Monday, November 28, 2011

Space: Outer and Inner (Part 1.5)

Image filched from The Old Farmer's Almanac

For the past two months I've been a resident and employee at a Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia. I affectionately refer to the place as "the farm" in conversation, but the place isn't a farm, and it's really not in the middle of nowhere. It's something like a commune with a business model: most of the residents/clients are recent college graduates, retired folks, or people experiencing a period of transition. This place gives them a setting in which they can live with other people in similar circumstances, participate in workshops, and figure out their next move. It is a religious place (and I am, of course, an atheist), but the Quakers are not what you'd expect from a Christian sect in the States. In all the weeks I've been here, nobody has ever once tried to talking to me about Jesus. Early on, a few people asked me if I was a Quaker, and did not pry any further when I answered in the negative. All I'm saying is that this godless blasphemer isn't making a peep of complaint about the company he's kept lately. (They're tolerant to the point where I'm a little tempted to show up at a morning worship meeting and shout out HAIL SATAN. They probably wouldn't be too happy about it, but there is actually a nonzero possibility that they would give me the chance to explain myself afterwards -- and I can make a pretty good case for Satan.)

But I digress!

One of the daily events at this place is a gathering called Epilogue. Like pretty much all of the religious stuff at this place, it's totally optional. But what it usually consists of is a short reading, song, or meditation session in order to close out the day. A couple of weeks ago, one of the folks in charge of scheduling daily and weekly events approached me and said she heard tell I was something of a stargazing buff.

"How would you like to lead an outdoor Epilogue one night?" she asked. "You could say a few words about the stars and point out some constellations for us."

I sure as hell wasn't about to say no.

It's probably going to happen sometime this week, whenever the skies clear up. I've drafted a text of what I'd like to say. It would be sloppy of me to read from a sheet of paper, so what I'm probably going to do is read it over a few (A FEW HUNDRED THOUSAND) times and reduce it to a series of points and subpoints in my memory. But here's hoping whatever comes out of my mouth goes something like....

Tonight it is my privilege to direct to your attention: eternity. Or, at least, the largest piece of it we are capable of observing directly under ordinary circumstances.

Today we have a pretty good idea (or at least some supremely educated guesses) about the nature of these distant points of light – what they're made of, how they work, how they're born, and what happens when they die. But it has only been in the last five hundred years of our species' 200,000-year history that we've made such a stupendous breakthrough. But even before humanity acquired the technological and intellectual tools to understand it, THIS [gesturing upwards] was there, tantalizing the imaginations of our ancestors.

Even without the aid of telescopes, sophisticated mathematics, or even a written language, our predecessors' powers of reason and observation were keen enough to notice a few important characteristics of the stars: namely, that their relative positions to each other in the sky remain fixed, and their movement across the celestial sphere corresponds with the solar cycles. Given the stars' usefulness as agricultural time-markers and navigational tools, our ancestors had a far more intimate relationship with the heavens than we do to today, despite their total lack of knowledge regarding the stars' physical properties.

What we're seeing now is a textbook picture of the autumn sky – a nice, fairly subtle, transitional scene, and the very setting where my own experience as a stargazer began. Looking to the west, you'll see triangle of summer stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair, of the constellations Lyra (the lyre), Cygnus (the swan), and Aquila (the eagle) sinking toward the horizon. Of these, Cygnus is the easiest to spot from here – simply direct your gaze this way, to the four stars that look like the top of a cross. Were there less light pollution, you might be able to see the Milky Way stretching from the northeast and cutting through the Triangle to the southwest – but to borrow a sentiment from a former Secretary of Defense, you go to stargaze with the sky you got.

[Note: if all goes according to plan, I will be pointing these out with a special green laser pen developed for just such an exercise.]

