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Why We (Should) All Love The Stars

Part of the <a href="">ALMA array</a> on the Chajnantor plateau of Chile points skyward to the Milky Way, our own galaxy. The <a href="">center of our galaxy</a> is visible as a yellowish bulge crossed by dark lanes, which are themselves huge clouds of interstellar dust.
José Francisco Salgado
Part of the ALMA array on the Chajnantor plateau of Chile points skyward to the Milky Way, our own galaxy. The center of our galaxy is visible as a yellowish bulge crossed by dark lanes, which are themselves huge clouds of interstellar dust.

Millions of people read their horoscopes every day. They hope to find some kind of answer in those lines, as if the cosmos and its alignments had something to say directly to each one of us. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, indeed, the cosmos spoke to us this way?

Funny to think that the same impulse is as old as civilization; we have been looking up at the skies for answers at least since the earliest agricultural gatherings along the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in the Middle East, probably before. The Babylonians had serious observational programs, mapping the motions of planets along the Zodiac — the belt about 8 degrees either side of the ecliptic divided in 12 constellations — with exquisite detail. For example, the Tablet of Ammisaduqa, dating from about the mid-seventeenth century BCE, recorded the risings and settings of Venus for a period of 21 years.

We have to wonder where this constant fascination with the skies comes from.

There is no question that in ancient times the skies were sacred. Religions across the world, various mythologies and folk tales attest to this in a rich variety of ways. To know the skies was to attempt to have some sort of control over the course of events, be they at the personal, national, or global level. To know the skies was to understand the language of the gods, to interpret whatever messages they would write for us down below using the celestial luminaries as their ink. The shaman, the priest, the holy man or woman were the interpreters, the decoders, the ones that could translate the will of the gods in ways that the rest of the people could understand.

Fast forward to the 17th century, as Galileo and Kepler were establishing the roots of modern science and astronomy. To them, the skies were still sacred, even if in different ways from their predecessors. Theirs was a Christian god, creator of the universe and everything in it. Galileo's feud with the Inquisition was not of the atheist versus the faithful variety, but one of power and control over the interpretation of the Scriptures. The urge to understand the skies, the motions of the planets and the nature of the stars only grew stronger as science evolved. And it hasn't abated since.

Even if the stars are way out there, distant and unreachable, we still feel and seek a deep connection with them. In the modern scientific attempt to study the skies, we identify the same longing for meaning that drove our ancestors to look up and worship the gods. Our amazing telescopes, such as the Very Large Telescope and the ALMA facility operated by the European Southern Observatory in Chile, or the cluster of amazing telescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, are testimonies to our modern urge to continue to decipher the heavens. We know the answers are there, waiting.

The circle closes when we realize that we ourselves are made of star stuff, that the atoms that make up our bodies and everything around us came from stars that died over five billion years ago. To know this, to know that we can trace our material origins to the cosmos, is to bridge our existence, our individual and collective history, to the universe at large. We have discovered that we are molecular machines made of stars that can ponder our origins and destiny.

That this is the worldview modern science brought about is nothing short of wonderful; and in doing so, it continues and gives meaning to our ancestors' urges to understand and decipher the skies: they were looking up to find their origin; we looked up and found it.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.