Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
― Hannah ArendtThe Origins of Totalitarianism
“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.”
― Hannah ArendtThe Origins of Totalitarianism
“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
― Hannah ArendtThe Origins of Totalitarianism
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
― Hannah ArendtThe Origins of Totalitarianism
Posted by Lou Sheehan
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The Universe is Flat Neta Bahcall (Princeton)

See, for example, the discussion on pages 1485 and 1486 (as well as the rest of the article) ….

— Louis Sheehan
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Ganzfeld Effect Notes

On episode 268 of Howard Hughes’ “The Unexplained he interviewed Dr. Caroline Watt of Edinburgh University.  At about minute 13:30 (and again at 24:35) on my itunes version of the show.

she refers briefly to the ganzfeld effect.  It seems to have some different wrinkles in her hands. You might care to try to book her?
It isn’t a particular interest of mine, but I mention it in another wild stab at trying to be helpful.
Wikipedia on Caroline Watt: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Watt
posted by Louis Sheehan
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Questions Cloud Risky Raid That Killed an American Commando in Yemen By ERIC SCHMITT and DAVID E. SANGER FEB. 1, 2017



Posted but not written by Louis Sheehan



Officials, including Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, left Washington for Dover Air Force Base on Wednesday to meet the family of an American commando killed in Yemen. CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Just five days after taking office, over dinner with his newly installed secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Trump was presented with the first of what will be many life-or-death decisions: whether to approve a commando raid that risked the lives of American Special Operations Forces and foreign civilians alike.

President Barack Obama’s national security aides had reviewed the plans for a risky attack on a small, heavily guarded brick home of a senior Qaeda collaborator in a mountainous village in a remote part of central Yemen. But Mr. Obama did not act because the Pentagon wanted to launch the attack on a moonless night and the next one would come after his term had ended.

With two of his closest advisers, Jared Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, joining the dinner at the White House along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Mr. Trump approved sending in the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, hoping the raid early last Sunday would scoop up cellphones and laptop computers that could yield valuable clues about one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. Vice President Mike Pence and Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, also attended the dinner.

As it turned out, almost everything that could go wrong did. And on Wednesday, Mr. Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to be present as the body of the American commando killed in the raid was returned home, the first military death on the new commander in chief’s watch.

The death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens came after a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three troops wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed. There are allegations — which the Pentagon acknowledged on Wednesday night are most likely correct — that the mission also killed several civilians, including some children. The dead include, by the account of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda leader who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011.

Mr. Trump on Sunday hailed his first counterterrorism operation as a success, claiming the commandos captured “important intelligence that will assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world.” A statement by the military’s Central Command on Wednesday night that acknowledged the likelihood of civilian casualties also said the captured materials had provided some initial information helpful to counterterrorism analysts. The statement did not provide details.

But the mission’s casualties raise doubts about the months of detailed planning that went into the operation during the Obama administration and whether the right questions were raised before its approval. Typically, the president’s advisers lay out the risks, but Pentagon officials declined to characterize any discussions with Mr. Trump.

A senior administration official said on Wednesday night that the Defense Department had conducted a legal review of the operation that Mr. Trump approved and that a Pentagon lawyer had signed off on it.

Mr. Trump’s new national security team, led by Mr. Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired general with experience in counterterrorism raids, has said that it wants to speed the decision-making when it comes to such strikes, delegating more power to lower-level officials so that the military may respond more quickly. Indeed, the Pentagon is drafting such plans to accelerate activities against the Qaeda branch in Yemen.

But doing that also raises the possibility of error. “You can mitigate risk in missions like this, but you can’t mitigate risk down to zero,” said William Wechsler, a former top counterterrorism official at the Pentagon.

In this case, the assault force of several dozen commandos, which also included elite troops from the United Arab Emirates, was jinxed from the start. Qaeda fighters were somehow tipped off to the troops’ stealthy advance toward the village — perhaps by the whine of American drones that local tribal leaders said were flying lower and louder than usual.

