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Fiction Science Club

How the stars gave birth to the Human Cosmos

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.

Jo Marchant
Jo Marchant (Photo by P. Marchant)

“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 Human Cosmos
“The Human Cosmos,” published by Penguin Random House

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?”

Deeplight cover
“Deeplight,” published by Pan Macmillan

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.

Categories
Cosmic Books

Join the CLUB Club with Asimov’s Foundation books

Classic science-fiction tales from the likes of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick are in the midst of a revival, thanks to streaming-video series such as “War of the Worlds,” “Brave New World” and “Man in the High Castle.”

Now one of the sci-fi world’s best-known sagas, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, is being reimagined for an Apple TV+ series due to premiere in 2021.

The saga had its genesis almost eight decades ago, and the action is set more than 10,000 years in the future. But the themes of the work — centering on the decline and fall of a high-tech empire, Machiavellian machinations and unintended consequences — are, if anything, more relevant than ever in the here and now.

That’s what makes the Foundation series the perfect literary work for the revival of the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

The CLUB Club goes back to the foundation of Cosmic Log. In contrast to book clubs that promote pricey new publications, our aim is to highlight books with cosmic themes that should be available at used-book shops as well as local libraries.

Over the past 18 years, we’ve issued more than 60 CLUB Club selections — many of them suggested by Cosmic Log readers. And to celebrate the return of the CLUB Club, we’re giving you the full list at the end of this item.

We’re also presenting a book giveaway, so keep reading!

“Foundation” dates back to a series of short stories that were published in Astounding Magazine starting in 1942. In the 1950s, those stories were published as a book trilogy — and in the 1980s and 1990s, Asimov produced two sequels and two prequels.

The key concept is psychohistory, the idea that the mass behavior of billions of people can be predicted and shaped centuries in advance. The series’ foundational character, Hari Seldon, uses psychohistory to foresee the fall of a galactic empire. He also comes up with a plan to reduce the resulting dark age from 30,000 years to a mere millennium.

That idea may have seemed far-fetched in 1942. But in this age of micro-targeted messaging, demographic data analysis, disinformation campaigns and social-media groupthink, the concept is less weird and perhaps more worrisome.

The latter half of the Foundation Trilogy highlights another concept: the potential for one individual with a talent for inspiring loyalty and fear to throw the course of history on a different track. That concept is as relevant today as it was in the midst of the Second World War.

Asimov’s masterwork ended up having an influence on luminaries ranging from conservative politician Newt Gingrich to liberal economist Paul Krugman. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thought so much of the Foundation Trilogy that he agreed to tuck digitized copies of the books aboard the Tesla Roadster that was launched toward Mars on a Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. “They’re amazing,” he tweeted.

Who am I to argue with Elon Musk on this?

To celebrate the revival of the CLUB Club, as well as the centennial year of Asimov’s birth, let’s have a trivial giveaway. This giveaway is “trivial” not only because it involves a trivia question, but also because there’s a relatively trivial sum at stake.

The prize is a $4 Amazon e-gift card that can be put toward the purchase of the Foundation Trilogy — or, frankly, any other purchase. I’ll send that amount to the first person answering the quiz question correctly in a comment below, based on submitted time stamp.

Here’s the question:

The Foundation series features a fictional reference work that has also popped up in books written by Carl Sagan and Douglas Adams. What is the two-word name of that reference work?

Update: We have a winner! Congrats to Kathy Coyle… The answer is “Encyclopedia Galactica.”

In case you’ve already gotten all the way through the Foundation series, here are 66 other CLUB Club selections you can check out using your e-gift card or your library card:

  • “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell (June 2002 selection)
  • “Alice in Quantumland” by Robert Gilmore (July 2002)
  • “Mr. Tompkins” series by George Gamow (August 2002)
  • “Manifold: Time” by Stephen Baxter (September 2002)
  • “Dreamer” by Richard L. Miller (October 2002)
  • “Earth” by David Brin (November 2002)
  • “Roadside Picnic” by A. and B. Strugatsky (December 2002)
  • “Strange Matters” by Tom Siegfried (January 2003)
  • “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis (February 2003)
  • “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein (March 2003)
  • “The Copper Crown” by Patricia Kennealy (April 2003)
  • “Dragon’s Egg” by Robert L. Forward (May 2003)
  • “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene (June 2003)
  • “Contact” by Carl Sagan (July 2003)
  • “A Skywatcher’s Year” by Jeff Kanipe (August 2003)
  • Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (September 2003)
  • “Book of the New Sun” series by Gene Wolfe (September 2003)
  • “The Best of AIR” by Marc Abrahams (October 2003)
  • “Flare” by R. Zelazny and Thomas T. Thomas (November 2003)
  • “Mother of Storms” by John Barnes (November 2003)
  • “Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet” by Paul Raeburn (December 2003)
  • Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher (January 2004)
  • “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (February 2004)
  • “Bad Astronomy” by Phil Plait (March 2004)
  • “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles Lindbergh (April 2004)
  • “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown (May 2004)
  • “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein (June 2004)
  • “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by P.K. Dick (July 2004)
  • “Idlewild” by Nick Sagan (August 2004)
  • “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe (October 2004)
  • “Science and Theology” by J.C. Polkinghorne (November 2004)
  • “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter (December 2004)
  • “Krakatoa” by Simon Winchester (January 2005)
  • “Killing Star” by C. Pellegrino and G. Zebrowski (February 2005)
  • “The Forge of God” by Greg Bear (March 2005)
  • “Short History of Nearly Everything” by B. Bryson (April 2005)
  • “The Red One” by Jack London (May 2005)
  • “N.Y. Times Book of Science Questions and Answers” (June 2005)
  • “Heavy Weather” by Bruce Sterling and “Forty Signs of Rain” by Kim Stanley Robinson (August 2005)
  • “Chaos” by James Gleick (October 2005)
  • “A Brief (or Briefer) History of Time” by Stephen Hawking (and Leonard Mlodinow) (November 2005)
  • “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle (December 2005)
  • “1491” by Charles C. Mann (January 2006)
  • “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card (February 2006)
  • “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels (March 2006)
  • “Prey” by Michael Crichton (April 2006)
  • “Hellstrom’s Hive” by Frank Herbert (May 2006)
  • “Inferno” by Jerry Pournelle (August 2006)
  • “This Place Has No Atmosphere” by Paula Danziger and “Countdown for Cindy” by Eloise Engel (September 2006)
  • “Orbit” by John J. Nance (October 2006)
  • “Time and Again” by Jack Finney (November 2006)
  • “God in the Equation” by Corey Powell (December 2006)
  • “Conversations on Consciousness” by S. Blackmore (Jan. 2007)
  • “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” by Bouquet (April 2007)
  • “Supernova” by Roger Allen and Eric Kotani (May 2007)
  • “The Twilight of Briareus” by Richard Cowper (June 2007)
  • “The Traveler” by John Twelve Hawks (July 2007)
  • “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut (August 2007)
  • “Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott and “The Fourth Dimension” by Rudy Rucker (December 2007)
  • “The Year 1000” by D. Danziger and R. Lacey (November 2009)
  • “Creation” by Randal Keynes (January 2010)
  • “In Search of Time” by Dan Falk (February 2010)
  • “Space” by James Michener (September 2011)

What’s your favorite cosmic reading matter? Pass your suggestion along in a comment, and it just might be featured as a future CLUB Club selection.