Scanning the Vault of Heaven

This is a very popular time of year for people to go on vacations. You can tell by all of the beach photos showing up on your facebook feed. So (aside from drinking beer) what is the best way to relax while on holiday?

Turn of the century astronomer Simon Newcomb had a few thoughts on the subject. In his essay The Extent of the Universe, Newcomb writes that “Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort;” but that is merely physical rest. To rest the mind and the soul he prescribes contemplation of the night sky:

“I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens.”

The movements of the heavenly bodies are regular, ordered and unchanging. (Well, not exactly unchanging, but Newcomb points out that the amount of change over the whole history of human existence has been all but imperceptible.) This is why the astronomer Ptolemy asserted that the study and contemplation of the skies instills the soul with “the sameness, good order, due proportion, and simple directness contemplated in divine things.”

So even if you don’t get a chance to go on a fancy vacation, pick a clear night when you can lie on your back with a beer in hand (be careful when trying to drink in that position) and marvel at the beauty and order of the heavens. “The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Export – Despite only 5.2% alcohol it does taste more strongly of alcohol than the 5.0% 5,0 Original Pils. The whole brand is about making beer as cheaply as possible, so it is hard to be disappointed. It isn’t very good, but is exactly what it aims to be: a drinkable, very cheap beer. (No surprise that it is a product of Oettinger.)

Reading of the week: The Extent of the Universe by Simon Newcomb, Excerpt – In the hundred or so years since Mr. Newcomb died, tremendous advances and discoveries have occurred in the field of astronomy, but that is no reason to stop reading his work. The philosophical truths about the contemplation of the heavens remain unchanged.

Question of the week: Why does Newcomb think that the contemplation of the heavens can relieve anxiety while Pascal claims that thinking about the vastness of space fills him with dread? Is the difference in how they are thinking about the subject? Or is it due to a fundamental difference in the men themselves?

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