I don’t profess to be an expert in astronomy. Indeed, last night was my first serious attempt at stargazing – or should I say planet gazing. My curiosity was piqued by the roll call of experts plonked on to TV sofas of every shape, size and colour – you see, the planets are aligned in such a way that five are visible all at once. And so, with my iPad at the ready, I ventured into that void I call my backyard and cast my gaze to the heavens to see what the fuss was about. And there they were: Jupiter and Venus side by side; Mars glimmering red, even to the naked eye. Unfortunately, I struck out with Mercury and Uranus, their trajectories taking them too close to the setting sun for a novice to pinpoint. Still, three out of five ain’t bad.
To see other planets through a pair of binoculars was a strangely satisfying experience. And it got me thinking. We humans are not quite as important as we like to believe. Beyond the outer limits of our atmosphere, we barely register on a universal scale. Yes, we’ve made it to the moon (presuming you don’t buy into the conspiracy theories), and sent probes into deep space – which is probably not all that deep when you think about it – but what do we truly know about the cosmos?
The answer: very little.
Apart from worrying when the next fried-out satellite is going to land on our heads, space is probably not top of most people’s agendas. And thanks to light pollution, getting a decent view of the stars is hard enough. It’s easy to see why science fiction’s golden age (it wasn’t that long ago we believed in little green men from Mars) spawned so many authors, their imaginations fuelled by glimpses of other worlds and galaxies far beyond our own. And it’s not just sci-fi writers who have been inspired by the night sky – poets, painters, songwriters and artists; the list is probably endless.
It is sad that our view is obscured by artificial light – a reminder of our inexorable advance over once wild lands. Satellite images highlight the extent of this urbanisation, man’s footprint stamped over the planet in brilliant white and orange. Seen this way from space, it truly is a small world.
There are groups out there whose aim it is to protect the remaining dark places on the globe. Let’s hope they succeed. We need to allow a little bit of darkness to creep back into our lives, let the heavens envelope us, feel a part of the universe, and revel in its greater mysteries.
Space is probably the last great wilderness – the grandest and most awe-inspiring – for in each one of those pin-pricks of light, millions or billions of years old, there may exist worlds like this one. Here’s hoping that by the time we are advanced enough to reach them we are more respectful towards nature than we are now.