Monday, 22 December 2014

Sky Tales

It's almost a cliche of people's view of prehistory that we used to sit around campfires, look at the night sky and make up stories about what we saw.  Sometimes we made the patterns into creatures or other items, and the locations of the patterns are linked by the stories like songlines in the sky.  For example, Cassiopeia sits in her throne near Andromeda, being attacked by Cetus and so forth.  The Crow, the Cup and Hydra are all linked by a story.  The Crab is biting the toe of Hercules.  In a different mythology, Tir (after whom Tuesday is named) is a big arrow in the sky helping navigators across the North Atlantic towards Britain.
As I've said before, somewhere which would be easier to find if I ever bothered to add tags to this blog, I struggle to see Cynthia's face but find it relatively easy to see a rabbit there:

Well, the other night I managed to convince myself there was a face there somehow, and proceeded to get really freaked out by the idea of a massive great disembodied head the size of North America floating in space and staring at me, so thanks for letting me into your nightmare world you weirdoes.  I say that as a different kind of weirda.  It was not a pleasant experience and it makes me wonder how you can deal with life if you imagine that kind of thing all the time.

Cynthia's face is of course another projection into the sky of our lives down here, and it serves some kind of purpose, mainly entertainment for some reason.  It's like a fairy tale.  We no longer credit the skies with those kinds of stories, on the whole, so for example we can look at Scorpio:

and see claws on the left hand side of this picture and an a-stungen tail on the right, but just for fun.  We don't really think there's a scorpion in the sky.  Possibly nobody ever did.  Maybe it was only ever a bit of fun, or maybe the purpose of the stories was different, a bit like Scripture.  Which reminds me, I really must get round to doing that idea I had in the mid-'70s about writing a space opera version of the Bible.

Speaking of which, we still tell stories about the sky.  Namely, we talk about Captain Kirk, Zaphod Beeblebrox, the Doctor, Captain Kremmen, Obi Wan and the like, or more obscurely Ensign Flandry and Kip Russell.  However, rather than projecting them into the past, with exceptions there is a tendency to do the reverse and imagine them happening long after the death of our great-great grandchildren. We therefore build up a new kind of mythology about what's "up" there, bearing an often quite strong resemblance to the old stories.

It gets complicated when we try to think about what's really there, for instance the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe.  My biggest fear is that there is no life anywhere else, and consequently I'm unable to think about the world without employing wishful thinking about what it contains.  Strangely, people tend to project the idea of malevolence and danger onto the sky.  Stephen Hawking does this when he says we should be afraid of what aliens might do to us.  I find this odd for the following reason.  This planet has had life on it for four billion years, and would've been by no means the first planet of this type in the Milky Way, so if anything malevolent or even careless had got here over that very long period of time, it could have done enough damage to the ecosystem here to have prevented humans from evolving at all.  Yet that didn't happen.  Therefore, either aliens are safe or they've never got here, possibly because they don't exist and we are alone in the Universe.

This leads me to the opinion that the Heavens are not only safe but utopian.  When I realise that's how I think of it, it makes me wonder how objective I'm being, because the idea of an ordered Heaven and a disordered Earth is common in Western natural philosophy and spirituality, so I then wonder if I'm just choosing arguments to believe what I want to believe for quasi-religious reasons.  Nonetheless it is what I believe.  Or, this could be turned round into the idea that we somehow intuit that Heaven, as in the rest of the Universe, really is more harmonious and peaceful than Earth and that this is just a tiny little bubble of evil in an otherwise utopian Universe, albeit one full of planet-bleaching gamma ray bursts and star-chomping black holes.

I don't know what to think.  Any ideas?