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A Cosmic Perspective

Stieg Larsson, the Swedish journalist and writer known for his international best-seller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, died of a heart attack in 2005. He was only 50 years old.

A month after he died, Larsson’s longtime companion, Eva Gabrielsson, discovered an envelope among his belongings. It was marked, “To be opened only after my death.”

In it was a letter he’d written to her decades earlier when he was just 22 and about to embark on a journey to Africa. Larsson wrote:

At this very moment, reading this letter, you know that I am dead.

He went on:

One way or another, everything comes to an end. It’s all over someday. That’s perhaps one of the most fascinating truths we know about the entire universe. The stars die, the galaxies die, the planets die. And people die too. I’ve never been a believer, but the day I became interested in astronomy, I think I put aside all that was left of my fear of death. I’d realized that in comparison to the universe, a human being, a single human being, me…is infinitely small.

Astronomy, with its unimaginable distances and timescales, truly has a way of putting things in perspective.

“It’s the most spiritually empowering thing I know, to look up at the night sky,” says Brian May. Most people know him as the guitarist for the rock group Queen. But he also has a doctorate in astronomy, which he earned four decades after putting his studies on hold to pursue a musical career.

Like Larsson, the philosopher Alan Watts saw life in a cosmic context.

Go out at night and look at the stars and realize that they are millions and billions of miles away, vast conflagrations far out in space. You can lie back and look at that and say, “Well, surely I hardly matter. I am just a tiny little speck aboard this weird spotted bit of dust called earth, and all that was going on out there billions of years before I was born and will still be going on billions of years after I die.” Nothing seems stranger to you than that, or more different from you, yet there comes a point, if you watch long enough, when you will say “Why that’s me!” And when you know that, you know you never die.

Rebecca Elson was a Canadian astronomer and poet who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 39. “There is no poetry to cancer,” she wrote. But an astronomical perspective was woven throughout her poems. In “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” she wrote:

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

So, if you’re still looking for a New Year’s resolution, here’s a suggestion. Promise yourself to look up at the heavens more frequently during this year. You’d be surprised what it can do for your perspective.

As Bill Watterson wrote in his popular Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.”

2021 is your chance to live a lot differently.

 

 

Please note that Dr. West’s stories expire at the end of each month.

Dr. Michael West is Lowell Observatory’s Deputy Director for Science. He received his PhD in astronomy from Yale University and held research and teaching positions around the world before coming to Flagstaff. Find out more about his background and research interests here. Michael is also an enthusiastic writer, with publications in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Postand Scientific American, as well as author of a new book titled A Sky Wonderful With Stars, published by University of Hawaii Press.

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