Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Setting A Course By the Stars

"Staring at the stars at night, isn't it an awesome sight? Heavens lights are looking down, tonight upon this sleepy town."
-Scott Kubala, "Sextant and Soliloquy"

An intimate knowledge of the sky helped maritime navigators throughout history. For example, Polynesian sailors, could accurately determine their position in the ocean using only the stars, allowing them to safely navigate between remote islands without getting lost while traveling across thousands of miles of open ocean in the South Pacific. Western sailors from Europe used the Sun and the Pole Star to estimate their latitude. and make a rough guess at their longitude.

In 1731, the sextant was invented, a device which can accurately measure the angular distance between heavenly bodies. With the sextant, latitude could be determined to within a nautical mile or two. Using this device, explorers could also finally calculate their longitude using the lunar-distance method, which required a book of astronomical tables, though this was a difficult process.

So, the first astronomers were farmers, sailors, and religious leaders. Not much later, astronomy became a pursuit to gather knowledge and understand the Universe, purely to satisfy human curiosity. Greek astronomers started this systematic investigation, which was picked up much later in Europe. 

The quest to quench the thirst of knowledge has proliferated now at such a rate that we've reached the point of technological development where astronomers have discovered a group of at least five planets – with hints of two more – circling around a star in an arrangement similar to our own solar system. Confirmation of the extra planets would make this the highest tally of alien worlds ever spotted around a single star.  The planets and their own sun-like star are about 127 light-years from Earth, astronomers with the European Southern Observatory said. It is one of just 15 planetary systems known to have more than three worlds.

If I ever lose my ability to have some kind of place to get a good view of the stars above, then I shall surely lose my bearings and focus in life.  The universe has proven above all to be a trusted roadmap, a compass true.  When I'm feeling emotionally blocked up, when I can't seem to move forward with my thoughts, a good walk under the night sky is always usually guaranteed to do the trick. 

Somehow, the lights in the night sky have always been a trusted friend and have been an inviting ear to my problems in life.  And by the end of that seemingly one-sided conversation, I feel as though somehow as though I've worked through all of those problems that have perplexed me, as if I've been through some kind of cosmic therapy.

So what is this connection that we have with the universe?  What is this brotherhood that humankind shares with the stars?  What sort of cosmic connection drives us forward to reach out into the vast unknown searching for meaning?  Perhaps it's something as simple as the primal bond that we have with all of creation, in that all of the elements of the universe are essentially the same.  And we look out there, and should, at least in a sense, be able to see inward.  I've always thought it was intruiging that the deep sea currents of the world's oceans seemed to be strangely reflective of the way blood circulates through the human body; as if we were designed from a common cosmic template.

But often, aside from these deep philosophical and scientific queries, it's simply enough to gaze into the vastness of the night sky as you appreciate the beauty of the vastness of the universe, and to stand in awe when it somehow manages to speak back to you.

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