With the crucial element of surprise lost, the Americans and Emiratis found themselves in a gun battle with Qaeda fighters who took up positions in other houses, a clinic, a school and a mosque, often using women and children as cover, American military officials said in interviews this week.

The commandos were taken aback when some of the women grabbed weapons and started firing, multiplying the militant firepower beyond what the troops had expected. The Americans called in airstrikes from helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft that helped kill some 14 Qaeda fighters, but not before an MV-22 Osprey aircraft involved in the operation experienced a “hard landing,” injuring three more American personnel on board. The Osprey, which the Marine Corps said cost $75 million, was badly damaged and had to be destroyed.

The raid, some details of which were first reported by The Washington Post, also destroyed much of the village of Yakla, and left senior Yemeni government officials seething. Yemen’s foreign minister, Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi, condemned the raid on Monday in a post on his official Twitter account as “extrajudicial killings.”

Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni fellow for Reprieve, a London-based human rights group, said he spoke by phone to a tribal sheikh in the village, Jabbr Abu Soraima, who told him: “People were afraid to leave their houses because the sound of choppers and drones were all over the sky. Everyone feared of being hit by the drones or shot by the soldiers on the ground.”

After initially denying there were any civilian casualties, Pentagon officials backtracked somewhat on Sunday after reports from the Yemeni authorities begin trickling in and grisly photographs of bloody children purportedly killed in the attack appeared on social media sites affiliated with Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen.

Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday that some of the women were combatants.

The operation was the first known American-led ground mission in Yemen since December 2014, when members of SEAL Team 6 stormed a village in southern Yemen in an effort to free an American photojournalist held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the raid ended with the kidnappers killing the journalist and a South African held with him.

That mission and the raid over the weekend revealed the shortcomings of secretive military operations in Yemen. The United States was forced to withdraw the last 125 Special Operations advisers from the country in March 2015 after Houthi rebels ousted the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Americans’ main counterterrorism partner.

The loss of Yemen as a base for American counterterrorism training, advising and intelligence-gathering was a significant blow to blunting the advance of Al Qaeda’s branch in the country and keeping tabs on their plots. The Pentagon has tried to start rebuilding its counterterrorism operations in Yemen, however; last year, American Special Operations forces helped Emirati troops evict Qaeda fighters from the port city of Mukalla.

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Posted but not written by Lou Sheehan



With the advent in Washington of an Administration with radical new priorities regarding Israel, and a disdain for Palestinian rights, Palestine is facing a daunting reality. In recent years, ascendant political currents in America and Israel had already begun to merge. We have now reached the point where envoys from one country to the other could almost switch places: the Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who grew up in Florida, could just as easily be the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, while Donald Trump’s Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, who has intimate ties to the Israeli settler movement, would make a fine Ambassador in Washington for the pro-settler government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Whereas America’s solicitous concern for Israel and its disregard for the Palestinians were once cloaked behind evenhandedness, under Trump we are set to see a more complete convergence between America’s political leadership and the most chauvinistic, religious, and right-wing government in Israel’s history. It will be this Israeli government and its new American soul mates who will call the tune in Palestine for at least the next several years.

The entire Palestinian political and economic structure set up since the 1993 Oslo Accords was predicated on the idea that it would evolve into a genuine, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state. That illusion, held by many Palestinians, has by now been dispelled. This flawed structure was also based on the premise, a naïve one at best, that the United States had a national interest in moderating Israeli behavior and achieving a modicum of justice in the Middle East. That premise, too, has been demolished.

For Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority, set up by the Oslo Accords ostensibly as part of an interim arrangement for Palestinian self-rule, will continue to do more harm than good. Few people understand that the colonization of Palestinian land and the nearly fifty-year-old Israeli military occupation—among the longest in modern history—would not be sustainable today without American and Israeli sponsorship of the P.A. and its U.S.-trained security forces. The P.A.’s criminalization of any form of resistance to dispossession, discrimination, and Israel’s permanent military control have made it, in effect, a tool of collaboration with the occupation. Even bloggers and peaceful demonstrators are subject to arrest and harassment by P.A. forces. The way this institution operates against its own people provides a preview of the future that both American and Israeli officials will now foresee for Palestinians in the occupied territories: a future that is constricted, controlled, and void of sovereignty and self-determination.

It is abundantly clear that the United States, in the age of Trump, and Israel, in the age of Netanyahu, will do nothing to change this picture. In this context, the Palestinians face stark choices. They can either submit to the dictates of the U.S. and Israel or they can fundamentally and urgently redefine their national movement, their objectives, and their modes of resistance to oppression. It is time for Palestinians to abandon the failed experiment of the P.A., and to abandon forms of violence that only harden the sway of the right wing over Israeli politics. It is time to mobilize the vast energies of the Palestinian diaspora and stop thinking of Palestine as just those fragments under Israeli occupation. And it is time to begin to imagine ways in which Palestinians and Israelis will finally be able to coexist in complete equality in the small country they will ultimately have to share, once it is free of the domination of one group over the other. These will be exceedingly hard tasks for the Palestinians, coming after they have suffered decades of war, dispossession, and occupation.

Despite all this, there are signs of hope, at least in the United States. The positions of both the Democratic and Republican Party establishments notwithstanding, American public opinion is shifting rapidly away from uncritical support for Israel. Americans are becoming increasingly sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian freedom. According to a poll released by the Brookings Institution in December, sixty per cent of Democrats, and forty-six per cent of all Americans, support sanctions or stronger action against Israel over its construction of illegal Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. A recently released Pew poll shows that, for the first time, the percentage of Democrats who are sympathetic to the Palestinians is almost equal to those who sympathize with Israel, while liberal Democrats are much more sympathetic to Palestinians (thirty-eight per cent) than they are to Israel (twenty-six per cent).

Over time, perhaps, these changes will filter up to politicians and policymakers in Washington. In the meantime, it is up to individuals of conscience, including those who are resisting the wave of racism and right-wing extremism to be expected in the Trump era, to exert pressure on their elected representatives to live up to professed ideals of freedom and equality, and to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and denial of Palestinian national and human rights.

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How an Unverified but Explosive Dossier Became a Crisis for Donald Trump


The building in London housing Orbis Business Intelligence, a commercial intelligence firm started by a former British intelligence officer who collected an opposition research dossier on President-elect Donald J. Trump. CreditYui Mok/Press Association, via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Seven months ago, a respected former British spy named Christopher Steele won a contract to build a file on Donald J. Trump’s ties to Russia. Last week, his lurid account — unsubstantiated accounts of frolics with prostitutes, real estate deals that were intended as bribes and coordination with Russian intelligence of the hacking of Democrats — was summarized for Mr. Trump in an appendix to a top-secret intelligence report.

The consequences have been incalculable and will play out long past Inauguration Day. Word of the summary, which was also given to President Obama and to congressional leaders, leaked to CNN on Tuesday, and the rest of the media followed with sensational reports.

Mr. Trump denounced the unproven claims Wednesday as a fabrication, a Nazi-style slander concocted by “sick people.” It has further undermined, at least temporarily, his relationship with the intelligence agencies and cast a shadow over the new administration.

Parts of the story remain out of reach — most critically the basic question of how much, if anything, in the dossier is true. But it is possible to piece together a rough narrative of what led to the current crisis, including lingering questions about the ties binding Mr. Trump and his team to Russia. The episode also offers a glimpse of the hidden side of presidential campaigns, involving private sleuths-for-hire looking for the worst they can find about the next American leader.