The fact that we still identify the stars by these groupings and these names is an intellectual relic of our ancestors. Presented with a span of objects that they could not approach, touch, or examine, our ancestors' imaginations compelled them to associate the stars with their mythological figures and cultural symbols. Dominating the sky at the moment is a patch of constellations representing the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. The W-shaped asterism right above us is Cassiopeia, the vain queen of Ethiopia who boasted that her beauty excelled that of Poseidon's sea nymphs. In the direction where the shape seems opening up is the constellation Cepheus, named for Cassiopeia’s complicit husband; and at Cassiopeia's turned “back” is her daughter Andromeda, whom she offered up as a sacrifice to quell Poseidon's wrath. Below Cassiopeia is the hero Perseus, the slayer of Medusa and forebear of a long line of Achaean kings; and between him and Andromeda you'll find a leg of Pegasus, the flying horse Perseus rode to rescue Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus – who is represented by his own constellation some ways to the south of Pegasus.

Below Perseus is the Auriga (the Charioteer), marked by the brilliant Capella – the uppermost point of the Winter Hexagon (or Winter Circle), the emblem of the rising winter sky. At the ring's center you'll find Betelgeuse, the second-brightest star of the hibernal hunter Orion.

I would also like to draw your attention to a visitor: the planet Jupiter, skirting the rim of the constellation Aries (the ram). We shall call him a visitor because, unlike the rest of what we’re seeing, he is not a permanent fixture of the sky. (Though of course, “permanence” is a term that speaks to the limitations of our temporal perspective. Had we a sufficiently long memory and broadness of vision, we would appreciate that virtually nothing in this existence is permanent – but I digress.)

Our word “planet” comes from the Greek term planetes aster, meaning “wandering star.” Unlike the “fixed” stars of the firmament, the planets move across the sky at their own paces, with an apparent erraticism that we've come to fully understand and accurately predict out only within the last few centuries, as our understanding of our place in the cosmos has transcended mythological models and guesstimates founded on inaccurate assumptions and scant data. Thanks to [name deleted] and her telescope, we can vouchsafe from Jupiter an example of our progressive knowledge.

What you’re seeing are the four Galilean Satellites, discovered by the great Galileo Galilei and named for four of Jove’s young human lovers: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Their discovery in 1610 did far more than afford another well-off white male the chance to name four little dots in the sky after his fancy; they demonstrated a principle. Here was evidence to support the then-controversial heliocentric model of the sun and planets: the fact that these objects orbited a body other than the Earth proved that our world is not the central fulcrum of all existence, as was previously assumed.

Galileo was a link in the recent chain of scientific enlightenment that began with Copernicus and Kepler, and continued on through Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Stephen Hawking, et cetera. Their work has furnished humanity with an exponentially more accurate conception its cosmic existence than it possessed at any other time in its history.

There is too little time, and my own knowledge is too limited to go into much detail beyond what you learned in science class. You already know we’re looking at a multitude of burning nuclear orbs flying through the void, each individually more massive and farther away than our terrestrial experience has equipped us to appreciate.

Even if we do not have the time or inclination to memorize all their names and educate ourselves about the physical processes that make them what they are, we should at the very least be mindful of them, and of the fact that our existence is by no means whatsoever separate from theirs.

I would imagine that most of us have come here in order to better understand who we are and what we should do with the time we’re afforded as conscious entities on this planet. You would not argue with me if I suggested that we cannot hope to attain a full understanding of a person – or of a people, a civilization, or a species – without taking into account the setting of his (or their) existence. (The world is, after all, much more than just a flat backdrop to human affairs.) I do not think it is a leap of logic to induce the equal importance of examining the cosmos in which the Earth bubbled up (whether by chance or grace of god) in our efforts to arrive at a substantial understanding of our world.

If we do not consider our situation from a cosmic standpoint – and all the implications this presents – any self-knowledge we profess to have will be tremendously incomplete.

Now is a fine time to start looking upwards and thinking it over – there are few better times for stargazing during the winter months, when the air is clear and the skies are dark. If you require an intellectual starting point in your meditations, I might advise Psalm 19: "The Heavens declare the glory of God." But bear in mind that this is only a springboard. Like any useful piece of Scripture, the simplicity of the phrasing belies a world of meaning that demands to be explored.


  1. holy crap, I know I've been out of the country and stuff, but a Quaker commune? A Quaker commune? That's AWESOME. How did you pull this off?

  2. A friend of mine from college works there as a cook, and told me back in August they had an opening -- and I haven't yet met an interviewer I couldn't charm my way past :D

    (Okay, there was one. But let's not talk about him.)