out how it works. It’s hard to know which is more astonishing: that the visible sliver of the universe should betray the unseen structure of the entirety, or that the human mind, by studying that sliver, could begin to reconstruct all the rest.
We can do this because the invisible, although it keeps itself hidden, makes itself felt. I cannot see the people I love as I write this, but I can sense their pull, and I act as I do because of their existence. Taken literally, that is how the cosmos works. An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see.