The UniverseThe Stars as a Looking Glass.
by Claudia Madrazo
Gazing up at a starry sky on a dark night is an experience that never fails to flood the senses with beauty and feed the soul. Such vastness makes us ponder life’s great mysteries and try to figure out exactly where we fit in. There’s no avoiding it: people have been caught up in this turmoil of thought and feelings ever since they first raised their eyes toward the heavens on a starlit night. Every culture in the world has been enthralled by the sky above, discovering such cyclical phenomena as planetary movements and the position of the stars. Some inner voice seemed to tell them that what they were seeing was directly related to their own world. Stargazing, which many believe is the oldest science of all, was common to all great civilizations. The cosmic movements observed made it possible to define times for planting, harvesting, working, resting, celebrating and waging war. This then led to devising calendars, making predictions and formulating hypotheses, explanations and metaphors, which, in time, evolved either into mythology or astonishing facts. The Universe and Time Great observers of the firmament, the Maya were particularly interested in measuring time, so their calendars are among the most complex and precise. One of them, the solar calendar, is very similar to the one we use today: it has 365 days and even includes leap years. Most astonishing of all, however, is that they arrived at such exact calculations with the naked eye and manual methods alone. There’s no question that they could only have achieved this through extraordinary discipline in observing the stars with systematic devotion. Another vestige of their obsession with time and the stars is a phenomenon that occurs at Chichén Itzá’s Kukulkan Pyramid; on the spring and fall equinoxes, sunlight produces the effect of a serpent slithering down one side of the staircase. Today, the study of astro-archaeology reveals that ancient American peoples positioned their temples and constructions according to cosmic reference points that facilitated their contact with the gods. Divine Messages Stars, comets, planets, eclipses… were all enigmas that intrigued our forebears, who regarded them as messengers of the gods. While nearly every culture in the world has attributed tragedies to the passing of comets, the oldest such reference was recorded in China 35 centuries ago: “When Jie executed his faithful advisors, a comet appeared.” The Chinese believed that observing the movement of the stars was the key to reading the future, and they accorded great importance to predicting eclipses, which were considered evil omens. The belief was that eclipses occurred when a dragon tried to devour the sun, so in order to scare the monster away, people would take to the streets, making a huge racket. Fate Hinging on the Stars Who hasn’t been tempted to know what the future holds? Will we fall in love, get a job, find happiness? Surely this desire to know in advance is deeply ingrained. Driven by our curiosity, we try to find the answers in the cosmos. Its influence on people is a belief as ancient as stargazing itself. In fact, at first, astronomy and astrology were one in the same. Scientific breakthroughs soon led to their separation into astronomy, the science that studies the stars and their movements, and astrology, which looks at the same phenomena but to discover human destiny and predict events. Our Own Reflection There is no question that we know more about the great beyond than our ancestors did. Yet while we may have rational explanations for the inexplicable, countless question marks still remain, wonders that do not coincide with our logic, as well as unknown data. We easily get caught up in trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe, because we are so aware of being part of it. The sky is a mirror that reflects our world, so by observing it we are able to explain the phenomena governing us and thus discover more about ourselves b When you leave the city, look up at the sky, and discover the multitude of stars visible at night. Try to pick out constellations. You don’t have to be an expert astronomer or have special equipment to study the sky: a pair of binoculars and a star-map suffice. You can learn the names of the moon’s craters, plateaus and mountains; keep track of the changes in brightness of variable stars; contemplate the positions of Jupiter’s satellites and Venus’ phases, among other marvels. Books and films • Guía para viajeros del cielo, de Germán Puerta Restrepo, Editorial Planeta, 1999. • Cosmos, de Carl Sagan, Editorial Planeta. • Contacto, película del director Robert Zemeckis, Estados Unidos, 1997. • Cosmos, Carl Sagan, Ballantine Publishing Group, 1985. • Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis, U.S.A., 1997.