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Will We Ever See the Spiral Shape of Our Galaxy?

My wife, son (12 years old) and I visited the Adler Planetarium yesterday and took the above picture (with my iphone) of one of many excellent exhibits there. What captured my imagination is the question, “Will we ever see the spiral shape of our galaxy?” The answer is that it could only be seen from a different frame of reference than the one on planet Earth. What looks like total chaos from planet Earth turns out to be a stunningly beautiful spiral shape from the perspective outside the Milky Way. Since we could not (yet) travel physically outside our solar system, let alone the Milky Way, the only way to “see” the spiral shape is through our mind or imagination as the scientists at the museum have depicted for us in this wonderful exhibit.

Is this phenomenon of us humans experiencing different realities via expanding our perspectives only limited to the physical universe? Definitely not! The history of human knowledge and wisdom tells us that almost all adequate answers to all life’s important questions require us taking on a perspective different and more universal than those we were born with and/or held by our ancestors sometime in the past, usually for good reasons. For example, a young child must learn to overcome his/her natural narcissism and to respect and live with others in order to become a valuable member of the family and society; a new employee must learn to value work and contribute more than he or she takes home in order to become a productive and content adult; a business executive must learn how to grow the business as well as cut costs in order to achieve prosperity in the long run; a politician must learn to subordinate his or her personal ambitions to the good of the people in order to become a Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt; people with sufficient consciousness must learn to grasp deeper meanings of life in order to maintain their mental health, etc. New and better perspective taking is not a luxury but essential to live a good life.

The challenge is how to define and judge such newer and better perspectives? This is a puzzle few people have come up with adequate answers, until now. It is partly due to the Plato’s cave phenomenon that our perspectives are limited by our natural conditions. Have we come out of the cave yet? Not really or likely ever as far as we could tell (e.g., the scientists are faced with plenty of new questions outside the Milky Way at the same time as they have discovered better answers to those inside the Milky Way). But the main reason that we often fail to take on newer and better perspective is NOT that we are living inside the Plato’s cave but rather because that we are not wise enough to acknowledge so. What is so bad about recognizing that we are living inside Plato’s cave? It offends our ego! We are different from the animals and want to live on our own terms with our own independent will! On the other extreme of the human spectrum, many people readily give up their precious and God given gift of intelligent mind and bend their beams of imagination by the standards passed on to them from previous generations, not realizing that such dogmatic behavior betrays, not honor the spirit of our ancestors.

Thanks to the invent of the scientific method and centuries of accelerating progress of scientific knowledge of the human condition, we now know that we are not some alien species dropped on a lonely planet Earth and left to struggle on our own devices. We are part of an unbroken chain of life and the cosmos beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations. Just as our physical limitations did not stop us from exploring the physical cosmos, we should not be discouraged from exploring our emotional, social and spiritual cosmos simply because we still and will always face large knowledge gaps.

What such a human cosmos might look like? Here is a sketch, far from complete but yet already shedding valuable lights on such intractable human problems and sufferings as the sources and purpose of our conflicts and how to direct our minds, hearts and spirits in day to day living in order to enhance versus diminish the health of human cosmos. As for the physical cosmos, the day to day activities of our lives also appear very chaotic at close range. The only way to appreciate the beauty and harness the power of the human cosmos is through expanding our ‘natural’ but ‘naive’ frame of reference from narrow focus on ourselves, our neighbors, our ethnic groups, our countries or even our planet to something that transcend and include them all, to beyond the Milky Way of our traditional knowledge and culture. To do so safely, responsibly and inspiringly, we must reply on the scientific method of making and proving/disproving our hypotheses. This is not an ‘easy’ or even painless job by any means. However, it’s a worthy or even worthiest pursuit of an inhabitant on a small planet that we call Earth. A good reason was given by a pair of physicists quoted in another exhibit at the Adler Planetarium:

An even better reason is our belief, reinforced by our scientific discoveries over the centuries, that we are a vital link in the unfolding of the cosmos as well as enfolded in the universe as David Bohm suggested.

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