Today was the final day of my volunteer training. We did lesson plans about the Moon, Mars, and spent the last 20 minutes in the SkyLab. As I lay on my back on the floor under that dome of plastic sheeting, I remembered trips to the Adler Planetarium when I was a kid. Oh, those comfy seats! I sometimes fell asleep as the narrator talked softly about constellations and Greek mythology, as I’m sure did many young visitors. Today wasn’t a just a trip down memory lane, though, because science is constantly changing. Robots are patrolling space right now and taking pictures of stuff we’ve never seen before. I didn’t know there was a Kuiper belt before this morning. I didn’t know that there is now a dwarf planet that isn’t named after something in Greek mythology. It’s called Makemake, and it’s named after the god of creation in the culture of the Canary Islands.
Last night, we watched a Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of Steve’s favorite directors. Solaris was adopted from the novel by a Polish writer, originally written in French. We’ve also been borrowing the Cosmos series with Carl Sagan from the library. I feel like I’m finally homeschooling myself in astro-physics because I never took Physics in high school. Aside from trying to wrap my brain around conceptual numbers and the nature of sub-atomic particles, I’m wondering about moral and philosophical questions about what it means to be human and what part we may play in any larger community of intelligent life forms.
And then, today, we found ourselves at an estate sale in Lake Geneva where a VERY wealthy family is selling off furniture, antiques, and toys of rather astronomical proportions. A horse-drawn sleigh and a mounted buffalo head, for instance. Who has these things in their garage?!
So, now I feel like I’m in the synthesis stage of learning. Pulling these bits of information and experience together, what meaning emerges? Who are we and what are we doing here? We live in a world that is much more vast than our consciousness can grasp, and yet we have this ability to be aware of our conscious mind and how we choose to live with it. The Approximate Chef sent me a video clip she called “unexpected existentialism of Stephen Colbert” where he jokes about our penchant for knowing the end of the story and being comforted by that expected “happy ending”. What is the best we can do with consciousness? Use it to feel happy? Use it to be compassionate? Use it to reach toward expanding our awareness and capability? Use it to gather the most impressive bits of this world into a collection we defend as our own?
I suppose we each have to answer that question for ourselves. What do you want to do with your consciousness? I do want to use it to be happy. I want to use it to learn how to be less neurotic, anyway. I do want to use it to be compassionate. I do want to expand my awareness and capability, but I often wonder how much I can learn before I’ll just be forgetting most of it anyway. I want to use it to make a positive impact in the world, but I’m not sure what that will be. I want to use it to touch the Divine, if I can.
“To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and vulgar things. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Try the “Astronomy Picture of the Day” from NASA. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/