Why have the objects in the night sky so enthralled mankind? Over the centuries, the stuff of astronomy has provided everything from a means to navigate to the perfect romantic setting. Yet from the beginning of history, astronomy brought to our species a more important quality.
Plato states in Laws our philosophical beginning necessarily starts with “the kind of nature which is said to exist in the stars.” Indeed, the whole concept of observation came about when Aristotle attempted to explain his physics though what he saw in the heavens. Astronomy soon became a method of measuring not only time and distance, but also an approach for measuring our own position within the grand scheme.
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As our understanding of the universe expanded, man’s role within it diminished. We, as a species, have evolved from the egotistical idea the Earth represents the center of the entire universe to the notion even the Milky Way – the galaxy which contains our Sun – exists as simply an anonymous gathering of stars in a seemingly limitless universe.
Kant summarizes this when he claims astronomy “annihilates my importance as an animal creature, but elevates my worth as an intelligent creature.” In today’s easier-to-understand vernacular, Kant would say, “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. The bad news is: We are just a dot in the universe. The good news is: we are smart enough to know the bad news.”
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Still, when I gaze into the night sky, I am not burdened by the philosophical dialogue of the classics. I am comforted by the soft glow of the air blanketing me, the happy nearness of good friends and family and the peaceful tranquility of being a part – no matter how big or how small – of the same mechanism that powers the ancient stars above.