Pigeonholes is a collaborative inter-sectional column from the Arts & Culture and Science sections, exploring issues across academic boundaries. This week in the Pigeonholes column, the columnists investigate topics outside of their area of interest.
I am not a scientist.
I self-identify as a creative writing junkie with vast experience — so much so that I’ve edited ample amounts of STEM-focused students’ research papers to recognize the essential elements of drafting such literature.
After participating in this experiment for The Varsity, in which I attempted to hone my scientific understanding by watching the entirety of astronomer Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I decided to present my findings in an analytical manner as a testament to my knowledge. Behold: the existential discoveries of an artistic student.
As a child, I was introduced to the stars at 4:00 pm on a weekday afternoon. I was cocooned into the fold of carpet between my grandmother’s flowered sofa and the harsh corner of her brick fireplace. I had just been dismissed from school for the day; she would babysit me until my mother came to retrieve me later in the evening. Chewing on my nails, I was anxiously monitoring the passing of the following 30 minutes — a countdown until I would be prodded to begin dreaded science worksheets.
My distraction of choice, Boy Meets World, remains my favourite television show to present day. In the episode I rewatched, “Starry Night,” two of the primary characters witness an uncertain end to their relationship. In the midst of their fight, one of the characters brings the other to a Vincent van Gogh exhibit, during which she describes van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” as follows: “God is protecting the people in this little town. They live their lives, and they come out of their houses, and they see the sky. And they know God’s protection and love — that everything will be alright.”
I’m not a religious person by any standard, yet I found myself in awe of this quote’s certainty.
I’ve never been one to fully grasp visual art or astronomy; as I aged, I sought to love the sky above me so deeply that it would inspire me to recreate it, as van Gogh did. Although I understood our universe as protection, I craved a connection with it that would allow me to identify its protection in everyday settings, just as I’d witnessed the character do.
“Why are stars bright? Where is the energy coming from that keeps them going? How many millions of years has it been going for? What exactly is it? Those are questions that previous generations of us just never had an answer to. We always related it to gods. Our best guess, scientifically, for thousands of years was that the stars were just big chunks of metal.”
Such was the rant I was greeted with when approaching a close friend about this piece. More certain than myself, he is a self-proclaimed atheist, awestruck only by the natural wonders of our universe. Just as I once yearned to understand my favourite television show, I was now determined to understand the person who had once explained to me how the sun was fueled. That is why I volunteered to watch his favourite documentary. I wanted to understand the correlation between myself and the stars, to grasp my own mortality.
In thinking I could, I deemed myself another ignorant human.
I watched one episode of Cosmos in its entirety, dividing my time between the series and my desktop computer, which was streaming my boyfriend’s Rocket League tournament. Although I am no Rocket League fanatic by any means, I found that observing cars chasing a ball made me feel immensely more intelligent than trying to understand the complexities of matter beyond my reach. Pained by my innate ignorance, I left my writing until its due date. I write this not having attempted to watch another episode.
A day after this initial predicament, NASA streamed its Perseverance Mars rover landing on their YouTube channel. My boyfriend, eager to see the photos and videos in real time, had alerted me of it. We watched the entirety of the livestream — two hours, triple the length of the average Cosmos episode — without any confusion.
It’s not that this broadcast was unscientific in nature; it was arguably more, as it examined diagrams, blueprints, and terminology to coax viewers into understanding the importance of landing on Mars. Discovering Mars is a new opportunity, a chance for us to place our feet on new land, to explore what is not guaranteed. The stars are guaranteed: they shine partly for us to study, to observe, and to navigate our surroundings in the universe.
What have we done to deserve their loyalty?
In part of NASA’s livestream, astronomer Matthew Wallace explained that the inspiration behind NASA’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) camera system was his 11-year-old gymnast daughter.
“I got her [a] sports camera… She did a backflip. And I don’t know about you, but I cannot do a backflip. But when she showed me the video, and I watched that camera pan up to the ceiling, and then the room go upside down, and then somehow right itself as she landed on her feet, I felt for a moment that I had a glimpse into what it would be like if I could do a backflip.”
