Looking Up At The Stars
Last week the unexpected happened, and I found myself seconded to the science team in order to help out with the stargazing nights in the observatory. At first glance, this may seem a little peculiar, I’m a bookseller, not a scientist, but anyone who has studied literature knows that the stars are at the heart of our earliest origin stories. They fascinated humanity long before we had science, with every tribe, religion and region having their own myths and legends of how the stars came to be. The more you research, the more you realise that those cultures, separated by vast oceans and impassable mountains, share a common ground in how they tell the stories of the stars. Much like the ancient Greeks with their constellatory myth of Orion and Taurus, Native American tribes also identified those star clusters as a hunter and a beast, while there’s even a school of thought that the myth of the hunter and the auroch has been painted in the pattern of the night sky in the Lascaux caves.
There’s something inherently human in wanting to look up at the night and to believe that our history and our purpose in life is somehow written into the sky. Although astrology is no longer considered a science, in many ways it was this focus on fortune-telling in earlier periods that laid the blueprint for the future of scientific thought in physics and astronomy. Astrology was allowed by many civilizations because it posed science as an interpretation, rather than a repudiation, of God’s will. This had changed by the time of Galileo but by then science had transcended and the path from Renaissance to Enlightenment was well underway. Even the term ‘enlightenment’, defining the period of scientific discovery and exploration in the 18th century, harks back to the heavens and the idea of light pouring into humanity’s understanding of the world.
I see the night’s sky as the perfect culmination of science and storytelling; we unravel the heavens in order to make sense of the world and our place within it.
While I was being trained by the science team, I not only learned how to stare into Aldebaran, the red eye of the bull Taurus, and how to distinguish the hazy greenish gaze of Orion’s nebula but also how to translate the stories of the constellations. To be a student of literature is to know the stories of the stars; as from Chaucer to W.B Yeats; Shakespeare and T.S Eliot, authors have long used the heavens to predict human behaviour and to make prognostications about their characters. Comets sweep across the skies to predict triumph and downfall while a blood-red moon is the ultimate symbol of gothic horror. And while it may no longer be a true science to try and read the heavens to predict human events, there is a sort of dark irony that as climate change gathers pace in our modern lives, the very night sky itself is under threat. Out here in the Maldives was the first time that I had ever truly appreciated the brightness of the moon because it alone was allowed to light up the night. I had grown up under the hazy green glow, not of a nebula but a sports stadium and rarely if ever saw the stars. As I stared up, finally understanding what a smuggler’s moon was and the Victorian literary obsession with adventures and misdeeds happening by the light of the moon, I realized that perhaps the idea of our future being written into the heavens wasn’t that far-fetched. As we blot out our night skies through smog and light pollution, our human misdeeds on the environment block out our access to the stars. We can predict what will happen to us through the movement of the stars, and when we cut them out of our lives, we act as the fates, snipping the threads of our own existence ever shorter and shorter. But, all is not lost, and if we protect the natural world and allow the night’s sky to shine once again in our lives, then perhaps we can thwart this dark prediction of hubris and human downfall through greed.
Reading the Night’s Sky
The Human Cosmos by Jo Marchant
For most of human history, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Celestial cycles drove every aspect of our daily lives. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are – our religious beliefs, power structures, scientific advances and even our biology. But over the last few centuries we have separated ourselves from the universe that surrounds us. And that disconnect comes at a cost.
In The Human Cosmos Jo Marchant takes us on a tour through the history of humanity’s relationship with the heavens. We travel to the Hall of the Bulls in Lascaux and witness the winter solstice at a 5,000-year-old tomb at Newgrange. We visit Medieval monks grappling with the nature of time and Tahitian sailors navigating by the stars. We discover how light reveals the chemical composition of the sun, and we are with Einstein as he works out that space and time are one and the same. A four-billion-year-old meteor inspires a search for extraterrestrial life. And we discover why stargazing can be really, really good for us.
The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack
From one of the most dynamic rising stars in astrophysics, an eye-opening look at five ways the universe could end, and the mind-blowing lessons each scenario reveals about the most important ideas in cosmology.
We know the universe had a beginning. But what happens at the end of the story?
With lively wit and wry humour, astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us on a mind-bending tour through each of the cosmos' possible finales: the Big Crunch, Heat Death, Vacuum Decay, the Big Rip and the Bounce. Guiding us through major concepts in quantum mechanics, cosmology, string theory and much more, she describes how small tweaks to our incomplete understanding of reality can result in starkly different futures. Our universe could collapse in upon itself, or rip itself apart, or even - in the next five minutes - succumb to an inescapable expanding bubble of doom.
This captivating story of cosmic escapism examines a mesmerizing yet unfamiliar physics landscape while sharing the excitement a leading astrophysicist feels when thinking about the universe and our place in it. Amid stellar explosions and bouncing universes, Mack shows that even though we puny humans have no chance of changing how it all ends, we can at least begin to understand it.
Extraterrestrial by Avi Loeb
Harvard’s top astronomer takes us inside the mind-blowing story of the first interstellar visitor to our solar system.
In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed a strange object soaring through our inner solar system. Astrophysicist Avi Loeb conclusively showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and leaving no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization.
In Extraterrestrial, Loeb takes readers inside the thrilling story of the first interstellar visitor to be spotted in our solar system. He outlines his theory and its profound implications: for science, for religion, and for the future of our planet. A mind-bending journey through the furthest reaches of science, space-time, and the human imagination, Extraterrestrial challenges readers to aim for the stars-and to think critically about what’s out there, no matter how strange it seems.
A Scheme of Heaven by Alexander Boxer
Despite a resurgence in popularity, horoscopes are generally considered to be pseudoscience today - but they were once a cutting-edge scientific tool. In this ingenious work of history, data scientist Alexander Boxer examines a treasure trove of esoteric classical sources to expose the deep imaginative framework by which - for millennia - we made sense of our fates. Astrology, he argues, was the ancient world's most ambitious applied mathematics problem, a grand data-analysis enterprise sustained by some of history's most brilliant minds, from Ptolemy to al-Kindi to Kepler.
A Scheme of Heaven explores the wonderful subtleties of astrological ideas. Telling the stories of their inventors and most influential exponents, Boxer puts them through their paces using modern data sets - finding that the methods of today's scientists are often uncomfortably close to those of astrology's ancient sages.
Beneath the Night by Stuart Clark
From the Stone Age to the Space Age, Stuart Clark explores a fascination shared across the world, one that has unequivocally shaped us as civilisations and as individuals, housing our hopes and fears. In the stars, we can see our past – and ultimately, our fate.