6 Questions

Jo Marchant

1 March 2021
Headshot of Jo Marchant.

Jo Marchant is the author of The Human Cosmos and will be joining us on Wed 3 March for a Big Bang Week event

1) What inspired you to write The Human Cosmos?

The Human Cosmos is about our changing relationship with the stars. Every society through history has been inspired by the heavens, until now. Because of the glow from artificial lights, this connection with the universe we’re part of is fading. Instead of thousands of stars, in today’s cities we see just a few dozen; most of us can’t see the Milky Way at all. I wanted to write this book to look at what we’re losing. It tells how our view of the cosmos has been important through history – from cave paintings and stone circles to space travel and virtual reality. I argue that the Sun, Moon and stars are part of what makes us human, they have shaped our science, politics, religion, art – even our own bodies.

2) Why have the stars and planets held such fascination for humans over the millennia?

People had to look up to survive – watching the stars was crucial for daily activities from timekeeping to navigation. Celestial cycles were a reassuring source of order and meaning in a chaotic world. And there’s the epic beauty and vastness of a truly dark sky – it’s easy to forget just how jawdropping this view is, now most of us can’t see it anymore – which has always lifted people out of their daily lives, inspiring spiritual experiences and religious beliefs. It’s hard to find a society from history that didn’t see gods or at least mythical life in the sky.

3)    What are some of the ways our view of the cosmos has shaped civilisation?

The patterns people see in the sky have always governed how they live on Earth, shaping ideas about time and place; power and truth; life and death. We see this in the ancient past, from eclipse-obsessed Babylonians to Egyptian pharaohs who built pyramids to guide their souls to the stars. But ideas about the cosmos have shaped the modern world too. Beliefs about the sun, moon and stars played a central role in the birth of Christianity, and in Europe’s exploration and domination of the planet. They guided the rebellious lawmakers who founded the principles of democracy and human rights, the economists who developed the frameworks on which capitalism depends, and even the painters who produced the first abstract art.

4)    We know that planets are rocks and stars are burning gas - has that changed our relationship with them?

People once believed planets and stars were divine living beings, now we see them as composed of inert matter that obeys mathematical laws. In the book I explore how we made that shift towards a scientific understanding of the cosmos and how it has changed us. One consequence is we now know just how vast the universe is and how small we are within it. From a cosmic point of view Earth isn’t special after all but just one of hundreds of billions of planets (others of which might also host life). More fundamental, though, is that to explore the cosmos we now focus on numbers and data rather than our own experiences; our knowledge and understanding of the universe comes from our instruments, not our eyes. Today we understand more about the universe than ever but we’ve lost our personal connection with the stars, we’re more focused on screens than on the sky.

5)    Some scientists seem to regard human existence with a near Calvinist sense of predetermination - are they missing something? 

I think so! Some physicists and neuroscientists argue that a mathematical description of the universe will ultimately explain all of reality, and that everything that happens is simply the equations of physics playing out. This would mean that lots of things we think of as central to human existence, such as consciousness or free will, are illusions without any causative role in the world. I don’t believe that. As Bertrand Russell said, “physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little.” It is only the mathematical properties of matter that can be measured. But that doesn’t mean all properties of matter are mathematical.

6)    Is our view of the stars still important now?

Yes, I think we need to bring the cosmos back into our lives. Psychologists have found that the awe we feel when we see the stars makes us more creative, more curious, happier. After feeling awe, people feel more connected to a bigger picture. They’re more generous, more likely to help others; they care less about money and more about the planet. It’s pretty amazing to think this source of wisdom and inspiration is right there for us, above our heads. We hear a lot about the importance of our connection with nature; I think we should include the stars in that, and fight to keep our view of them.

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