Continue reading the main story

The story began in September 2015, when a wealthy Republican donor who strongly opposed Mr. Trump put up the money to hire a Washington research firm run by former journalists, Fusion GPS, to compile a dossier about the real estate magnate’s past scandals and weaknesses, according to a person familiar with the effort. The person described the opposition research work on condition of anonymity, citing the volatile nature of the story and the likelihood of future legal disputes. The identity of the donor who funded the effort is unclear.

Fusion GPS, headed by a former Wall Street Journal journalist known for his dogged reporting, Glenn Simpson, most often works for business clients. But in presidential elections, the firm is sometimes hired by candidates, party organizations or donors to do political “oppo” work — shorthand for opposition research — on the side.

It is routine work and ordinarily involves creating a big, searchable database of public information: past news reports, documents from lawsuits and other relevant data. For months, Fusion GPS gathered the documents and put together the files from Mr. Trump’s past in business and entertainment, a rich target.

After Mr. Trump emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee in the spring, the Republicans no longer wanted to finance the effort. But Democratic supporters of Hillary Clinton were very interested, and Fusion GPS kept doing the same deep dives into Mr. Trump’s record, but on behalf of new clients.

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In June, the tenor of the effort suddenly changed. The Washington Post reportedthat the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, apparently by Russian government agents, and a mysterious figure calling himself “Guccifer 2.0”began to publish the stolen documents online.

Mr. Simpson hired Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence officer with whom he had worked before. Mr. Steele, in his early 50s, had served undercover in Moscow in the early 1990s and later was the top expert on Russia at the London headquarters of Britain’s spy service, MI6. When he stepped down in 2009, he started his own commercial intelligence firm, Orbis Business Intelligence.

The former journalist and the former spy, according to people who know them, had a similar dark view of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, a former K.G.B. officer, and the varied tactics he and his intelligence operatives used to smear, blackmail or bribe their targets.

As a former spy who had carried out espionage inside Russia, Mr. Steele was in no position to travel to Moscow to study Mr. Trump’s connections there. Instead, he hired native Russian speakers to call informants inside Russia and made surreptitious contact with his own connections in the country as well.

Mr. Steele wrote up his findings in a series of memos, each a few pages long, that he began to deliver to Fusion GPS in June and continued at least until December. By then, the election was over, and neither Mr. Steele nor Mr. Simpson had a client to pay them, but they did not stop what they believed to be very important work. (Mr. Simpson declined to comment for this article, and Mr. Steele did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)

The memos described two different Russian operations. The first was a yearslong effort to find a way to influence Mr. Trump, perhaps because he had contacts with Russian oligarchs whom Mr. Putin wanted to keep close track of. According to Mr. Steele’s memos, it used an array of familiar Russian tactics: the gathering of “kompromat,” compromising material such as alleged tapes of Mr. Trump with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel, and proposals for business deals attractive to Mr. Trump to win his allegiance.

The goal would probably never have been to make Mr. Trump a knowing agent of Russia, but to make him a source who might provide information to friendly Russian contacts. But if Mr. Putin and his agents wanted to entangle Mr. Trump using business deals, they did not do it very successfully — Mr. Trump has said he has no major properties inside Russia.

The second Russian operation described was recent: a series of contacts with Mr. Trump’s representatives during the campaign, in part to discuss the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta. According to Mr. Steele’s sources, it involved, among other things, a late-summer meeting in Prague between Michael Cohen, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, and Oleg Solodukhin, a Russian official who works for Rossotrudnichestvo, an organization that promotes Russia’s interests abroad.

By all accounts, Mr. Steele has an excellent reputation with American and British intelligence colleagues and had done work for the F.B.I. on the investigation of bribery at FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. Colleagues say he was acutely aware of the danger he and his associates were being fed Russian disinformation. Russian intelligence had mounted a complex hacking and leaking operation to damage Mrs. Clinton, after all, and a similar operation against Mr. Trump was an obvious possibility.

