The one constant throughout the ages has been our desire to make sense of, and exert as much control as possible over, the inherent chaos. Laws, religions, customs, and routines have been created to provide form where none existed before. We have learned to trust that each season of the year will deliver its regular signposts. Holidays and special events are engraved into our psyche from a young age. Like every child who knows that breakfast will follow each day’s awakening, we find solace in knowing what to expect throughout the cycle of life.
Of course, there is no absolute control. On a sparkling clear night recently, I looked through my telescope at Jupiter, well up in the southern sky. As I’d seen during numerous other observations, the giant planet’s Galilean moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – were extended diagonally from it, just as Galileo must have initially seen them four centuries ago. And, I thought to myself, somehow, in the chaos that flowed from the Big Bang to the formation of our galaxy, to the birth of the sun, and to the structuring of the solar system, it all led to the whims of planetary gravity that gave rise to the way the moons were appearing in my view finder. And yet, I just had to put order into what I was seeing.
I guess it’s just the way our brains work. Organizing drives understanding and comprehension. I get it. Certainly, in our daily lives, it’s a necessity. And, in the sky? Well, we have star charts and catalogs of every known object. We know their locations, their orbits and their approximate life spans. We have names and definitions and descriptions of countless types of stars and galaxies and radio sources. From the beginning of mankind, people have drawn lines between totally disparate stars to give us a full complement of constellations that have assisted seafaring navigators and delighted every finder of the Big Dipper.
We also have discovered the laws of nature, of physics, that existed well before we evolved on our tiny planet. Even in the apparent chaos, we know that subatomic particles have distinct characteristics, and are the building blocks to everything there is.
This month, in the northwestern sky, three bright stars – Deneb, Lyra and Altair – form the summer triangle. They belong to three different constellations. Organizing and categorizing to the max! Now, with a good set of binoculars, look about midway between Lyra, to the north, and Altair, to the west. You’ll find a grouping of dimmer stars that looks like a coat hanger. Again, these stars have nothing in common, but from our viewpoint they have taken the shape of a very familiar object.
But, going back to that night when I was looking at Jupiter, I began thinking about chaos and form and patterns. What is true for the biggest planet in our solar system is true for everything in the sky. With all the laws that govern so much, it is still pure chance – chaos – that gives us four and not five Galilean moons. It’s still chance that gives us a coat hanger, a summer triangle, and dozens of constellations.
We can’t improve upon it. We can’t mess it up like we’ve done with our climate. There is a perfection in the chaos of the universe. We can try to make sense of it, but in the end all of our efforts to organize the chaos cannot hide the fact that it is still chaotic.
I watched and listened to William Shatner describe his feelings after his brief flight to space last month. He seemed most struck by the thin line between the darkness and lifelessness he’d just flown to and the illuminated, life-preserving atmosphere just beneath it.
Thankfully, we have no responsibility or control for the chaos and chance of space. There’s much peace in that. But here, on Earth, we are fully responsible. Let’s use all the tools we’ve created to bring structure and order into our lives to also repair the climate damage we’ve done to what was, before we began degrading it, the perfection of the same natural laws – indeed, the chaos – that is the universe.