Forever with stars in our eyes: We love the suns that light our nights because we do not fear them, says Tom Wilkie

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The Independent Online
AT THE turning point of the year tonight - 6,000 years after the Egyptians first scanned the heavens - Orion the Hunter will shine out of the winter sky, bearing in its name remembrance of gods and heroes and the Hellenic roots of our culture.

Even in our materialist and secular age, the stars exert a fascination that permeates popular culture. Astrology columns in newspapers and magazines are read by millions, even though their promise of a personal connection between the reader and the stars is a false one. Interstellar adventures are a staple of films and television. The popular science shelves of bookshops groan under the weight of astronomy and cosmology texts. Moreover, this fascination with regions of the universe that are the most remote from any human experience has grown, not diminished, as space probes venture out into the void, making the alien commonplace.

The origins of astronomy, with those Egyptian priests were secular as well as religious. Theirs was the first known calendar to be based on a 365-day year, deduced from observations of how regularly the constellations would reappear in the sky. From the calendar, farmers derived information about the best time to plant their crops. Without astronomy, Egyptian agriculture would not have succeeded, and without the surplus wealth generated by agriculture, the glories of Egyptian civilisation would never have been.

Although it may seem surprising to our modern age, astronomy and technology have been intertwined over the millennia. The most ancient scientific research agency which survives to this day is the Royal Greenwich Observatory. It was founded by the government of Charles II, not out of disinterested scientific curiosity, but as part of the Admiralty to further British imperial ambitions and commercial interests by improving the methods of navigation of British ships.

The hunger for the stars somehow to relate to us here on Earth - a hunger reflected for so long in the anthropocentric Ptolomeic view of the universe - remains to this day and underpins interest in astronomy itself. The Egyptians had shown a basic connection between Sirius and the success of farmers' crops. The Christian story tells how the star of Bethlehem guided the three wise men to the stable and the manger. But after Newton and Galileo, such intimate connection between the heavens and humanity became increasingly difficult to sustain.

Emerson's view of the stars as 'the city of God' was supplanted by the impersonal mechanics of Newton's universe with the stars marching like marionettes and governed by unbreakable laws. The celestial clockwork had become Calvinist, with everything predestined, cold and indifferent.

The very predictability of the cosmos, though, can inspire comfort. Calm and order prevail there, in contrast to the noise and chaos of our own lives. It is no coincidence that Fabrizio, prince of Salina, the protagonist of Lampedusa's novel The Leopard was a keen amateur astronomer. While Italy dissolved into the political and military chaos of the Risorgimento, which brought with it the extinction of an entire political class, there was escape and consolation to be drawn from the contemplation of the stars, by virtue of their remoteness from human concerns. Indeed, towards the end of the book, as the Prince's surviving sisters are deprived of their collection of holy relics, one might conclude that there is more constancy in the stars than comfort in religion.

One reaction of popular culture in our own times has been to reject scientific understanding of the stars and assert a connection between them and ourselves through astrology - even though such an assertion cannot be sustained empirically. Twentieth-century astrology is based largely on that of Hellenic times, which was in its turn influenced by the Chaldean culture in what is now the south of Iraq. For the Egyptian and other early civilisations, 'when beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes' - the Chaldeans were more democratic and first introduced the concept of a personal horoscope - even for beggars.

Astrology simply cannot be true for many reasons. Among them is a simple astronomical fact: the Earth spins daily about its north-south axis but this itself moves or precesses: it no longer points in the direction it did in Hellenic times. So the Sun, for example, now enters Pisces rather than

Aries at the time of the spring equinox.

Science fiction has adopted a second way of humanising the stars - by literally populating them with people. It is difficult to tell the difference sometimes between a real 'space opera', such as the recent spectacularly successful rescue mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and the fictional adventures of the heroes of Star Trek. But both successfully diminish the image of the cosmos as a place of alienation.

Most interesting of all, the reactions of our secular culture - and certainly the most creditable - is the sense that understanding is enough. Books on astronomy and cosmology find a ready market. There is that inexplicable phenomenon of popular publishing: Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. When the Independent published on its front page the news that American astronomers had detected ripples at the edge of the universe which represented the seedlings from which our galaxy and all the others had grown, it proved one of the best-selling editions of the newspaper.

It may seem strange that aspects of science which touch us more nearly - the chemistry of carbon, for instance, or solid-state physics - are so poorly represented in books, newspapers and elsewhere. Above all, it might seem strange that with the cosmos so comprehensively demythologised, astronomy, the oldest of the sciences, still holds the prime interest.

But that is the point. Astronomers are the people who see farthest, and can make sense of what they see. The rest of us do not necessarily need to understand the details; what suffices is that the universe in which we live makes some sort of sense and that there are people who understand it. The splendour of the stars has been humanised, because it has been understood here on Earth.

This knowledge makes us proof against the fate that befell the people of Isaac Asimov's fictional planet Lagash in his short story 'Nightfall'. Here, by a freak of astronomical configuration, darkness falls and the stars shine out in the sky just once every 2,000 years. The reaction of the Lagash people represents Asimov's answer to a question posed by Emerson: 'If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?'

Asimov's answer, short and bleak, is that the sight of the stars drives the people of Lagash mad: 'Not Earth's feeble thirty-six hundred stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the centre of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a splendour that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the bleak world.' Our understanding is our salvation.

(Photograph omitted)