“Better to be the Astronaut than the Astronomer…”
Everyone, I’m sure, would rather go to the stars than sit at home and study them, but few of us will ever get that chance (unless space tourism can get off the ground).
The BBC recently ran a series of three live shows, Stargazing LIVE, in which Dara O’Briain and Professor Brian Cox reported on a meteor shower and a partial solar eclipse. The sky may not have always been clear, but the enthusiasm that Professor Cox in particular possesses, certainly was. Along with the main factual content of the show, a few important philosophical points were dropped in:
“I know when I look through a telescope and you see it in real time, so you really see an image of Jupiter, or Saturn or the Andromeda galaxy, for me it’s different to seeing the image on a screen or a picture – there’s something about that connection. I think there’s something in really seeing those things with your own eyes, I think there’s something special about that…”
I understand and agree with what he means. With a small telescope you can see with your own eyes the largest planet in our solar system into which you could fit 1300 Earths, you can see its moons dancing in orbit and you can see its dynamic surface shifting with time.
There is an intimate and unique connection between the cosmos and the observer when heads are tilted back. No one would mention seeing a celebrity photographed in a magazine, but many text messages would be sent after passing someone famous in the street, or seeing them across a room. It makes them real. Photographs, of both celebrities and the night sky, are impersonal and available to everyone. The stars and planets invite you to see them in the flesh, as they really are.
To gaze upon another celestial body as if it’s just another object on the horizon is to see something greater than you can ever touch. Looking up, really looking up, is the most humbling of pursuits and it is the closest most of us will ever get to the heavens.
But you don’t need a telescope to feel connected…
The sky is a great leveller: it can also be humbling to think that every person you can think of, every king and every peasant, every hero and every villain, in fact, every life form that ever lived (as far as we know) has played out their lives under the same starry setting.
Recognising the constellations in the sky links you directly to everyone between the ancient Babylonians of the 12th Century B.C.E. and the present day. Many would have used the two thousand or so visible points of light to both find out where they are and when they are: Napoleon could point to the North Star just as a flock of migrating ducks can.
Of course you don’t need to know anything about them to enjoy their essential aesthetic, but the enjoyment of looking up is increased dramatically when you know what you’re looking at. Being able to tell your position, your direction, the season and the time just from a simple glance upwards not only saves on owning a Satnav, but it also demonstrates the clockwork precision of the solar system and physical universe.
The planets and stars have moved across the sky in the same way long before humanity rose, long before the Dinosaurs roamed and long before life first stirred from the oceans. We should each introduce ourselves to the neighbourhood: we should start looking up.