This is How We Think: We Make Constellations From Stars

International Space Station passing under Big Dipper

A recent conversation on Twitter between @TimCarmody and @RobinSloan alerted me to this brilliant post from Tim Carmody (who can also be found at Wired’s EpiCenter). It’s a lovely description of how we make sense of things, finding patterns in what’s presented to us, both in science and in everyday life.

The thing is, even the semi-random shapes, the so-called patterns, prior to seeing them as a constellation and then an element of mythology, are accidents. They’re not real.

After the Copernican revolution, a constellation isn’t even a constellation. Instead, it’s a two-dimensional flattening of a three-dimensional reality. Actually, we should probably say a FOUR-dimensional reality. The light from stars at varying distances, leaving their sources at various times in the distant past, gets mistaken, from our earthbound point-of-view, as a simultaneous two-dimensional pattern.

BUT! That distortion, that accident, produces something extremely powerful — both imaginatively and practically.

Take “constellational thinking” and apply it to something besides stars in space. Let’s say — history.

Over here, you’ve got the Roman Republic, over there, the French Revolution. Distant in time, distant in geography, no kind of causal proximity let alone a relationship between them.

But bam! Slap them together. View them as a single event, a collapse of time.

Now you begin to see the French Revolution the way part of the Revolution saw itself, as an explosion of the continuum of history.

*Actually this ‘post’ is a comment in a thread started by Robin Sloan, Carmody’s blog buddy at SnarkMarket, but the comment became the heart of the post. In most places that’s not supposed to happen, a comment taking over a post. But in this case it reflects, among other things, the wonderful conversational chemistry that often holds at Snarkmarket, where Sloan and Carmody and Matt Thompson have weaving it like the old Celtics for some time now. Who hit that three-ponter? Carmody hit this one. But it was all the passes before, and the games before that, that set it up.

Astronomy, basketball, and the French Revolution. You don’t get that every day.

From Explosions in the sky « Snarkmarket.

Image: The International Space Station passing under the Big Dipper. By Otto Phokus via Creative Commons license.

4 responses

  1. Neat. I didn’t know about this.

    If I may drop the name of my favorite creator of perspective: Carl Sagan. I try to read or listen to this particular snippet of “Pale Blue Dot” at least once a year:

  2. The deeper I get into the comment thread there, the more and more it seems he is talking about Zen “Pointing at the Moon”.  

    We extrapolate and simplify an object that represents what we see, because it makes it easier to hold in our mind.  

    But that Finger pointing at the Moon is not the Moon.  The constellation we see is not the same as the reality that it represents.

    “Truth and words are unrelated. Truth can be compared to the moon,” answered Hui Neng, pointing to the moon with his finger, “And words can be compared to a finger. I can use my finger to point out the moon, but my finger is not the moon, and you don’t need my finger in order to be able to see the moon”. 

    The difference I guess, is that Buddhism views this as a hindrance, where Tim is seeing it as a FEATURE of the Human Condition.

    • You may be write about Buddhism seeing this pattern-recognition/imposition as a hindrance, while Tim describes it as a near-inherent feature of our cognition. But I, though thin on Buddhism knowledge, don’t think those two ideas are in conflict: The Buddhist tries to both acknowledge and work around such things, no?

      • Yeah.  If I grok it, the point is to see the concept, and step through it.  Become the experience, instead of seeing the experience.

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