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Home / Brunch / Humour: Starry starry night

Humour: Starry starry night

Amateur astronomy is even more gratifying in a locked-down world

brunch Updated: Sep 20, 2020, 07:09 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
Skip a telescope, and try whisky and music for a real glimpse of the heavenly objects staring at you from the firmament
Skip a telescope, and try whisky and music for a real glimpse of the heavenly objects staring at you from the firmament(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

Ensconced in a Himalayan cottage the last few weeks, I’ve been thanking my lucky stars. Literally. Looking up at the night sky, I’ve been overcome by an emotion that the spiritually inclined might call ‘other-worldly’. But so thorough is my own grounding in the rational, that any attempts at fanciful thinking are doomed to failure. Exhibit A: I have shut my eyes and wished for world peace – and the end of Covid – while looking fervently at what I thought were shooting stars. By all objective accounts, the celestial objects were most likely a satellite and an airplane. Sorry, world!

The fault in our stargazing

They say you can get the best view of the stars using a telescope. IMHO, that’s a conspiracy perpetrated by lens manufacturers. (Pardon the dig at science denialists.) Whisky and music: now that’s what offers you a real glimpse of the heavenly objects staring at you from the firmament. And if the song you choose is Starry Starry Night – Don McLean’s tribute to Vincent van Gogh – you won’t even need a spaceship to transport you straight to your orbit of choice. As if the wishing-on-a-plane debacle wasn’t enough, I have danced like a dervish under a heavily-embellished night sky, telling myself this is one of life’s precious moments. My shell-shocked companions from that particular evening have been more socially distant from me than is warranted.

Scientists are also notorious for playing with the emotions of laypeople, citing fresh discoveries or insights

Like every amateur skygazer, I too excel at misreading the night skies. It’s tough to miss Orion, Ursa Major or the North Star. But Venus and Mars are the biggest casualties of overeager and under-informed astronomers. Sure, there are apps that you can focus at the sky to get an accurate picture of the constellations. But just like following a cooking recipe, it almost feels like cheating to the intrepid explorer, bumbling through life.

An astrophysicist walks into a space bar

Reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Letters from an Astrophysicist at this time and in this setting has proved miraculous. The scientist’s correspondence with people from different backgrounds makes for a terrific companion for the amateur astronomer. Empowered by the words of the good doctor, I’ve trained my gaze towards the heavens and felt a connection that is more than just metaphorical. “We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust,” Tyson says elsewhere. Who needs UFOs and visions when you’ve got the stars, planets and meteors?

But scientists are also notorious for playing with the emotions of laypeople, citing fresh discoveries or insights. Case in point: An elementary school student writes to Tyson to reprimand him about downgrading Pluto’s status in our solar system. “What if Pluto was someone’s favourite planet?” is the child’s legitimate complaint. Tyson coolly suggests that aggrieved Pluto lovers call it their favourite ‘dwarf planet’ instead. Chilling.

The gutter and the stars

I finally got around to watching The Martian a few months ago – the film where a NASA team runs a daring rescue mission to bring their buddy Matt Damon back from the red planet. It got me thinking about my own moral stature. How many times have I squirmed away from taking a simple detour to pick up a friend in an auto on a rainy day? These are the cosmically relevant questions that Hollywood inadvertently poses – and which keep you up in the dark hours of this dystopian year.

And so one spirals deeper into the black hole of introspection. All those pictures of the skies that we earthlings have been incessantly clicking during the pandemic reveal something deep – apart, of course, from our weakness for filtered realities and glib captions. Communing with nature might not be everyone’s lot at this difficult time in our collective history, but it is infinitely comforting to know that even though everything around us looks like it’s falling apart, the stars still live and die by inviolable natural laws. As Oscar Wilde, that columnist’s dream, luminously wrote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

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From HT Brunch, September 21, 2020

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