Facing the New Year, We All Need to Look Up

The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 31 2012 12:54 PM

On Approach to the New Year

Today is the last day of the year, traditionally a time of reflection on the past and hope for the future.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

We all see time through the lenses of our own minds, our own lives. What matters to us individually differs from person to person, of course, but there can be a lot of overlap. Most of us worry about the same things: family, finances, conflict, peace, equality. Some of these concerns are personal, some grand, some specific, some enveloping the whole world.

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I am no exception. My thoughts range from the close to the distant: My family, my daughter prepping for college, friends, writing, government, matters overseas, and the existence of hatred and small-mindedness when even a small amount of compassion and tolerance can overwhelm them.

It’s easy to get inundated when being reflective, easy to be overwhelmed yourself. When that happens to me—and it does, every day—I literally think to myself, “Look up.”

And I do. I look to the sky, and I see great beauty there, filled with amazing things, from tiny asteroids to vast sprawling galaxies. Now, for the first time in history, we’re just starting to venture out into it. The groundwork laid for centuries is now paying off in our ability to leave the ground, perhaps forever.

We’re still figuring out how to do it, and we make lots of wrong steps as well as right ones, but the path, I think, still leads upward. I was thinking about this very thing today when I happened to see this picture:

A Soyuz capsule on its way to the space station.
While the Moon looms above and the Earth sits below, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft takes three crew to the International Space Station.

Image credit: NASA

This photo was taken by Kevin Ford, an astronaut on board the International Space Station. On Dec. 21, looking out a window, he took this picture of an approaching Russian Soyuz capsule containing three more astronauts: the crew of Expedition 35, which will take over command of the ISS for the next few months.

You can see the capsule almost swallowed by the canvas of black around it. Below, seemingly close in the picture but still hundreds of kilometers away, is the gentle blue curve of our planet’s horizon. And above, more distant by far, the half-lit face of the Moon. In this short exposure no stars can be seen; it’s just our planet, its one natural satellite, and one of many human-created satellites. The Moon above has no one on it; just artifacts left by a short visit decades ago and an uncrewed handful since. The Earth below is teeming with people, all living under that narrow blue arc of air. And in between, three more humans guided by the hand of Newton’s laws, headed for an outpost in space.

If there’s a better metaphor for the end of a year and the beginning of another, I’m not sure I know it. Humans are explorers. We’re a curious bunch, and we love to stick our heads into places unknown, moving from one thing to the next, learning about everything around us.

There’s a lot of everything to know. And we cannot possibly understand it with our eyes closed, our minds narrowed, our heads tilted down.

So look up! Because when we do, even for a moment, our view increases from here to infinity.

If you do one thing this upcoming year, just look up.

My thanks to Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield for putting this photo on Twitter, and for reminding me why I love doing what I get to do.

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