What the Night Sky Teaches

Is astronomy the key to our wellbeing? If we “learn the harmonies and revolutions of the universe,” Plato wrote in the Timaeus, we will attain “the most excellent life offered to humankind by the gods.” The pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras was even more dramatic: And they say that when someone asked Anaxagoras for what reason anyone might choose to come to be born and to live, he replied to the question by saying that it was “to be an observer of the sky and the stars around it, as well as moon and sun,” since everything else at any rate is worth nothing.  For Anaxagoras, stargazing is the only thing worth doing. Without it, we would be better off not existing at all. These days, I’m sure, lots of people would be thrilled to gaze at the stars if the spectacle could offer them respite from what’s going on down here, let alone lead to “the most excellent life.” But can it? In 2020, the Nobel Prize in physics went to three astrophysicists — modern-day stargazers, if you like — for their work on black holes: Roger Penrose for showing that black holes, strange though they are, fit squarely with our theory of the universe; Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for discovering the black hole at the center of our own galaxy. The year before, the first-ever photograph of a black hole was published to great fanfare. Every newspaper showed the dark circle, surrounded by a ring of fire, on the front page. Eight interlinked observatories, from the South Pole to Hawaii to the Chilean desert, turned the earth into a gigantic telescope to capture the supermassive object five hundred million billion kilometres away.  Invariably such events are accompanied by a certain rhetoric celebrating mankind’s curiosity and how it pushes the

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