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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

Astronomy and Melancholy

It is a mark of the melancholy mind not to be able to side neatly with dominant ideas of what is supposed to count. We know well enough what we’re meant to care about: our careers, the gossip around us, the opinions of the community, the latest stories in the news, our identities in the eyes of others, where the human race is headed in the next decade. We know the purported significance, but we may also – in a private part of our minds – feel at odds with our collective struggles and excitements, peering at them as though through dense glass, distanced from the passions held so dear by those around us. Without anything urgent or despairing being meant by this, we may not feel immensely bothered whether we live or die. 

In such moods, we may be advised to shake ourselves from our torpor and rejoin the clamour, the ecstasy and the panic. But another move might be to try to honour, and then deepen, the origins of our intuitions. We’re not merely cold or unfeeling. We’ve just ended up prone to seeing our species and our planet from a less human-centric perspective. Our eyes naturally settle not on what is directly in front of us but on how we might appear from six billion kilometres away. We’re thinking not of what tomorrow will bring but of how the present moment might seem in relation to the age of the earth.

The natural place to take such feelings of disengagement is not – as society sometimes tells us – a psychotherapist’s chair, but rather our planetariums and our departments of astronomy, our charts of the lunar surface and our galleries of images from the Voyager space probes. We may redeem our disconsolate intuitions with the help of the swirls of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, 236,000,000,000,000,000 kilometres from the sun or photographs of late afternoon on the Aeolis Palus plain of Mars. Astronomy is the true friend of the melancholy mind; NASA and ESA are its presiding deities. 

Through our immersion in space, our alienated perspectives can be confirmed and returned to us with dignity. We are allowed to anchor our disengagement with the human drama to the sides of passing meteorites or the moons of Jupiter. Our loneliness can find a true home on the vast silent dune fields of Sputnik Planitia on the southern hemisphere of Pluto. Some of our sense of loss can be absorbed by the asteroid-pockmarked surface of the moon. Our insignificance can be framed within the context of the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe. 

Pluto as viewed by the New Horizons spacecraft (July 2015)

Planetariums can seem as if they are trying to show us the stars in order to equip us with the knowledge required one day to become astronauts or physicists. But in truth, they offer us a means with which to diminish ourselves in our own eyes; they are a tool with which to take the sting out of our nagging sense of unimportance and our frustration at our modest achievements and sense of isolation. 

There can be good reasons for us to strive to live in the here and the now. But there may be yet more powerful reasons to dwell at least part of the day in the Proterozoic age of the earth 2.5 billion years ago when single-celled eukaryotes developed deep in the silence of giant undisturbed oceans. We don’t need to blame ourselves unduly when we feel at odds with our nagging fellow humans, we can establish imaginary companionship with some of the many wondrous forms in which life has manifested itself across planetary history, like the beguiling-looking psittacosaurus parrot lizard who lived over 100 million years ago or its near contemporary, the dog-sized tuft-tailed, two-legged Chaoyangsaurus.

The best consolation for our sadness at how little ever works out is to cheer ourselves with the thought that the average stable lifespan of a star is only 8 billion years and that our sun has already burnt for just under half of that. Soon enough, this middle-aged star’s increased brightness will cause our oceans to evaporate, then it will run out of hydrogen and become a giant red star, expanding as far as Mars and absorbing the whole of our planet, including the atoms of everyone and everything that is annoying us so much today.

We should drown our tears in the ocean of suffering to which every living thing is subject. We should align our feelings of purposelessness with detailed news of the five mass extinctions to have befallen the planet. It was never in any way personal. To every reversal, we should simply answer that there are 40 billion planetary systems at large in the universe. Before every anxiety-inducing date or speech, we should mutter to ourselves, like a talismanic prayer, that the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across and that the most distant known galaxy is GN-z11, 32 billion light years from the restaurant or conference centre. 

The melancholy mind suspects that everything may be a bit meaningless. Through astronomy, we can discover, in the most engaging and inadvertently life-affirming way possible, why and how it truly is exactly that.

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