MU geographer keeps 'cosmic conversation' going

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | 6:13 p.m. CDT; updated 3:31 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — So far this academic year, MU’s “Cosmic Conversations” lecture series has focused on topics such as the moon, the life and death of stars, and telescopes. But the series will take a broader turn Wednesday: to Earth’s cultural landscape.

Larry Brown, in a lecture titled “Cosmic Reflections on the Cultural Landscape,” will discuss the impact of the cosmos on religion. Brown, an MU instructor who studies human geography, said “the cultural landscape” covers the things humans do on earth’s surface to modify their natural environment, such as food production and housing design. In the geography of religion, people change the landscape in a variety of ways, such as by building places of worship and the way they dispose of the dead. Often, Brown said, ancient architecture takes cues from the stars, the sun and the moon.

If you go

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday Where: MU Physics Building, Room 126 What: “Cosmic Reflections on the Cultural Landscape” by Larry Brown, a part of the Cosmic Conversations lecture series. The Laws Observatory will be open for viewing after the lecture if weather permits. Cost: Free

“Most classic expressions of religion in the past are tightly interwoven with the way of daily life,” Brown said. “Therefore, what’s built on the landscape may tell their religious story, which in part may be told by the stars.”

Brown is seventh in the “Cosmic Conversations” lecture series, which was created in October by Angela Speck, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at MU. Speck was approached to start a lecture series to coincide with the openings of the Laws Observatory on Wednesdays from 8 to 10 p.m.

Last semester, she sent requests to various departments at MU for lecturers and Brown was one who volunteered. Upon further encouragement from her husband, who said Brown was “entertaining and fun to watch,” Speck scheduled Brown for a lecture. Speck’s husband had previously attended a conference where Brown was a scheduled speaker.

“I’m looking forward to the lecture because I think it’s going to be very interesting,” she said, “even though I’m not really sure what to expect.”

One example of the cosmos influencing religion is in the traditional practice in Christianity of burying dead with their feet facing the east. Brown said the practice is rooted in the belief that when resurrected, the deceased will be facing the rising sun.

Wednesday’s conversation will cover the “simple and mundane to classic ornate,” using further examples such as Mayan calendaring and Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat, located in Cambodia, was built to honor the Hindu god Vishnu in the early 12th century and is the largest religious structure on the planet.

Brown has yet to decide whether he will discuss how extraterrestrial phenomena is related to the cultural landscape.

“In a strange and funky way, that museum dedicated to the celestial phenomena of aliens in Roswell is related, too,” he said. “Not quite in the same category as building a pyramid to monitor when the equinox occurs, but it’s a part of that continuum of what we do.”

Future topics in the “Cosmic Conversations” series include nuclear processes in the cosmos on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb and night photography.

After the conversation, the telescope on the fifth floor of the Physics Building will be opened for night sky viewing if weather permits.

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