But much of what he was told, and passed on to Fusion GPS, was very difficult to check. And some of the claims that can be checked seem problematic. Mr. Cohen, for instance, said on Twitter on Tuesday night that he has never been in Prague; Mr. Solodukhin, his purported Russian contact, denied in a telephone interview that he had ever met Mr. Cohen or anyone associated with Mr. Trump. The president-elect on Wednesday cited news reports that a different Michael Cohen with no Trump ties may have visited Prague and that the two Cohens might have been mixed up in Mr. Steele’s reports.

But word of a dossier had begun to spread through political circles. Rick Wilson, a Republican political operative who was working for a “super PAC” supporting Marco Rubio, said he heard about it in July, when an investigative reporter for a major news network called him to ask what he knew. Other campaigns and super PACs were also developing more limited opposition research into Mr. Trump’s Russia ties.

By early fall, some of Mr. Steele’s memos had been given to the F.B.I. and to journalists. An MI6 official, whose job does not permit him to be quoted by name, said that in late summer or early fall, Mr. Steele also passed the reports he had prepared on Mr. Trump and Russia to British intelligence. Mr. Steele was concerned about what he was hearing about Mr. Trump, and he thought that the information should not be solely in the hands of people looking to win a political contest.

After the election, the memos, still being supplemented by his inquiries, became one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets, as reporters scrambled to try to confirm or disprove their contents.

Word also reached Capitol Hill. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, heard about the dossier and obtained a copy in December from David J. Kramer, a former top State Department official who works for the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. Mr. McCain passed the information to James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director.

Remarkably for Washington, many reporters for competing news organizations had the salacious and damning memos, but they did not leak, because their contents could not be confirmed. That changed only this week, after the heads of the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency added a summary of the memos, along with information gathered form other intelligence sources, to their report on the Russian cyberattack on the election.

Now, after the most contentious of elections, Americans are divided and confused about what to believe about the incoming president. And there is no prospect soon for full clarity on the veracity of the claims made against him.

“It is a remarkable moment in history,” said Mr. Wilson, the Florida political operative. “What world did I wake up in?”

Posted but not written by Lou Sheehan

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January 1, 1925: The Day We Discovered the Universe

January 1, 1925: The Day We Discovered the Universe

By Corey S. Powell | January 2, 2017 11:09 am

Andromeda nebula, photographed at the Yerkes Observatory circa 1900. To modern eyes, this is clearly a galaxy. At the time, though, it was described as "a mass of glowing gas." (From the book Astronomy of To-Day)

What’s in a date? Strictly speaking, New Year’s Day is just an arbitrary flip of the calendar, but it can also be a cathartic time of reflection and renewal. So it is with one of the most extraordinary dates in the history of science, January 1, 1925. You could describe it as a day when nothing remarkable happened, just the routine reading of a paper at a scientific conference. Or you could recognize it as the birthday of modern cosmology–the moment when humankind discovered the universe as it truly is.

Until then, astronomers had a myopic and blinkered view of reality. As happens so often to even the most brilliant minds, they could see great things but they could not comprehend what they were looking at. The crucial piece of evidence was starting them right in the face. All across the sky, observers had documented intriguing spiral nebulae, swirls of light that resembled ghostly pinwheels in space. The most famous one, the Andromeda nebula, was so prominent that it was easily visible to the naked eye on a dark night. The significance of those ubiquitous objects was a mystery, however.

Some researchers speculated that the spiral nebulae were huge and distant systems of stars, “island universes” comparable to our Milky Way galaxy. But many others were equally convinced that the spirals were small, nearby clouds of gas. In this view, other galaxies–if they existed–were far out of sight, blue whales lurking in the far depths of the cosmos. Or perhaps there were no other galaxies at all, and our Milky Way was all there was: a single system that defined the entire universe. The dispute between the two sides was so intense that it prompted a famous 1920 Great Debate…which ended with an unsatisfying draw.

