Star Stuff

Image by Norbert Pietsch from Pixabay

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Carl Sagan.

Humans have probably always liked to look up at the stars in awe – even those of us in modern generations who, for the first time in human history, live in urban centres that are so overcrowded with light pollution that our views of night-time skies are damaged and restricted.

Yet there seems to be something universal – maybe even primal – about our instinct to look upwards and gaze in wonder and appreciation of what we perceive to be scenic beauty.

I have come to wonder if there is some deep meaning behind our instinct to scan the skies. In recent years, Carl Sagan and J. Michael Straczynski have remarked that we are not only made of atoms that were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars, but we are star stuff with a sentient awareness of our actual existence within the cosmos.

Delenn: …I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.”
J. Michael Straczynski.

Our propensity for looking upward and asking questions about our place and purpose in the Universe has led to the birth of thousands of philosophies and religions. Perhaps one of the most universal manifestations of this practice – differing across cultures but seemingly ubiquitous around the globe – has been the quaint but mistaken tendency to look up and theorise that the stars and planets directly influence our daily lives. Just as they add visual grandeur to our lives, perhaps they also control our love lives, they give us good or bad luck, or they somehow influence the outcomes within our daily routines?

Astrology is a pseudoscience that has been thoroughly debunked. Dr Anthony Aveni explores twice when it was has been found wanting: the first time when Saint Augustine and early Christian leaders pointed out its inconsistencies with their religious doctrine, combined with the concurrent decline of ancient Greek and Latin learning upon which early astrology had been linked (1994, p. 170). Aveni then states that the second great debunking of astrology occurred more recently during the Enlightenment:

“Renaissance expressions of what the natural world was about echo from a tense time, when intellectuals who wanted to think and act more freely began to feel constrained by the demands of a deterministic universe… The freethinking humanists who began to shake the faith were partly responsible for astrology’s second death, for under the same roof, mathematically based astronomical theory and human practice began to seem ever more irreconcilable.” – Anthony Aveni, 1994, p. 171.

He notes how people began to approach astrology more rationally, for example asking how two different people who were born under the same astrological sign could nevertheless turn out so differently. The answer is a self-evident debunking of the whole pseudoscience.

Phil Plait summarises the human desire to find answers in astrology:

Despite the claims of its practitioners, astrology is not a science. But then what is it? It’s tempting to classify it as wilful fantasy, but there may be a more specific answer: magic.” (2002, p. 215)

Ultimately, astrology might be seen to be a wasteful distraction from finding real answers that underlie our tendency to ask big questions. Instead of seeking human answers from the stars in the sky, we should look for those same answers closer to home – in the star stuff that stares back at us when we look in the mirror.

See also:

Anthony Aveni, Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos, New York: Kodansha America, 1994, pp. 170 – 177.

Philip C. Plait Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing ‘Hoax’, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2002.

©2022 Geoff Allshorn

Brave New World?

Artist: Miriam English

“O brave new world
That has such people in’t!”
– Shakespeare, The Tempest.

What can we learn from our dreams? We can learn about our dreamers.

In 1898, HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, which was reportedly inspired by ‘British colonial treatment of Indigenous Tasmanians’. This allegorical exploration has been mirrored in other sci fi treatments of different peoples: Alien Nation looked at refugees; The Invaders reflected 1950s paranoia of communists; The X-Men mirrored the struggle of LGBT people to ‘come out’. Also, many sci fi movies have been presented as a western in space, where humans versus aliens explore the stereotypical racist meme of cowboys versus Indians.

In 1977, Princess Leia was a stereotype – a damsel in distress who needed rescuing. A generation later, she had morphed into a military General leading a rebellion. Leia did not evolve and mature over the years – but her storytellers and our society did. Our expectations and aspirations for women have evolved since the original Star Wars, although as a society, we still have a long way to go.

Doctor Who has recently been a woman, and next will be a Rwandan refugee émigré; other diverse characters can be found in modern Star Trek TV series. Elsewhere, the Serenity TV program married Chinese and western cultures as a foreshadowing of probably much to come in the decades ahead. The future is beckoning: infinite diversity?

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn

It’s Not Rocket Science

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. – Carl Sagan.

Crater 308 viewed from orbit (NASA Photo AS11-44-6611)

A generation ago, science was on the ascendancy and the USA landed men on the Moon; today a significant proportion of its population don’t believe that this even happened.

Welcome to the 21st century, where people have access to the largest repository of knowledge in history but lack the skills to rationally process this data into wisdom.

Pseudosciences and conspiracy theories flourish, often explained away through the misuse of scientific (or other plausible sounding) words. Thus we hear religious people describe god as ‘energy’, scientific laws are discounted as ‘only a theory’, astronomy is equated with astrology, and in the name of ‘balance’ everyone’s opinion is regarded as equal regardless of whether or not they are an informed world expert or an uninformed armchair critic. People talk about ‘creation science’, about planets or earthquakes or constellations as cosmic portents, and ‘life force’ can mean anything from ghosts to evolution or Star Wars. Karma as a superstitious concept is rationalised as being ’cause and effect’. The double-speak is ubiquitous: ‘natural’ things such as certain foods, unfluoridated water, alternative medicine or even diseases are asserted as being good by default; whereas ‘unnatural’ products such as certain other foods, vaccines, blood transfusions and homosexuality might be asserted as being bad. Facts that disagree with your ignorance or ideological prejudice are asserted to be ‘fake news’.

Launch of Apollo 11, 16 July 1969 (NASA Photo)

Perhaps this modern social phenomenon was foreshadowed when former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who helped to build the Saturn V rockets that took the US Apollo missions to the Moon, supported a creationist publication by writing a foreword in which he stated:

“For me the idea of a creation is inconceivable without God. One cannot be exposed to the law and order of the universe without concluding that there must be a divine intent behind it all.” – Wernher von Braun, p. xi.

While it may seem surprising that the world’s leading rocket scientist of the 20th century supported the idea of creator/creation, there can be no doubt that this watchmaker fallacy (or argument from design) is popular because it promotes superstition under the guise of science. For von Braun, it undoubtedly held an appeal because he himself was a designer.

In turn, we must be vigilant in demanding more rigorous scientific standards – but do so in ways that build up rather than tear down. Rather than mocking people for their mistaken beliefs, we should encourage them to use evidence to find wonder and awe within the real world. That’s part of what makes us gloriously sentient.

See also:

Wernher von Braun, ‘Foreword’, in Harold Hill, How Did It All Begin? From Goo to You by Way of the Zoo, New Jersey: Logos International Books, 1976.

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn