Have you ever gone out at night and just looked up at the stars? This is probably one of my favorite things to do. Over the years, I have learned a lot from my fascination of space. I believe that learning about astronomy and astrophysics is something that could benefit all people.
I think the greatest lesson that space can teach us is perspective. When you look into space, you are not just looking at things that are far away — you are looking backwards in time. The stars we see are so far away that the light they emit takes years to get here. Realizing that the universe is so large is a humbling experience. Many of the issues that cause us so much stress, from this scale, are so meaningless and insignificant. Why even bother?
One of my favorite pieces of writing is the end of the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s book “The Pale Blue Dot.” In this piece, Sagan writes about a picture of Earth taken from the perspective of the Voyager 1 when it was about 6 billion kilometers away. From this point, Earth is about the size of a pixel — a small speck of blue in a vast sea of darkness. What Sagan says about Earth is beautiful.
He writes, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
This sums up why astronomy is so important. From the perspective of space, there are no borders. There is just Earth. And living on it, there’s us. Recognizing the true vastness of space is uncomfortable, but only by recognizing these facts can we truly appreciate what we have.
Think of the planets in our solar system. Taking the facts we know about them, comparing the hellish heat of Mercury and Venus, the barrenness of Mars and the crushing gravity and deadly atmospheres of the gas giants, we live in paradise. We are lucky to be here. By chance, a rock flying through space was able to have the perfect conditions to create the world and through billions of years of evolution, we arrived. I think we should do well by the planet that has given us so much.
The humility that arises from acknowledging our cosmic insignificance is beneficial in creating a kinder and connected global society. There is a byproduct of our ability to realize this. That is the impending existential terror that strikes. Ernest Becker puts it perfectly in his book “The Denial of Death.”
He says, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”
Our ability to look to the heavens and realize the infinite universe, in addition our finite lives, creates an anxiety that is tough to manage. How should we live with it? I’m not sure what the answer is here. But I want us all to talk about it. I believe that all people have these anxieties and we can help each other cope with them.
Learning about space can provide us with many things we need. We need humility. We need to drop our differences. We need to come together and work to better the lives we have. We need a more compassionate world. We need to “rage against the dying of the light.” One thing we can do to achieve these goals is step outside, look to the sky and think about our place among the stars.