I emailed U of T professors with a desperate plea to understand our universe, to understand the rush of said ‘backflip.’ By my deadline, I’d expected to receive two responses, maybe three.
In a span of a few hours, I received six responses. This made me feel incredibly guilty — undoubtedly, astronomers could spend their days more productively than by defending their research of choice to a student newspaper. Their eager answers to an unpassionate teenage girl taught me more about myself than Cosmos ever could.
“I do a lot of work with amateur astronomers or hobbyists, and they too are very diverse in the reasons they are interested in astronomy,” John Percy, a professor emeritus at UTM and the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, responded to my pleas.
“Some just like to observe the night sky, with unaided eye, binoculars, or telescope. Some are astrophotographers; they take superb images of the sky. Some are more interested in space exploration. Others are ‘armchair astronomers’ who just like to attend lectures, or read books, about any aspect of astronomy. A small subset (that I work with closely) actually do astronomy research voluntarily; they are ‘citizen scientists’.”
Renée Hložek, another professor at U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, wrote me the following: “I love that the Universe continues expanding whether or not I exist, and so it gives me somewhere else to set my mind/eyes to other than my own problems and reality. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter, but it helps me remember that my problems aren’t all there is in the Universe.”
Referring back to Sagan, Raymond Carlberg, yet another professor at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, did not answer any of my questions. Instead, he attached a photo to his email with a short explanation of it. In his response, I identified Boy Meets World’s interpretation of “The Starry Night.”
Carlberg explained that Sagan was a scientist for the Voyager satellite missions that were launched to photograph planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in the 1970s. In 1990, Sagan convinced the project director to turn a satellite around to take a photo of Earth. Carlberg referred to this event as a “space selfie,” a term that I, a self-absorbed young adult, am very empathetic toward. Carlberg described how the resulting image, titled “Pale Blue Dot,” was meant to show how our study of space could help all humans understand our place in the universe.
Even I, a mildly frustrated writer who’d just abandoned nine episodes of Cosmos, understood that “our place in the universe” is virtually nothing. We are simply specks, unidentifiable in the grand image of all existing matter. We are entitled without reason; we are so minute that we are almost undeserving of the space, time, and resources we so passionately consume.
Yet Carlberg’s description is un-echoing of my brutality; rather, his words cocoon the nurturing warmth of being gifted responsibility. “As Carl noted in his book Pale Blue Dot, ‘that’s home… everyone you know… every human being who ever was,’ ” Carlberg wrote. “The image has often been used to remind us all that we share a single planet and should take good care of it.”
Carlberg is right in the sense that we all share a single planet — for now. Nonetheless, with reports of scientists and billionaires alike exploring the possibility of transporting humans to Mars, it’s undeniable that we are unsatisfied with the care the planet demands of us. Have we damaged our home to a level in which it’s easier to abandon it than restore our relationship with it? Carlberg authenticates my thoughts as he presents the following paradox: “The image is not scientifically very useful, but it is one of the most important space images ever taken.”
My favourite episode of television concludes with its primary couple reunited, discussing “The Starry Night.” The character to whom it was described proclaims, “I spent half an hour looking at it, trying to understand it… But I couldn’t get it, not by myself… I’m not like you… that I can understand those kinds of things so fast. I need you to help me.”
As an adult, I was reintroduced to our universe at about 4:00 pm on a weekday afternoon. I wasn’t learning about my surroundings through media catered to teenagers, rather through a “Pale Blue Dot.” Like Boy Meets World and Rocket League cars, the image of the “Pale Blue Dot” was not a scientific advancement, but rather a reminder that we, as small as we are, are capable of grasping the unfamiliar.
After undergoing this experiment, my sentiments toward astronomy are similar to reactions toward the “Pale Blue Dot”: whilst I don’t regard scientific data to be useful in giving me an enlightened understanding of my existence, I am in awe of it because it humbles me. I am a powerless being, ignorant of much of the small planet that I am allowed to call home. I am unfamiliar with its technicalities and how it operates to fulfill my needs of survival. While this is information I will never seek actively or be able to fully appreciate, I will be thankful for each future encounter I have with the stars.
For I do not need to leave my ‘pale blue dot’ to know the stars perform backflips for me.