Monday, May 11, 2009

No man has found pure space

Until the early 1900s, many people still believed that the earth, or at least the solar system was at the center of the universe. It wasn't until the time of Howard Shapley, in the 1920s and after, that the true size and arrangement of the universe was generally accepted. It is claimed that Shapley was the first to appreciate the size of the Milky Way Galaxy. The history of science is full of these startling inconsistencies, demonstrating that scientists should never be so sure they are correct.

Even though the true size and scope of the universe were debated into the 1920s, and still are the subject of a lot of theories and conjecture, it is more than interesting that a poet in the 1800s saw the full majesty and extent of the universe and realized how insignificant the world was in comparison.

William Wines Phelps, a prominent player in the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, expressed his thoughts on the subject of the size of the universe in a poem, later put to music as a Mormon hymn. In verses of the hymn, If you could hie to Kolob, he poetically expressed the size of the creation by declaring that "there is no end to matter; there is no end to space." He questions whether the end of the universe could be found, even at a speed exceeding that of light itself.

Although the ideas expressed in this hymn are common enough today, the concept of a boundless universe was virtually unknown at the time. Phelps' inspiration came from the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. who spoke of the vastness of the creations in Book of Moses, where, beginning in the Pearl of Great Price: Moses: Chapter 1, we read:

7 And now, behold, this one thing I show unto thee, Moses, my son, for thou art in the world, and now I show it unto thee.
8 And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.
9 And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.
10 And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.

This came from a man living in a world that still debated the size of the visible universe!

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