Following LG’s Dark Skies exhibition, Port talks to scientist Antonia Forster on the romance of space and the need for a cosmic perspective
For the 3.5 billion people who live in cities – half of the world’s population – the night sky is a well-kept secret. Light pollution inhibits star gazing in urban areas, reducing the vast swirling cosmos to a few isolated specks – the brightest stars that make it through the glowing urban skies. Since the beginning of human history, we have watched the spectacle of the night sky with awe, provoking questions about the universe and our role within it. Losing that perspective of our unique and special universe at a time when we need it most could have dire consequences.
To highlight the importance of star gazing, electronics company LG has recently partnered with the planetarium team at We The Curious to create a time-lapse of London’s night sky. Displayed on a grid of the company’s new OLED 4K televisions at Westfield London, the screens replicate a ‘dark sky reserve’, a natural area that restricts artificial light pollution, showing the Pleiades, a meteor shower and the Andromeda galaxy as it appears above the capital.
Port spoke to We The Curious presenter and TEDx speaker Antonia Forster about maintaining our relationship with the natural world, the romance of space and why a cosmic perspective is so necessary in our current climate.
Why is it important to star gaze?
By just going to a rural area and looking up, you’ll be able to stare at the centre of your own galaxy. It’s beyond breathtaking. Every civilization since the dawn of time was able to see the Milky Way across the sky, and the Ancient Greeks in particular wondered what it was, but didn’t have the knowledge that we possess. In this modern age we know exactly what we’re looking at, and that’s even more spectacular.
One of the best ways to have that relationship with the night sky is to go out somewhere truly rural. The Atacama Desert in Chile is meant to be one of the best places in the world to do so. Deserts are particularly good because they don’t have many water molecules in the air. Apparently, the Milky Way is so bright there that it casts a shadow. Planetaria are also a great way to learn, and we’ve got the added benefit of being able to fly out to places in 3D with accurate data, so it’s really the closest thing to space travel you can get for less than several billion pounds.
Has space lost some of its significance in the public imagination?
Partly, and I suppose this is to do with a lack of media coverage and funding. It’s one of the reasons why astronomy is so conscious of public interest, because it’s important for people to understand why we’re doing this. It gives us an understanding of our place in space, a cosmic perspective. It’s one of the only sciences that allows us to comprehend something so much grander than ourselves. We operate on a certain scale through our whole lives and we assume that’s just how things are. There are very few subjects that demonstrate the bigger picture.
What are your thoughts on ‘colonising’ Mars?
If we have the technology to terraform Mars or the Moon, then we have the technology to protect our planet, which, as a world, is a much more appropriate for inhabiting. Space travel isn’t in opposition to sustainability, though. When we see images of Earth taken from space, we understand how precious and how special our world is. It seems absurd to me not to be concerned to what we’re doing to it.
What astronomical breakthroughs do you hope to see in your lifetime?
Probably the ones I couldn’t even imagine at this point in time. Our understanding of what constitutes the universe, or everything, has expanded so much in just a few hundred years. Until the 1500s, we assumed that Earth was the centre of the Solar System, and the Sun revolved around us. Later, we understood that this grand assumption was wrong, but we still assumed the Milky Way was the only galaxy. It was only in 1920 when Edwin Hubble studied the Andromeda ‘Nebula’, a fuzzy blob in the night sky, that he was able to calculate its distance and understand that it must lie outside our own galaxy – that in fact, it is another galaxy. This was a phenomenal idea at the time. Now we know there’s not just two galaxies, but roughly one hundred billion. This has completely altered our understanding of ourselves, our insignificance, of our place not being central to the universe.
We’ve come so far and I’d like to think that there will be another stage of that – perhaps we’ll find that we’re not the only universe, or that our understanding of what a universe is, is very limited to what it might be a hundred years from now. So I look forward to discoveries that help reframe the cosmic scale. Every so often there’s a paradigm shift that changes our entire perspective, the fundamental way we think about ourselves. I hope I’m alive to see one of those happen because I think it will be humbling.