Have We Forgotten How To Look Up?

February 13, 2017

Some years ago, I visited a gallery that specialised in Inuit art, and the owner shared with me a small but powerful memory.

She had a close relationship with many of her artists, one of whom had shown up for a visit late on a winter’s night. Like many of us, the first thing he did was call home on his cellphone, to let his wife know he had arrived safely. Unlike most of us, especially on a frigid winter’s night, he did so out in the yard. He needed to see the sky so he could tell his wife what the stars looked like from Richmond in Virginia, while she scanned the sky at her end, in far Hudson Bay. In that way, he connected with her, both of them finding one another in the world through that useful intelligence of distant stars.

For most of human history, the artist’s behaviour would have seemed ordinary, even essential. It was unthinkable to ignore the stars. They were critical signposts, as prominent and useful as local hills, paths or wells. The gathering-up of stars into constellations imbued with mythological meaning allowed people to remember the sky; knowledge that might save their lives one night and guide them home. Lore of the sky bound communities together. On otherwise trackless seas and deserts, the familiar stars would also serve as a valued friend.

That friendship is now broken. Most of us don’t orient to our loved ones using the lights in the sky, nor do we spend our nights pondering what in the 1920s the poet Robinson Jeffers called that ‘useless intelligence of far stars’. Discoveries in astronomy and physics of the past century expanded the known universe by orders of magnitude in size and age, and turned cosmology into a true observational science. Those breakthroughs urged upon us an extraordinary stretch of the imagination, even as related technological advances detached nearly everyone from that larger world by making the stars safe to ignore.

Today, we are more disconnected from the stars than ever before. Even utilitarian attachments have fallen away, as the markers that form our sense of place in the wider world have shifted from the distant to the local. Navigators once used the stars as reference marks; the GPS units in modern cellphones refer instead to a constellation of artificial satellites in orbit around the Earth, synchronised to atomic clocks in ground-based laboratories. (There has been one intriguing reversal of the trend: anxiety about the wartime vulnerability of the GPS system recently prompted the US Naval Academy to reinstate the teaching of celestial navigation.

This particular unease is an apt metaphor for our general anxiety about losing our way when the lights go out, about where we stand in general relation to the world.)

We have lost a part of our selves in the process. Knowing where you are in the world is fundamental to knowing who you are. The development of our sense of spatial relationships – the ongoing discovery of where I am – is deeply entwined with memory formation. Neuroscience studies reveal that this is because forming the knowledge of place, and building that sense of our relation to other parts of the world, requires the brain to combine several different sense modalities.

Hence information must be stored and then retrieved from memory, sifted and examined, and the brain’s theory of where we are in the world constructed. Combine this with the fact that it is through memory that the I endures, that memories are most effectively formed when there is some emotional charge attached, and we can see why our sense of place can be so entangled with our sense of who we are, why to be at no place is akin to being no one.

In addition to the resurgent interest in navigating with the stars, many scientists, engineers and visionaries are now engaged in imagining ways that we might navigate to the stars, not only as a question of technological hurdles to be overcome, but also as a point of aspiration to keep humans aimed toward the unknown. I am drawn to Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience (1985), an edited anthology about our species’ possible out-migration toward the stars.

It is a curious mix of articles, careful scholarship leavened with wild ideas. The contributors argue that, rather than a wholesale assault on the outer solar system or a colossal Apollo-style long-jump to Alpha Centauri, a more likely model for some future wave of human expansion is a long, anarchic diffusion.

Over generations, the human home would expand to include the outer moons of the Solar System, the minor planets, the cometary debris of the Kuiper Belt, and then the distant Oort Cloud, whose outermost objects are likely to wander between star systems. The book’s vision of the future makes our move to the stars look a lot like the Polynesian Diaspora, which also took many generations and involved hopping from one solitary foothold to the next across miles of empty ocean.

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