Monday, December 21, 2009

Light pollution

When out observing at my sort-of dark location, I realized that when Scripture says that the heavens declare the glory of God, Scripture is not talking of the few pretty sparkles in a light-polluted modern city sky. The image presupposes a sky aglow with stars, with a glorious Milky Way stretching across it. My observing location is only an approximation to that, but is still pretty glorious. It's interesting how understanding certain texts requires that one know what certain created things look like, and first-person experience (or a really good simulation, like a good planetarium) is needed.

It was indeed a good night for naked-eye viewing. Two or three open clusters in Auriga were naked-eye, the Double Cluster was really obvious, and I might have even caught a glimpse of M 33 with averted vision, but I am not sure. I also got to try out my home-made travel telescope under decent skies. It nicely framed the M 31/M 32/M 110 galaxies in an about 1.7 degree field of view. And the Orion Nebula was really wonderfully detailed through my 13".


Brandon said...

This can be seen in a more homely way in dealing with Bible translation -- what do you do to convey to someone that Jesus is the Good Shepherd if (like the Inuit in the early days of evangelizing them) they had no clue what a sheep is? (Two alternatives developed -- one was just to transliterate 'sheep' from English, and hope that explanation beyond the text itself would suffice; the other was to translate 'Shepherd' as 'Dogkeeper', which is the closest approximation in traditional Inuit life.) How do you convey that Jesus is the Bread of Life if people, like certain Pacific islanders, didn't what bread was? (The second alternative was usually followed here -- there's a translation somewhere into some Pacific island language in which Jesus is called the Sweet Potato of Life.) But, of course, as you note we're really not that much different ourselves.

Convenor said...

It would be very kind of you if you could let your readers know about the December issue of CHRISTVS REGNAT, a journal of Catholic heritage from Ireland:

We'd also be delighted if you linked to/followed/blogrolled our blog:

Pray for me!

God bless you!

St. Conleth's Catholic Heritage Association

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think at some point you have to explain, in footnotes and instruction. Scripture, after all, was never meant for stand-alone teaching of the basics of Christianity. Faith comes through hearing.

Now, the relevant features of bread are pretty easy to explain to people of any culture. It is a staple, there is a great variety of shapes and textures (so we don't need to describe any particular one), it is (apart from yeast) a product of plants with the primary ingredient being wheat (one can then say a little about what wheat looks like), its intrinsic flavor is weak. If you are told these things, seeing and tasting bread doesn't really add much to one's understanding of the message.

And there is very important sacramental reason not to replace "Bread" with anything else, because it is only wheat bread that is to be used liturgically--thus says the Christian Tradition of the East and of the West. Likewise, the Jewish "hamotzi et-lekhem minhaarets" (who brings forth bread from the earth) blessing does not apply to sweet potatoes, regardless of the cultural context. Sweet potatoes get the "borei pri haadamah" (the creator of the fruit of the soil) blessing.

A minimal condition for a good translation is to preserve truth value. But it is false that Jesus took a sweet potato in his hands, while it is true that he took bread in his hands.

I don't know that simply seeing a sheep would help to understand the text, because the behavioral features of the sheep are important to the message. Translating as "Dogkeeper" is very unfortunate, because a dog is behaviorally and intellectually very different from a sheep. In fact, the Inuit were no worse off with respect to the sheep than contemporary American city folk, who may have seen a sheep while visiting a farm, but have no idea of sheep behavior--unless they've been told something about it, in which case they're in the same boat as the Inuit.

So if there is no word, you introduce a word, following the word-formation practices of the target language as best you can.

As a reader of science fiction, I can say that it is not at all difficult to get a feeling for what a critter one has never even seen a picture of is like behaviorally with a bit of explanation.

The sky case is a little different in that all of us who aren't visually impaired think we know what it is like, so we're not going to go looking for an explanation. Yet many of us have never seen the sky the way folks who lived before electric lighting did (here's a nice description of how the appearance of the sky changes as it gets darker and darker). Moreover, it is something where verbal explanation does not do justice to the phenomenon.

MG said...

These photographs ( of the night sky taken around Death Valley are, I have found, positively shocking to some people. They have a hard time believing that the night sky really looks like that. (I of course explain that it is a panorama shot, but it is still shocking.)

MG said...

Alexander R Pruss said...

Amazing picture. My first reaction was: it's got to be a timed exposure (otherwise, how would the ground show up so well, lit up only by starlight?) But while it could be timed, it can't be very long (probably not more than 20 seconds or so) since there are no star trails. Is it perhaps infrared? The colors remind me of infrared pictures I've seen--warm ground, cooler hills?