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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Blinded by Astrology?

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell.

— W. H. Auden

Of late, I have been having conversations with people and who are ardent proponents of Astrology, as well as with my own inner self that just doesn’t agree with this, and it is with a heavy heart that I conclude that humanity will always be split between believers and non-believers. Though it may seem plainly unreasonable to non-believers like me why there are people who live their lives aligned to their horoscopes and star charts, it is still a sad reality that there isn’t much we can do about it. Except that we can take to fighting this social evil in a case to case basis and only when we are ourselves affected by it.

But even then, you sit with someone who seriously follows astrology and you will realize how difficult it is to talk to them. The first point they make is, “I know it works because I have seen it work. And ever since XYZ happened, I am a hundred percent sure that it works and I will never dare to ignore astrological predictions anymore.”

Try and counter this with a rational argument citing examples of how terribly wrong these predictions can be at most times, and you are cut-off in between by something like, “I understand you may not want to believe it but I can tell you that it really does work. Now, of course I cannot explain how it works, but you must take my word for it, as also consider the testimonials of countless others whose lives have been positively affected by recognizing this science. It is an ancient “vidya” (Hindi for body of knowledge) and there are only a few real masters of this vidya while all others are lesser practitioners and that is why you find some predictions that may turn out to be incorrect.”

Now, this is obscene. Can you imagine a science teacher teaching like this in a science classroom:

“Now, when I say that the sum of all interior angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees, you must trust me on this and take my word for it. I have studied mathematics in college and am far more educated than you are so you must trust me. I agree that your other maths teacher gave you proof yesterday that sum of all angles is 160 degrees, but very few people have more knowledge on this subject and so you must trust me.”

What if, at the end of each year at college, instead of having exams to test students’ knowledge, we could simply read their horoscopes to know how much they would score in each subject and then grade them accordingly? Wouldn’t it save a lot of time, effort and money on part of both the teachers and the students?

What if schools decide that instead of asking students what streams (like engineering, law, medical science, business, etc.) they wanted to specialize in, they simply read the horoscopes of each one and allot subjects accordingly? “Greg’s horoscope says doctor, Henry’s says Lawer, Patrick’s says he’s gonna have a short life so let’s just expel him.” Wouldn’t that be brilliant?

Why do we vote for governments every few years when we could easily just publish the horoscopes of every man in the country and then pick the best of those for the top job? Why don’t we let horoscopes decide which players are going to excel today and pick only them in the team?

Why hire judges and lawyers in courtrooms when the outcome can even be decided by the local astrologer by reading the horoscopes of the  aggrieved parties?

Let me tell you the answer to all these WHYs and the answer is that we don’t know anything for sure. We don’t know what is going to happen and that is the way the world is. It is depressing that we do not have satisfying answers to all our problems, we want to define why somethings happen while others don’t so that we can bring some sort of order to our lives.

We have no command over our futures and nobody knows anything for sure but being human means dreaming, aspiring, working hard, fighting the odds and if we take these elements out of our lives, then being human means nothing different from being just another animal.

In my conversations with believers, my point is never to convince them this astrology business is a fraud and hopeless. I know people, including me, have fear of the unknown and who am I to deny someone their right to feel better even if it means a little bit of superstition? And I also know that rational arguments will rarely convert a staunch believer. But what I always do say is that “You can never know for sure” and so when it comes to decisions of life and death, of someone’s happiness, dreams, aspirations of people that we care about, let us not be so cruel as to flaunt our arrogance of “knowing for sure” and forcing them to confirm to what a piece of paper with some boxes and numbers drawn on it says about them.

Let us be superstitious, but let us also draw a line between what is harmless superstition and what is harmful with life-altering and devastating consequences.

Because, if it is indeed true that everything that happens and is going to happen in this world is already written in some star charts, then doesn’t it make life, effort, love, hate, ambition, success, dreams and all human experiences pointless? Isn’t it demeaning to be told that all your dreams and efforts mean nothing just because your horoscope said something will not happen? And if the horoscope does fail, you dismiss the failure as a lack in completeness of knowledge of such a complex “science”?

Doesn’t it diminish the essence of being human whereas?

What do you think?

“There are two ways to view the stars: as they really are; and as we might wish them to be.” – Carl Sagan

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