Gazing at the night sky to make sense of the countless blinking lights is clearly a universal hobby. All the ancient civilizations loved it: the geeky Greeks, the elegant Egyptians, even the mysterious Mayans. In between farming, warring, and the other simply joys of ancient civilization, these people found time, lots of it, to just look up and imagine all sorts of pictures that could be outlined by the random positions of the stars. (They found, among others, a crab, a cup, and a hunter along with his two dogs.)

Equipped with only their eyes and inquistive minds, they left us with all sorts of fascinating explanations for the persistent wonder of the night-time sky. We have stories of gods and goddesses, huge sky domes and celestial machinery that keep the sky moving through day and night.

The IYA 2009 logo
The International Year of Astronomy logo captures the wonder of stargazing

Today, sky-gazing is quite a bit more sophisticated, and a lot less speculative. In between posting to Instagram, flying spaceships, and the other bizarre joys of modern living, some people found time to build telescopes and huge radio antenna arrays to listen to signals from the farthest corners of the universe. (They found out about near-Earth asteroids, cosmic background radiation, and other frightening things.) Good old storytelling is now a no-no; these astronomers talk about the heavens in terms of light-years and electromagnetic waves and gravitational distortion of relativistic space-time.

Behind all these big projects of space telescopes and asteroid tracking, however, there lies the simple desire of getting answers to fundamental questions. The glamour of advanced science may have obscured it, but there’s no denying that all of astronomy is driven by the question, what’s out there?

Indeed, what is out there? Through patient experimentation and expensive instrumentation, we may have found out about quasars and neutron stars and black holes, but that only invites more questions. What do these heavenly bodies look like up close? What would it feel like out there, so unspeakably far away from our home? We can only dream of the answers.

Astronomy and cosmology are, to think about it, the scariest of all human endeavors. The threat of wars and economic crises pale in comparison to the dangers posed by unforeseen cosmic events. Few thoughts are as depressing as the idea that we are alone in the universe, that our home is but a tiny dot in a vast, cold space.

And yet, human as we are, we keep on dreaming of a future just like in the movies, when we will be able to take weekend breaks at Mars, or more serious soul-searching trips to the colonies at Alpha Centauri. Implausible as it is given what we know so far, we’d rather continue imagining a thriving, space-faring human civilization in the future, because the alternative is too sad to consider.

The possibilities can be very exciting, but more often than not they are frightening and overwhelming. And whenever it feels like that, maybe we can just sit back a little and try gazing at the sky not to try and comprehend it, but simply to appreciate the beauty of blinking lights.


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