The Joys of Stargazing

Star Gazing

It was almost 4 AM on a chilly December night (or morning) in Delhi a few years back and I stood on the open terrace of my house gazing up at the night sky with my telescope. The sky was clear at last, there was no moon and so it was a good time to look for those otherwise hard-to-spot stars and star-clusters. To read the sky map, I had a torch double wrapped with red cellophane paper so as to prevent it from ruining my eyes’ acclimatization to the darkness.

Astronomy, or rather Amateur Astronomy, was a new hobby of mine, only a few months old. I had recently been reading as much as I could on the subject, joined the local Astronomy club, met and spoke to other passionate enthusiasts and even bought myself a 5-inch Newtonian reflector scope, which has become one of my most prized possessions. Reading on the subject and then spending time contemplating that knowledge gave me a new perspective.

Tonight, as I was gazing at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe beyond those skies, I started to get goosebumps. There are about a hundred billion stars in each of the hundred billion galaxies in our universe and I guess almost all of the stars will have their own solar systems – some big, some small. So that makes the number of planets in the universe so large that it is beyond comprehension of ordinary human brains. And yet, despite this vast number, we know of not a single other planet, except our own, to bear life.

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Of course, being the only known (to us) life bearing planet, makes our place quite special in the universe. And what makes us even more special is the fact that we are able to contemplate our existence and ask questions about our own origins and the origins of the universe and then seek answers to them using our own intelligence. We were formed out of the same starstuff that makes the rest of the Cosmos – the planets, stars, comets, asteroids as well as the galaxies billions of light years away from our own – and we have evolved to think and ask questions about ourselves.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Yet, on the other hand we also know that the reason why we haven’t been able to find life elsewhere in the universe is not because it does not exist, but because we are not intelligent enough and capable enough of finding out. The vastness of the universe trumps our little brains. The gigantic interstellar distances dwarf by trillions and trillions of times any distances we have seen on our earth or even in our solar system. The cosmic clock runs on a scale that trumps the longest lifetimes of humans and make us insignificant. And so, as the contemplation went on and on in my head, I lost myself into an even longer train of thoughts and it was as if I was slowly being removed from the earth. And finally, I truly realized that my relation to the universe was far greater than I had ever imagined before. I had become one with the Cosmos, not in the usual religious way, but in a much deeper and meaningful way. Because as Carl Sagan said it so beautifully:

“The Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

It is a unique perspective because it also makes me realize how precious our planet really is. We have our friends, family, idols and enemies all here on this planet. It is our home. Everybody we have ever known lives or lived here. Outside of it, there is just loneliness in the vast universe. That also makes everybody I know here that much more special. The apparent insignificance of my own existence is in itself the reason why I should continue to live because this is the only life I have and will ever have. And I am lucky to be here today. When I learn something about the universe, it is basically the universe learning about itself. When I look out at the Cosmos, the Cosmos looks back into me.

My thoughts are interrupted by a sudden strong cold breeze and I realize that I am now shivering. I hear a truck pass by somewhere in the distance but otherwise the night is very quiet. It is almost morning and the darkness is fading away. A bit like the darkness of my ignorance is fading away because of the knowledge of my own real self?

I am quite tired now so I gather my stuff and head back inside for bed, leaving my telescope behind as it continued to gaze endlessly at the cosmos beyond.

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Remembrance of things past

Sometimes, I look back into my life to see how much of it was real and how much was made up. It is an important question and applies to everyone who ever lived. Not that I am a liar, but I admit that sometimes our sheer vulnerabilities make us believe in something that isn’t true. Sometimes we know that, and sometimes we don’t.

Make up a lie, and believe in it with all your heart and repeat it for a really long time, and you will see it becomes the truth. Children do this all the time. They imagine a world and then believe in it such that it becomes the truth for them. When you were a kid, don’t you remember taking credit for jokes that someone else said, or a story that someone else told? And over the years, at some point, didn’t that joke or story become truly yours? Or what about believing someone else’s ideas as your own?

Likewise, even as adults we are not so far behind. Every journey into the past is complicated by delusions, false memories, false naming of real events. Words that were never said, fights that never really happened, love that was only in my mind, plans that were never made, feelings that were never felt, letters that were never written and friends that never were. But repeat them often enough, and they become real. Our memories also deceive us.

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.” ~ Mark Twain

Yes, every life has it. We all remember that which never happened. It is tough to admit it, but its true. Each life is like a book but with some untrue short stories. And many of these, we don’t even know are lies.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” ~ Marcel Proust

What can you not live without?

When one is faced with a dilemma, on choosing one of two possible and opposite options, how does one decide?

Do you look at what you can live with?

Or

Do you look at what you can’t live without?

These are two very different questions, though they may stir the same thoughts in the mind of the thinker.

For example, if you are a writer and not such a success at that, you would ask yourself what is more important:

Can you live with unsuccessful writing?

Or

Is it that you can’t live without writing at all?

Another example, you want to gain someone you love, but that will bring some issues along with them and so wouldn’t you ask yourselves:

Can you live with the person + issues?

Or

Is it that you can’t live without that person you love?

Which of these is more important? What you can live for or what you will die without?

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