As you watch a beautiful winter sunrise or sunset, it’s hard to imagine that you’re the one moving, that it’s the ground beneath your feet that’s spinning. It’s so much easier to imagine that you are stationary and the sun is revolving around you. After all, if this wasn’t the case, wouldn’t you feel yourself moving? Wouldn’t there be a constant wind in your face? Wouldn’t you be in danger of falling off your world when your spinning took you upside down? We observe none of these phenomena.
No matter where we stand on our home planet, they are all absent. We might, somewhat justifiably, conclude that we’re stationary and the universe revolves around us. Feeding into our nascent ego we might deduce our centrality in the universe is proven. We are special.
For millenia, we constructed and bought into a belief system in which we occupy cosmic centre stage, a reality apparently supported by cold hard observation. A reality seemingly supported by science. And yet, this reality is not real. It unravels when the observations of our surroundings become more precise and more sophisticated.
As we look ever more carefully at the movement of other celestial objects — and the moon and planets in particular — our initial reality or “model of the universe” struggles to explain them. Eventually, we have to let go of our earth-centred belief system. We lose our unique position. We challenge the notion that we are special.
One might be forgiven for imagining that this narrative has an inevitable conclusion — that the more we learn about our place in the universe, the less special we become. Science, and the knowledge it uncovers, coldly robs us of so much that we hold dear, reducing us to irrelevant specks in a vast cosmos. And astronomy stands in the dock as the prime scientific culprit!
Thankfully perhaps, our inherent desire to explore keeps us searching for answers to the most fundamental of questions, those which go to the heart of who we are and whether we’re special. Through astronomy, we discover wonderful worlds and amazing phenomena and a universe that might even be infinite. And slowly we realise that our kind is not so prevalent.
In fact, try as we might, we can’t find anything else in the universe remotely as complicated as you and me, at least not yet. Astronomy slowly but surely transforms from a science that reduces our being from an irrelevant speck to one which elevates our existence to a whole new level. We become truly special again. As does our home planet. Fundamental knowledge, it turns out, is never a bad thing.
And fundamental knowledge promises an exciting February, because it has enabled us as a species to send three probes to Mars. All going well, spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates, China, and the US will reach the Red Planet on February 9, 10, and 18, respectively. Two rovers will attempt to land on its surface. These missions will reveal new information about Mars, test technologies important for future exploration, and help to lay the groundwork for humans to walk on its surface. Mars itself is high in the sky for much of the night during February, still reddish in colour but not as bright as it was in the autumn.
On February 18, it is just above the moon, and this makes it easy to find. With so much activity on and around Mars in February, it’s a great time to inspire children. They may not be able to see the spacecraft with their eyes, but they can join them with their imagination. So can we all. Another reason why we can consider ourselves special.
For more information on the night sky, visit the Blackrock Castle Observatory website here.