The correct picture of our place in the universe arrived just a few years later through the work of one of the most famous names in astronomy: Edwin Powell Hubble (no relation!). Starting in 1919, Hubble had established himself as one of the most patient and meticulous observers at Mount Wilson Observatory in California.  Mt Wilson, in turn, had just established itself as the premier outpost for astronomical research, home of the just-completed 100-inch Hooker Telescope—then the biggest in the world. It was the perfect combination of the right observer in the right place at the right time.

Hubble also benefited greatly from earlier research by Vesto M. Slipher of Lowell Observatory, one of the unsung heroes of modern cosmology. Slipher had found that many of the spiral nebulae were moving at enormous velocities, far faster than those of any known stars, and that the spirals were mostly traveling away from us. To Slipher, those peculiar velocities provided convincing evidence that they must be independent systems, driven by unknown mechanisms at work far outside our Milky Way. But Slipher lacked the necessary resources to prove his interpretation. What he needed was a giant telescope like the one Hubble was piloting on Mt Wilson. This is where our story kicks into high gear.

Edwin Hubble at the controls of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson, circa 1922. (Credit: Huntington Library)

Always cautious when it came to theory and interpretation, Hubble focused his scientific attention on the spiral nebulae without overtly endorsing the “island universe” interpretation. He preferred to wait until he could be the one to step forward with definitive proof–or disproof, if that’s where the evidence pointed.

In 1922, another important piece of the puzzle fell into place. That year, Swedish astronomer Knut Lundmark observed what he believed were individual stars in the arms of the spiral nebula M33. Shortly after, John Duncan at Mount Wilson spotted dots of light that grew fainter and brighter in the same nebula. Could these be variable stars, similar to ones in the Milky Way but far dimmer owing to their enormous distance?

Sensing the answer was at hand, Hubble stepped up his efforts. He spent long nights on his favorite bentwood chair, guiding the movements of the riveted-steel mount of the Hooker telescope to cancel out Earth’s rotation. The effort paid off with highly detailed, long-exposure images of the Andromeda nebula. The mottled light of the nebula began to resolve itself into a multitude of luminous points, looking not like a smear of gas but like a vast hive of stars.

Clinching proof came in October of 1923, when Hubble spied the telltale flicker of a lone Cepheid variable star in one of Andromeda’s arms. This type of star grows brighter and dimmer in a regular and predictable way, with its intrinsic luminosity directly related to its period of variation. Simply by timing the 31-day cycle of this star as it slowly flickered, Hubble could deduce its distance. His estimate was 930,000 light years–less than half the modern estimate, but a shockingly large number at the time. That distance placed Andromeda, one of the brightest and presumably closest of the spiral nebulae, vastly outside the bounds of the Milky Way.

In principle, the Great Debate was settled then and there. Spiral nebulae were other galaxies, and our Milky Way was just one outpost within a staggeringly vast universe. And yet, still the story was far from over.

Ever cautious, Hubble pressed on for more and better evidence. By the following February, he had uncovered a possible second Cepheid in Andromeda, Cepheid variables in M33, and possibly in three other nebulae as well. Now that there could be no doubt, he wrote to his arch-rival Harlow Shapley—a leading proponent of the idea that the spiral nebula were small and nearby—to needle him with the news. “You will be interested to hear that I have found a Cepheid variable in the Andromeda Nebula,” the letter began.

Shapley needed to read no farther to understand the significance of Hubble’s words. “Here is the letter that destroyed my universe,” Shapley morosely told Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, then a doctoral candidate at Harvard, who was in his office when Hubble’s missive arrived. (Payne-Gaposchkin was another pivotal figure in modern astrophysics; by remarkable coincidence, herpioneering work on stellar spectra was completed on…January 1, 1925!)

