By Brady Loomer, Science Faculty
Human beings, especially modern human beings, have become quite adept at becoming absorbed in their own daily lives, focusing on what is in front of them, the cell phone in their hand, the watch on their wrist, or the person they’re about to collide with on the sidewalk. There is nothing wrong with this, as much of our lives are driven by scheduling, emails, and calendars. If we chose to avoid these things, we would probably fall behind the curve and struggle to catch up with the rest of our quickly paced world. Despite the necessity for these functions, falling into this pace of life and becoming absorbed in these earth-bound things has one major consequence; we fail to realize our world around us. Luckily for modern human beings, we need not worry as much as there are no longer tigers or a hungry pack of wolves waiting for us around the next tree. But, what we do need to worry about is not what is around us on earth but what is above us. Ask yourself this easy question, “Where is the north star, Polaris?” or ask yourself “What phase is the moon currently in?” Again for modern human beings, we may say, “I dunno. Who cares?” Well, if our ancestors hadn’t looked up, they would have lacked a key navigating tool for seafaring or land navigation to be used for getting to and from the next village. If they hadn’t looked up, they would not have had a way to tell what season it was and if it was the appropriate time to plant new crops or harvest ones that had been growing already. Cave paintings in Lascaux, France (below) that are 15,000 yrs old depict ancient star charts, proving how important the stars were to the earliest of human beings. Without looking up, our world would not be where it is today.
This idea brings up a new point. It’s all well and good our ancestors looked up, but we don’t need that now. We have calendars to tell us when to harvest and GPS to guide us where to go. Unfortunately what this fails to see is that when we look at the stars, we are able to see our past, our present, and our future. The Perseid meteor shower that just occurred this past August is due to the tailings and leftover debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. Comets, giants balls of ice, rock, and other volatile material, are some of the most primitive and important objects flying through space, yet we know very little about them. Thanks to a collaborative twenty-one year effort between the European Space Agency and NASA, a spacecraft called Rosetta (below) will soon orbit and land on a comet for
the first time ever. This will yield much information on comets and their origins, and it may even be found that they contain necessary components for life. It is widely believed that life on Earth was brought by a comet, and if it was possible for earth, it could be possible for other planets throughout our universe. This of course begs the question, are we then truly alone?
So next time you’re walking down the street looking at your phone, the ground, or straight in front of you, remember that it is human nature to explore, to look at what is over the next hill, to seek the unknown. The study of our universe is not a mission in futility, something that the vastness of space will simply swallow whole and never give us any semblance of our place in the cosmos. Instead the time, effort, and energy that scientists and amatuer astronomers put into observing our skies provides a window into who we are. Become a part of that great adventure and look up. Remember, the future lies not in the steps before you but in the reaches of space above you.
Brady Loomer teaches chemistry and an elective on exploring the world around us and beyond. He is a passionate advocate of science and space education. He earned a BS in Chemical Engineering at Villanova University and got his Masters in Education from U-Mass Amherst.
Lascaux, France Cave Paintings–http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/871930.stm
Rosetta and Lander–http://sci.esa.int/rosetta/47366-fact-sheet/