Cognition Obscura (I)

by rsbakker


On July 4th, 1054, Chinese astronomers noticed the appearance of a ‘guest star’ in the proximity of Zeta Tauri lasting for nearly two years before becoming too faint to be detected by the naked eye. The Chaco Canyon Anasazi apparently also witnessed the event, leaving behind this famous petraglyph:


Centuries would pass before John Bevis would rediscover it in 1731, as would Charles Messier in 1758, who initially confused it with Halley’s Comet and decided to begin cataloguing ‘cloudy’ celestial objects–or ‘nebulae’–to help astronomers avoid his mistake. In 1844, William Parsons, the Earl of Rosse, made the following drawing of the guest-star-become-comet-become-cloudy-celestial-object:


It was on the basis of this diagram that he gave the Chinese guest star–what has since become the most studied extra-solar object in astronomical history–its contemporary name: the ‘Crab Nebula.’ When he revisited the object with his 72-inch reflector telescope in 1848, however, he saw something quite different:


Then in 1921, John Charles Duncan was able to discern the expansion of the Crab Nebula using the revolutionary capacity of the Mount Wilson Observatory to produce images like this:


And nowadays, of course, we are regularly dazzled not only by photographs like this:


generated by Hubble, but those produced by a gamut of other observational platforms as well:


The tremendous amount of information produced has provided astronomers with an incredibly detailed understanding of supernovae and nebula formation.

What I find so interesting about this progression lies in what might be called the ‘structure of informatic disclosure.’ What do I mean by this? Well, there’s the myriad ways the accumulation of data feeds theory formation, of course, how scientific models tend to become progressively more accurate as the kinds and quantities of information accessed increases. But what I’m primarily interested in is what happens when you turn this structure upside down, when you look at the Chinese ‘guest star’ or Anasazi petraglyph against the baseline of what we presently know. What assumptions were made and why? How were those assumptions overthrown? Why were those assumptions almost certain to be wrong?

Why, for instance, did the Chinese assume that SN1054 was simply another star, notable only for its ‘guest-like’ transience? I’m sure a good number of people might think this is a genuinely stupid question: the imperialistic nature of our preconceptions seems to go without saying. The medieval Chinese thought SN1054 was another star rather than a supernova simply because points of light in the sky, stars, were all they knew. The old provides our only means of understanding the new. This is arguably why Messier first assumed the Crab Nebula was another comet in 1758: it was only when he obtained information distinguishing it (the lack of visible motion) from comets that he realized he was looking at something else, a cloudy celestial object.

But if you think about it, these ‘identification effects’–the ways the absence of systematic differences making systematic differences (or information) underwrite assumptions of ‘default identity’–are profoundly mysterious. We’ve gone from an enigmatic prick of light to an intimate understanding of nebula dynamics and structure. Our cosmological understanding has been nothing if not a process of continual systematic differentiation or ever increasing resolution in the polydimensional sense of the natural. In a peculiar sense, our ignorance is the fundamental medium here, the ‘stuff’ from which the distinctions pertaining to actual cognition are hewn.