Bumbler’s Guide to Astronomy 2

RULE 2: SPACE IS CONFUSINGLY BIG, AND REALISING THIS IS LIKELY TO CHANGE YOU.

I wouldn’t usually begin with an introduction. I am the kind of person who believes you should confidently integrate and flow your words such that they do not, necessarily, need subheadings. The thing is, gazing at space is weird, and makes you think and feel things that could be alien to you.

If you followed my first guide, you’ve got some binoculars, you’re all excited and you’re thinking “Karl Anthony, what do we do next!?” Well, this is why you need an introduction. Because what you do next, before even bringing those lenses to your eyes, is you prepare.

What you are about to see can, indeed should, change you. If it doesn’t, good for you, I can’t fault that. For everyone else, it’s okay. Let me talk you through it.

Your first look

I don’t know what level of astronerd you are, but if you’re reading and following this guide sincerely, you’re very inexperienced. That means you may have seen a relatively clear night sky and nothing else.

A clear night sky is a revelation. I’m blessed where I am, in a town on the South-East, with minimal light pollution and gorgeous celestial vistas only a ten minute walk away. Unforgettable perspective-changers are a ten-minute drive.

If you come from areas similar to me, your first look at the sky through binoculars will be a shock. If you come from a light-polluted inner city and have never seen a clear sky – book an appointment with a therapist, your first look through binoculars will change you forever.

I had a clear night the other night and decided to try and see some sights through my binoculars.

10x50s, the beginner ones I recommended last time, had the sky seem a dazzling array; it was Blackpool illuminations multiplied by the universe. I knew there was a lot I, unaided, couldn’t see, because of lights, interference etc. Human eyes, like their minds, are rubbish at long-distance foresight and the difference between my back yard – where I did my observations – and ten minutes up the road is stark enough to know there’s a lot I don’t see.

Here’s the thing, I could look at an isolated, bright star in the sky, pick it up in my binoculars and completely lose sight of what I was looking at. One star in an isolated blackness becomes merely a brighter speck in a polka dot sheet.

I want to be more funny and irreverent, like last time. But I can’t. Because once I switched over to my 15x70s I had one of those existential moments. I had a realisation that I am part of something massive and incomprehensible to the meagre human brain. We’re running a DOS based system in a Windows 10 universe.

The distance between me and what I was looking at is not worth considering. At motorway speeds it would probably take a person millions, if not billions of years to get there, and we’re not capable of conceiving of lengths of time or distance like that. I wasn’t even seeing that thing as it is now. Whatever stream of photons hit my eye left that land millions or billions of years ago.  If there was someone in a solar system around that distant star looking back they may be seeing Ediacaran Earth while I gazed at their distant evolutionary past.

It’s too big. But I’m a biologist. So after dropping my binoculars from this life-changing experience, a thought hit me like a truck hits a fox on the motorway. We’ve been to the Moon and we’ve dropped remote-controlled cars on Mars. We’ve got a probe in the process of leaving our Sun’s influence. We know there are big potatoes out there in the universe, and yet we’re still here on Earth arguing about small fries.

I’ll admit I’m a polemic political firebrand, but there’s a clarity and an objectivity you feel when you’ve gazed into the eyes of heaven itself. Our nonsense, what Steve down the road is up to, that silly rear-end car accident, who will win Strictly, Trump,  Brexit, the EU, Russia, the Middle-East, Israel-Palestine, China, Africa, the pollution in the oceans, the melting of our ice caps. I charge you, pull those 10x50s to your eyes. I won’t tell you forget it. Please, gaze upon that sky. You will understand that the dot-spotted void you once thought it was is actually a blinding blanket of possibility.

Our planet is precious. It is statistically likely that somewhere in that field of lights, that celestial show of incandescence, is another group of people looking back at us. Maybe they are lost, frightened, caught in the midst of a dilemma between exploring the stars and the possibilities beyond or closeting themselves up on their own hunk of rock and make-believing their own nonsense is in some way important. We should set an example. We should show them, one planet’s needs are not important. Once life reaches a certain point of intelligence, of perspective, it is duty-bound to protect its mother planet but also to  disseminate that same message throughout the cosmos. It is all very confusing and contradictory, but we are so precious because we mean so little out there. Everything we know, love and need is on a dust mote hurling through the endless everything.

When you gaze, unknowingly, through your binoculars, you’re not looking for a particular galaxy, a particular planet, a particular star, you’re just scanning a field of infinity, don’t just focus on what you see. Think. Feel. What do you think? How do you feel?

Somewhere in the 14 billion year long process of his universe existing, matter, for whatever reason, saw fit to amalgamate and conglomerate, it decided to come together – by accident – to form a molecule that decided to form more molecules like it that decided to engage in a competition to see who was fitter. That fitness found myriad ways of being; bigger, smaller, stronger, weaker, slower, faster – it was situational, but adaptation was slow. That molecule needed a new way, and it found one thing that seemed to work – Smarter. Smarter meant the cold could steal a coat to keep warm, the ill could be healed, the strong could defend the weak and, eventually, they could look upon all that had made them, they could gaze upon their constituent processes in the cosmos and figure them out. Smart meant the universe could, for the first time, consider itself through borrowed eyes. Most importantly, though, it could perspectivise. It could attempt to consider itself from its smallest to its largest.

It would, of course, be confused. The instinct of that part of the cosmos that was ”living” would think that keeping itself alive, advantaging itself, was the best thing it could do. In some ways it would be right, but that selfishness would also lead to conflict. Just as an infant finds it hard to detach from its mother, so would this organism find it hard to realise that its experience spreads beyond its family, its town, its county, its country, its planet. In many ways it failed to get past that.

 It wasn’t good at it, to start with, but it got better. It got better because it kept looking up.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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