Humans have been studying celestial bodies for thousands of years. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences around, and it used to be of massive importance to ancient cultures. Although astronomy is still hugely important, it dominates a lot less of the wider public consciousness than it used to. To us, the stars and planets are simply spheres of superheated plasma, and lifeless rocks a few hundred million miles away.
Paradoxically, our greater understanding of celestial bodies may have led to a lesser appreciation of them, as we see them as distant objects with which we have no meaningful interaction. That being the case, it could be well worth our time to get back into learning some basic astronomy – so that once more we can understand just how important those tiny points of light once were to us.
Navigating the stars
One of the earliest uses that humans found for the stars was as a method of navigation. Long before GPS, ancient humans would rely on the positions and movement of certain stars, as well as the sun, to calculate their location and the direction they would need to travel in. Stars that are vital to navigation are the pole stars. Pole stars do not change position as the earth rotates, providing a constant reference point to those looking skyward. There is currently no star bright and close enough to the south pole to be a south pole star, but the current north pole star is Solaris. Early navigators would use the position of pole stars and other constellations to create star maps, by which they could determine their position at any one time.
The ability to navigate using the stars and planets is immensely helpful – and despite the seeming lack of use for this technique given current navigational technology, it could prove very useful. Should you find yourself lost one day, without access to a GPS of any kind, it would be handy to know how the position of certain stars correlated to certain locations. Due to the movement of the earth, certain methods of celestial navigation would require a knowledge of the time, or an encyclopedic knowledge of where each star is at any given time. However, given the fixity of the north star and certain constellations , even if all you had was the stars, you could derive an approximate location – or know which direction you were moving in. The stars provided guideposts to many ancient humans, and they could do the same for you too.
Finding your place
Another very important thing the celestial bodies can do for you is offer a sense of perspective. We live in a very self-centered world, in which humans are automatically assumed to be at the center of everything. However, scratch the surface of the universe just a little, and it quickly becomes clear that this is far from the truth. The universe is a vast place – truthfully, it’s vaster than we can even conceive of. Our sun is one of several hundred billion in the Milky Way – which is itself one of several hundred billion in the known universe. On a cosmic scale, we are less than a grain of sand on one beach.
As our perspective on the universe readjusts in response to this information, it can grant us a surprising feeling of serenity. It might sound odd to gain happiness from the idea of being insignificant, but stepping back to indulge in a grander-scale view of things from time to time can really help to make your problems and concerns seem much less all-consuming. Studying the planets and stars is an excellent way of achieving this perspective. Looking at the ways that these celestial bodies move, indifferent to our existence, often undergoing momentous changes of their own, can provoke an experience of humility that actually reaffirms your connection to life and the universe by the end of it.
The stars and planets do not mean a huge amount to most of us nowadays. It’s worth changing this, however, as a better knowledge of the universe out there can provide practical and spiritual benefits. Knowing the position of a constellation could help you find your way home if you’re wandering lost one day – and an understanding of our cosmic position can help you find a home in the universe, and in yourself.