Despite his obvious excitement at the Andromeda findings, Hubble was still reluctant to publish his results. For all his surface confidence, he was terribly concerned about making a grand pronouncement prematurely. Every time he walked down from the summit to attend the formal 5 P.M. dinners at the Monastery, Mt Wilson’s living quarters, Hubble had to face his astronomer brethren. Not all of them accepted the existence of other galaxies. Vain and intensely aware of his reputation, Hubble worried that he might end up looking the fool.

Adriaan van Maanen, a playful and well-liked Dutch astronomer at Mt Wilson, was in fact still vigorously arguing in the other direction. He was convinced that he had observed some of the spiral nebulae rotating, which was possible only if they were relatively small and nearby. Hubble found it unsettling to have a doubter in his own midst and held back until he was utterly sure of his results. (Van Maanen never figured out where he went wrong and refused to admit his mistake. Hubble finally reexamined his colleague’s photographic plates and declared that “the large rotations previously found arose from obscure systematic errors and did not indicate motion, either real or apparent, in the nebulae themselves.” In academic terms, it was a fiery rebuke.)

A single variable star, spotted by Edwin Hubble in the Andromeda nebula, completely changed our understanding of the scale of the cosmos. Discovery image at left; light curve of the star at right. (Credit: Carnegie Observatories)

Word of Hubble’s discovery inevitably leaked out to the media. As a result, the first public announcement of his astronomical breakthrough was a small story that ran in The New York Times on November 23, 1924. The single greatest cosmic discovery of the past three centuries therefore debuted as a buried news item!

Still Hubble balked at formal publication. The noted stellar astronomer Henry Norris Russell pressed him to present his findings to a Washington, D.C., meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which offered a $1,000 prize for best paper. When Hubble still didn’t submit anything, Russell snorted, “Well, he is an ass. With a perfectly good thousand dollars available, he refuses to take it.” Then Russell opened his mail to find that Hubble’s paper had just arrived.

Now and only now do we get to the stunning public reveal. On January 1, 1925, Hubble remained in splendid isolation at Mount Wilson while Russell read his revolutionary paper about the existence of other galaxies to an enthusiastic crowd. Hubble shared the best-paper prize. His paper ended the Great Debate, and did much more. It quickly increased the size of the known universe by a staggering factor of 100,000. It set the stage for the discovery of the expanding universe and, by extension, an initial Big Bang (already hinted at in the nebula velocities logged by Slipher). If any date can be said to be the birthday of modern cosmology, this is it.

Oddly enough, it was Shapley, not Hubble, who suggested that astronomers should adapt their nomenclature to the new reality and call the external star systems “galaxies.” Hubble still carried within him the conservative views of the world he overthrew. He was also naturally inclined to disagree with any idea that came from his rival, Shapley. So it happened that Edwin Hubble, the man who proved that the Milky Way is but one of innumerable galaxies, forever called the objects by the archaic name “extra-galactic nebulae.”

As Hubble watched the cyclical flaring and dimming of the Cepheids in Andromeda, he extended the reach of the human mind in yet another way. He erased the lingering concern that stars lying at great distances from us might behave differently from those in our immediate celestial neighborhood. Now that scientists could examine stars in other galaxies, they could establish the constancy of the universe over space and time as well.

By modern reckoning, the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light-years away, which means the light we see now started on its way earthward 2.5 million years ago. That is, we are seeing the stars in Andromeda that are not only 2.5 million light years away, but also living 2.5 million years in the past. Nevertheless, they look identical to nearby stars. As Edwin Hubble and other astronomers looked out to ever greater distances, they added more and more evidence for the principle of spatial and temporal uniformity. All across space and time, atoms seem to give off the same light and variable stars seem to follow the exact same physical laws.

This constancy of nature lent credibility to the search for a single set of overarching cosmic rules. Or, as Albert Einstein might have put it, it showed that God does not change the house rules of the cosmos. That was one hell of a birthday present for the human mind.

[Parts of this post are adapted from God in the Equation: How Einstein Transformed Religion by Corey S. Powell; Free Press, 2002]


Posted, but not written, by Louis Sheehan

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