Once upon a time, the sky was filled with stories.
They might have been tales of migrating bulls, horses and antelopes, translated from the constellations into paintings in prehistoric caves. Or sagas about the cycles of life and death, commemorated in stone structures oriented to mark the seasons. Or legends about the Widower Sun and the Sky Coyote that dictated the timing of rains, ripenings and rituals for California’s Chumash culture.
Such stories helped ancient peoples get a grip on the workings of the natural world — and set the celestial stage for millennia of scientific advances. But ironically, those advances may be leading to the extinction of the stories, as well as the fading of the night sky.
“We understand so many wonders about the cosmos, but at the same time … we’ve never been so disconnected from the cosmos,” says Jo Marchant, the author of a new book titled “The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars.”
In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Marchant and I delve into how our cosmic perspective has been simultaneously sharpened and dulled. Give a listen to the Q&A via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, Breaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.
As a species, Homo sapiens is exceptionally skilled at recognizing, replicating and creating patterns out of raw data. In her book, Marchant traces how ancient cultures connected the star patterns they saw in the sky with the natural cycles they had to deal with on Earth, and how those connections evolved in the ages that followed.
Our proclivity for finding patterns can sometimes get us into trouble, as illustrated by the attraction to the Face on Mars — or, more recently, QAnon conspiracy theories. But in the main, it’s a good thing: An argument could be made that the scientific method boils down to the ability to identify patterns that knit together data, and verify that those patterns apply to subsequent occurrences.
“I’m interested in how we built the scientific view, but I’m also interested in what have we lost,” Marchant said. “Does it matter that we no longer see the stars? We know from light pollution that most people in Europe and the U.S. can no longer see the Milky Way, for example. With artificial lighting and heating, and air travel, and our computers and phones, we’re living in a way that’s more disconnected from the cycles of the sun and moon than ever before.”
An overreliance on our devices, and on perspectives that are divorced from the natural world, could leave us unaware about emerging risks from climate change and viral spillovers. It could also rob us of the emotional response that pushed our ancestors toward discoveries: a sense of awe about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.
“One of the most common ways that scientists use to trigger awe in studies is to show people pictures or videos of the starry sky, and they’re finding that when people feel awe, it makes them more curious, more creative, less stressed, happier, even weeks later,” Marchant said.
Exercising your sense of awe can also have a beneficial social effect. “People make more ethical decisions,” Marchant said. “They’re more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money. They care more about the planet. They feel more connected to other people and the Earth as a whole.”
Can we heal our social and political divisions and unite to solve environmental challenges just by looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope? If only it were that easy. Marchant said we’re sorely lacking in the kinds of stories that knit together the human and the natural world.
“Now we have this view of a physical universe out there — the scientific universe, if you like, made of particles and forces, and we’re separate observers of that,” she said.
The closest things we have to the cosmic myths of ancient times are science-fiction tales such as George Lucas’ Star Wars saga or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. (The former took many of its themes from “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell’s distillation of mythic archetypes, while the latter was inspired by “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”)
Even those sagas are more about all-too-human affairs rather than our connections with the heavens. The long-ago, faraway galaxy of Star Wars, for example, primarily serves as a new stage for war-movie drama, just as Lucian’s 1,850-year-old sci-fi novel served to satirize his own society.
When I asked what kind of sci-fi came closest to capturing the cosmic connection Marchant was looking for, she pointed to “Avatar,” James Cameron’s 2009 movie about the clash between naturalistic aliens and machinery-mad humans. (Due to coronavirus-related delays, the sequels are now scheduled for release between 2022 and 2028.)
But even before “Avatar 5” rolls out, another type of cosmic connection could well inspire a fresh wave of awe and innovation. Within the next decade, actual men and women could well be walking on the surface of the moon, and perhaps even on Mars.
“I think it makes a difference, having people up in space rather than just machines,” Marchant said. “It’s kind of going back to that ancient view of the heavens, of seeing these characters and people in the stars, in the skies. … There’s also that perspective of looking back down on Earth, which has been so influential — that view of Earth from space.”
Astronauts have long talked about the Overview Effect, a deep sense of oneness with the Earth that arises when seeing its full disk from space, paired with a heightened desire to protect the planet from harm.
Could a widening of the Overview Effect restore humanity’s cosmic balance? If so, it’d be a sky story worth retelling for ages to come.
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
After our podcast Q&A, I asked Marchant if she had any recommendations for science fiction worth reading or watching. On the streaming-video front, she talked up “Devs,” an FX/Hulu series that capitalizes on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
“What would the consequences of that be if you could have a computer that could literally predict everything that you were going to do in the future?” she asked. “How would that affect our sense of who we are, and our responsibilities?”
On the book front, Marchant recommended Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight,” a Lovecraftian fantasy tale that’s set in an underwater realm. “It’s a great adventure story, but also she’s looking into themes of power and the divine, and what happens when the gods are taken away,” she said.
Marchant said her favorite part of “Deeplight” was Hardinge’s disclaimer: “The laws of physics were harmed during the making of this book. In fact, I tortured them into horrific new shapes whilst cackling.”
Based on Marchant’s recommendation, I’m designating “Deeplight” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to pop up at used-book stores or your local library. For a list of previous CLUB Club selections going back to 2002, check out last month’s lineup.
UNESCO made Francesco Bandarin’s photo of the prehistoric auroch painted in the Lascaux Cave available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license. We’ve added a rendering of the constellation Taurus.
Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.