I think my fascination with space came, as a child, less from TV shows like Lost in Space (which as a six-year-old I adored but that, as my mom admonished regularly, was not as good as Star Trek, which in turn I was not old enough — or it was not on TV enough yet — for me to have seen), than from a book called The Southern Stars by Patrick Moore.
Curiously this book is missing from Astronomy Now‘s list of Sir Moore’s works, but I remember it well, and curiously enough it was published in Kent Town, in Adelaide, where I was born. I studied astronomy briefly at university but Queensland’s neon-coated tropical skies were basically hopeless for looking deep into space. But if you live down-under, and the night sky is clear, and you are far enough away from industrial society that the light pollution is minimal, and you choose to look up and look deeply, the southern stars are majestic to behold; a scattering of diamonds that can hold an intelligent gaze for a very long time.
It was not until I’d moved to Europe that I realised the poverty of the northern skies. The northern hemisphere has the misfortune to face away into the arse-end of the universe, whereas down-under we look deep through the Milky Way. As Douglas Adams (may he rest in peace) famously explained, the Earth is sited on one of the “unfashionable” outer spiral arms of the galaxy, so far out from the centre of the action that we get the most amazing view. I pity the fools who live closer to the black hole at the very heart of our galaxy, for their view of their own night skies must also be poorer than our own.
So tonight, if the skies are clear, pop outside long after the sun has set and look up. If you have an iThing and want to impress your friends, get one of the plethora of astronomy apps (I use ‘Distant Suns’) which take advantage of the GPS, clock, compass and accelerometer to show you, with labels and a vast sea of details, anything you want to know about the 300,000-plus visible stars, planets, and satellites you might see.
As any school kid knows, light travels at around 300 million metres per second, and even the closest stars are many ‘light years’ (the distance a particle of light will travel in a year through a vacuum) away. So this means that the light we see from the stars is at best four and at most many millions of years old. Looking into space is looking back into deep time.
Indeed there is so much to ponder about ourselves, our evolution and our destiny, triggered simply by looking up into the far depths of space and time. And the soundtrack? The Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, obviously.
*Dave Sag is a founder and director of Carbon Planet Limited and is an unrepentant optimist