Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

Josef Sadil: The Moon and the Planets

January 7, 2021

     I have been interested in astronomy for most of my life, going back to my childhood days in the primary school playground where my best friend and I devised adventures involving travel through space; we both hoped that we might one day be the first men on the moon… today I’m a retired teacher and when I last had news of my friend he was a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. I can remember the early probes to the Moon, Mars and Venus mentioned in this book, and the excitement with which we looked forward to the grainy monochrome photos in the newspapers.

I must have been ten or so when this book turned up as a Christmas present from my father. It’s a production from Czechoslovakia, translated into English. I was fascinated by the pictures, which in those remote days were painted artists’ impressions – in colour! – of scenes of what the planets might look like, and they set my childish imagination on fire. Now, more than half a century later we know so much more about the solar system, and of course astronauts have been to the moon; in this book the trip is merely ‘projected’ – as are flights to Mars in the 1980s! It really is a reflection of the excitement and intensity of space exploration in the 1960s, in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.

I went back to it, wondering whether the time had finally come to part with a relic. Clearly it’s a museum-piece: far more is known now, far more planetary satellites have been discovered, and the dearth of information about the outer gas giants Uranus and Neptune, or the (non)planet Pluto is rather a shock. What I got was a clear picture of how science progresses by advancing hypotheses and checking them out against increasing amounts of information and evidence as these are gathered. And even more, a renewal of my sense of awe and wonder at this aspect of our human search for knowledge about our universe, a search which is inevitably politically neutral, and which benefits and enriches us all. It’s this idea that, because it’s there we want to know about it, that renews my shrinking faith in the worth of our species…

On the meaning of it all…

November 21, 2020

Logically, life – being alive – cannot have a meaning or a purpose, because it is something that happens to us unrequested, as it were, through the volition (or not) of other people, with varying intentions or none. And then, here we are: get over it or get on with it, as they say. But, what to do with it remains a question that has vexed and perplexed minds over the ages. I’m no different.

Biologically, the purpose of life is to ensure that there is more life created; most of us ensure this happens, at which point our usefulness and purpose is over.

And we are here, and to make sense of it if we can. Many people pass through life, being and doing, without very much thought at all; it feel dismissive and patronising to observe that, and yet there are times when I briefly feel envious of them, until I recall Socrates’ point that the unexamined life is worthless. And I come back to what I feel is the most amazing part of me: my mind, my brain, my ability to perceive, reflect, think about myself and my time here. Whether it’s God-given or a product of millennia of evolution is neither here nor there, really: either way, it astonishes me.

I’ve always loved staring at the night sky and the stars and planets. I’m no astronomer: I can identify some of what I see up there. It’s the effect on my head of looking up, and realising the awesomeness of what is out there. I’ve read science fiction since I was a child, and this has enhanced my imagination: what might be out there, that we will never know about. How small we are, and our world. I’ve said before that the first moon landing was the most exciting day in my life; I’d love to live to see humans land on Mars; I’d love to be around when we make contact with an intelligence form another world. And that will never be – me being around, I mean.

So, there’s my infinitesimal space in the entire scheme of things, and my tiny allotted amount of time here: what to do with it all?

Much of that time fills itself with the mundanities of growing up, learning, living and working, raising a family, growing old; the time is used up without a lot of effort. Once I was young, had dreams, had fun; there was a lot of work and life and now I’m much older. Where did it all go?

But then there’s the reflection: what is the point? What makes it worthwhile? Back to meaning. Obviously, this is where deities and religions come in, as humans over the ages have striven to come to terms with the fact that it all does come to an end one day. We are the only species with a consciousness, an awareness of that, and for many of us, it drives our reflections and our desires. If we can believe – if we can have faith – then there is an anchor in the idea that there is something – maybe better – which comes after this life. It is harder if we cannot. We were once undistributed atoms in the cosmos and ultimately that is where we will return, but I have to say that so far I do not find that very much comfort.

To do something useful with our life may help; to live a good life, where we help our fellows, we serve our community, we help our world move gradually to ever better things. And yet, this is very vague. We do it, some may notice it, although that ought not to be our motivation, and then we are gone, with our efforts. One day, you will only be a story: make sure it is a good one, says the old Arabic proverb. I like this, it comforts me as much as anything else does or can: that people who remember me, for a generation or two, will have a good memory of me. I won’t know about it, and that will be that. I will have had my brief moment in the sun…

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