By Dr. Joseph Chuman
This has been a hard year for all of us, considering the dark political realities that loom large and invade our mental space almost ceaselessly. In order to sustain my sanity, I seek refuge.
One place I turn to is a field of interest that captivated me when I was a child–astronomy. As a lonely kid, I enjoyed endless evening hours with my telescope behind the apartment house I lived in in Queens. Light pollution was less in those days and celestial objects shone more brightly.
What captivated me more than the unworldly beauty of the rings of Saturn (and they really do look unreal when seen through a telescope) or the contrasting colors of double stars too close together to be seen as separate objects by the unaided eye, was the unimaginable and awesome distances that comprise the cosmic realm. That awe remains with me still and supplies the refuge I seek.
On the wall of my home hangs a large framed poster. It is a photo of the planet Saturn taken just a few years ago by the Cassini spacecraft. It shows the planet Saturn and its rings, huge in the foreground, essentially eclipsing the sun which is behind it. And in the lower right-hand corner of the photo is a hazy blue dot. That’s us; that’s the planet earth 880 million miles away! (It is said that before the picture was taken NASA organized thousands of people to look up at Saturn and smile at the requisite moment, thus revealing a sense of humor in a staid government agency.)
This tiny blue dot
All activity, all the wars, triumphs, ideas, aspirations and dreams, all purposes high and low, all the heartbreak and folly human beings have ever engaged has taken place on this tiny blue dot floating in total isolation surrounded by an infinity of black space. How tiny; how alone; how fragile. How deflating of the human ego, yet paradoxically how spiritually uplifting that nature has given birth to creatures such as us who can perceive and reflect on the immensity and majesty of the cosmos.
The point, of course, is one of perspective. We live on a mote of dust in a universe of virtually unimaginable proportions in the brevity of the briefest nanosecond in an infinity of time.
We live in a human world, of course, where the affairs of people often loom very large. Who will win the next election? Which political ideology will prevail? Where will the next war break out? Are my taxes going up? Will my child do well on her next exam? What will I have for breakfast tomorrow? Important questions all, and they often consume us.
Our earthly condition
But the cosmic perspective, I believe, provides a chastening balm to the issues that inflate our egos and addle our brains. I think astronomy should be taught in the schools and taught early. We are not as big or as important as we too often think we are. Nor are those issues that preoccupy us. They will pass. Nature tells us that. It is important, and more in concert with reality, I believe, at times to step back, stop the mental action, take the longer view and try to see our earthly condition from the perspective of the Universe, infinite in time and space.
For those interested in gaining this perspective, I recommend a delightful book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I wish you a happy summer and happy summer reading.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.