Sky Matters: Astronomy's unique perspective to ease Covid-19 worries

All of us are understandably concerned about Covid-19. Astronomy can offer a rather unique perspective that may help assuage some worries, writes Niall Smith.

Sky Matters: Astronomy's unique perspective to ease Covid-19 worries

Our exploration of the universe tells us that Covid-19 is an organism like all organisms in one key aspect – it has no option but to obey scientific laws that are the same across the entire universe. There is nothing about its behaviour that we cannot ultimately understand and modify to protect ourselves.

Our species has been building an impressively coherent picture of the cosmos since Galileo turned the first telescope skywards in 1608. In subsequent years we have developed telescopes capable of ever-increasing precision and sensitivity.

We have imaged black holes, watched exploding supermassive stars, listened to the death knell of colliding neutron stars, discovered over 4,000 planets beyond our solar system, seen oceans of liquid methane, and witnessed exotic events and worlds that would challenge even the most creative science fiction writer.

However, the one thing these seemingly unconnected phenomena have in common is that they obey universal laws of physics and chemistry. We never see square or triangular planets or stars, for example. Why? Because gravity, which is responsible for building planets and stars always pulls with the same force in all directions, ensuring that everything the size of a planet or larger is spherical in shape.

We have catalogued millions of galaxies with trillions of stars. None defy the law of gravity, the very same law of gravity that holds you and me to our Earth. Similarly, when we look at the light from stars, be that our Sun (the nearest star) or a star in a distant galaxy whose light has taken billions of years to reach us, we see the same chemical elements in them all. Over and over and over again we see how a few universal laws and a finite number of chemical elements (numbering around 100) are responsible for creating our amazingly complex universe. If the coronavirus came from Mars or a distant hypothetical Planet X, which it doesn’t, it would be no more threatening than one which originates on Earth. It couldn’t be, because molecules on Mars or Planet X obey the same rules as molecules everywhere else in our Universe.

Astronomy teaches us a powerful lesson. Understand the laws of physics and chemistry as we see them on the Earth and your species will have the best chance of survival no matter where it finds itself in the cosmos. Applying the scientific method is the best way to know what to do best to survive, to thrive.

When we wonder why Covid-19 hasn’t been stopped yet, the answer lies in the complexity and originality of its behaviour. It can cause our bodies defences to go into overdrive (though in almost 97% of cases, only temporarily if at all). However,
nothing about Covid-19 suggests it takes advantage of new laws of physics or chemistry (or the
associated biology that follows) and astronomy provides strong comfort that no such laws exist anywhere for it or any other virus.

On April 8 there is a supermoon to view; alternatively, on the night of 22 there is the Lyrid’s meteor shower. Both can be viewed with just your eyes. You can appreciate these and respect social distancing at the same time. First and foremost be safe, but know this: Our universe is not full of demons lurking in the dark with evil intent. It can be understood.

It is inherently beautiful. Sometimes it challenges us, and sometimes it can seem cruel. Our best mitigation strategy in the difficult weeks ahead is to heed the advice of medical professionals who really do understand so much about the scientific laws that apply to Covid-19.

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