Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile.
The moon, Venus and Jupiter in a 2009 conjunction above the European Southern Observatory's
The moon, Venus and Jupiter in a 2009 conjunction above the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile. Y. Beletsky/ESO
The idea that the world will end is as old as the idea of the world. In most cultures, the end of time will come and, when it does, it will come with the complete disruption of the celestial order. In a sense, the end of the world mirrors our own mortality. What differs from culture to culture is what happens after the end: either a new beginning or a new age of timelessness.
Apart from the celestial biblical eschatology of Revelation or the Book of Daniel, some readers may remember Vitalstatistix, the chieftain of the village where Asterix, the Gaul, lived, whose only fear was that the sky would fall on his head. To the Celts and their Druids, contrary to monotheistic cultures with a linear time, the end of a cycle marked the beginning of another. The notion of cyclic time, present also in Hindu mythology through Shiva's choreography, usually represents a sequence of worlds. There isn't really an end, but a sequence of existences.
That the approaching end is written in the skies seems to be universal: expect the worse when the regular order of the heavens is disrupted. No wonder comets were mostly seen as bad omens. If the skies are the realm of the gods, they are also their message board. Unusual sights — comets, meteor showers, a total eclipse of the sun, strange planetary alignments — were to be feared. "Repent or else!"
Case in point, the skies are absolutely stunning this month. The two most visible planets, Venus and Jupiter, are in conjunction (near each other) in the western sky after sunset. The moon will come by them again late march, amplifying the beauty. Meanwhile, in the eastern sky, Mars is in opposition (near opposition by now) with the sun, making it very bright and orange. Even elusive Mercury can be seen early on in the evening (about 45 minutes after sunset), and Saturn will show up later in the month. So, the five planets known to humanity all the way to 1781 are showing their faces this month. Had this been a couple of centuries ago, it would surely mean something awful was about to happen.
Fortunately, apart from stunning views, nothing else is to be feared. If anything, the sight of the sky this month should remind us of how small we are. At the same time, it should remind us of how big we are: through science, we made sense of so much about the heavens, decoding planetary motions, the orbits and compositions of comets, the clockwork timing of solar eclipses, the properties of the sun. In fact, don't forget to celebrate Sun-Earth day on March 19th, coincidentally my birthday. (And today, actually, is Einstein's birthday.)
Now, for the first time in history, we are looking at new worlds, far from us, revolving around other stars, each an open book, with its own properties and hidden promises.
Those who think that our scientific understanding of the world takes away its beauty (apologies to Keats), should think again. If anything, science does precisely the opposite. As it helps us see farther, it nurtures ever more vivid dreams of all that we still don't know.
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