Editor's Letter: Exploring the Universe

By June Carolyn Erlick

Professor Don Pfister came to my office the other day to discuss this issue of ReVista. I was wearing one of my favorite pieces of jewelry, a black-and-white speckled necklace from Colombia. “Oh, that’s from a tropical tree,” he said with interest, identifying the species. For me, my necklace is a lovely handicraft, a splendid ornament, a sentimental memory. Pfister, who is Curator of the Farlow Herbarium, noticed something I didn’t, the botanical origin of my beads.

It made me realize that even though lately I’ve been focusing on the theme of the sky above and the earth below, I remain an urban creature. Geology was the only class I ever got a “D” on in college. I took it to fulfill my science requirement. Yet I remember vividly how the professor took us across the Hudson River to New Jersey with its wind-swept views of Manhattan. There, he showed us Manhattan schist, a very hard rock on which Manhattan is built (I have no idea why we went to New Jersey). Despite that grade, I learned to see rocks in a different way.

It’s not that I don’t like nature, dear reader (seeing that much of this issue deals with the 19th century, that feels like an appropriate way to address you). I love to look at “the sky above” and “the earth below,” but usually just as a poetic big picture—the amazing sunset, the towering mountains, the welcome sound of birds in the early spring. I still like to feed pigeons and sparrows, urban memories of exploring the universe.

Obviously, with my track record, the idea for this issue therefore did not arise from any particular knowledge about science or nature, but rather with a historical awareness of two important dates. This year, 2009, has been designated the International Year of Astronomy. It also marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.  Even I know that Darwin looked at the earth below, developing the theory of natural selection in the 19th century. Three hundred years before, Nicolaus Copernicus observed that planets’ motions across the sky could be explained much more simply by assuming the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun in perfect circle.

So I wanted to investigate the links of both men to Latin America. Darwin had traveled throughout the region, exploring such far-off places as the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador and Tierra del Fuego in Chile. Copernicus, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, never traveled to Latin America, but he might be considered the spiritual godfather of all the astronomers looking out at the starry nights from observatories in Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico and throughout the region.

I wanted to make this ReVista an issue that would be interesting to those of you who know all the names and species—and to those of us who write songs about butterflies and don’t know a swallow from a seagull. And yet I wasn’t quite sure exactly why I was so fascinated by the explorations of Copernicus and Darwin.

That is, not until I walked into Harvard’s Bio Labs to see Professor N. Michelle Holbrook, “Missy,” to discuss the upcoming ReVista. She pointed out to me that both Darwin and Galileo were rebels whose theories shifted the center of the world. With Darwin, she observed, humans ceased to be the center of the earth, and with Copernicus, the earth ceased to be the center of the universe.

The Catholic church even placed Copernicus’ book De Revolutionibus with his new scientific theory on the index of prohibited books in 1616 because it contradicted religious beliefs. Darwin’s theory of natural selection still remains controversial among some fundamentalists today.

The natural sciences—like the social sciences and the arts—have their own particular way of challenging our premises and transforming the world around us. This ReVista thus is not just a celebration of Darwin and Copernicus, but of all the scientists working today and yesterday—and who will be working in the future—to explore the mysteries of the universe, even if they are as simple as the origin of a necklace. 

See also: Editor's Letter