October 24, 2022

LEVIN | Look Up, but Not Away

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Astrologers of the ancient Near East looked to the stars for wisdom, arranging the night sky in constellations. Polynesian seafarers relied on the positions of the stars to navigate. Historically, diverse peoples from all over the globe have viewed the positions of the Sun, the stars and the Moon as omens of doom and prosperity. Throughout all of human history, we’ve been mystified and fascinated by the universe and its workings. As time progressed, so too did our tools, and with the advent of the telescope, we could gaze deeper into the night sky. Galileo was the first, but many more eyes would probe the cosmos with a telescope, including generations of notable Cornellians. 

This month marks the 100th “birthday” of Fuertes Observatory’s telescope, the Irving Porter Church Telescope, simply nicknamed “Irv.” Into its lens many inquisitive Cornellians have squinted and glimpsed celestial bodies farther than any human being has ever journeyed, all from a small observatory hidden away on North Campus. Every Friday, the Cornell Astronomical Society gathers at the observatory. At the turn of a wheel, the hulking rotunda slides open and “Irv” is readied, pointed skyward, the giant 100-year-old telescope that weighs as much as a full-size car. 

Looking through the telescope, Saturn, a planet with a volume that could snugly fit 764 Earths inside, seems no larger than a copper penny that you might grasp in the palm of your hand. “You feel small, awe-struck,” Luis Hernandez Rocha ‘26, a member of the Cornell Astronomical Society, said of seeing Saturn and other fixtures of the night sky for the first time through “Irv.” I and so many other students could peer through that telescope for hours, admiring the endless beauty of space until woozy from rapt contemplation. But I want to know what it all means for us, for Earth and humanity?

Reflecting on the growing danger of complete environmental catastrophe here on Earth, Prof. Phil Nicholson, astronomy, explained to me that “It’s really incumbent on us to try to protect the situation we have, both because we should be stewards of the earth and from a practical point of view: there’s no alternative for us to move to.” Prof. Nicholson furthered his point, “If we mess up our planet, we can’t just move to Mars or Jupiter or Venus and expect to find a nice environment where we could happily live.”

As far as telescopes can see, we’ve never found conclusive evidence of life. We’ve scoped out habitable planets with conditions similar to ours, and the closest one is more than four lightyears away, meaning that light takes almost half of a decade to travel here from there. Our fastest manned rockets are infinitesimally slow when compared to the speed of light — in fact, they are tens of thousands of times slower. It’s doubtful that we’ll ever develop the technology to reach those distant, lightyears-away planets, at least before the problem of climate change swallows us whole. So Earth is our one and only option.

 In all, NASA has identified 5,000 exoplanets — planets orbiting a star outside of our solar system — discovering no observable life on any of them. It’s clear that we may be the only intelligent beings in all of the known universe. Looking through “Irv” gives us a dose of humility, Nicholson told me soberly. It reminds us of the preciousness of life here on Earth, its rareness and its fragility, and to not take it all for granted. Like a flickering candle whose flame could fade at any moment if not protected, our continued survival is tenuous, on the verge of collapse if we fail to address our biggest existential threats from climate change and overconsumption to nuclear fallout.

Examining the night sky through “Irv’s” lens tells us that we might not have a hand in the grand outcomes of the universe or ever fully understand its mechanisms, but we have the power to protect its most valuable and unique asset: life. An education at Cornell prepares us students for positions of responsibility and authority in global society. So it’s critical that every student here rejects those passive stances on environmental and social issues that will prove to be our downfall as a species. Just as each star in view contributes to the beautiful constellations that dot the night sky, we are all interconnected — mutually responsible for our collective future. 

Every day, I hear another grim prophecy from the scientists. They all read like some crazy rambling from Nostradamus, except they’re all coming true: The waters will rise and eat up the coasts; the rains will fall, acidified; summers will be swelteringly hot, more so year by year; the poles will evaporate and mighty glaciers will be brought down; and so on. The time has long passed that we can plead ignorance or choose indifference. What I see when I look into that telescope is a galaxy that doesn’t change much as years tick by, but on Earth, a new battle is raging and our loss becomes more imminent every year. 

But what can we do to win against the odds?

Student environmentalist and National Geographic Young Explorer Lorena Patricio ‘26, who spent her gap year in the rainforests and savannas of Brazil, surveying diverse bird species and educating locals about conservation efforts, told me that “Everyone can do something and everyone should do something to protect our world.” Whether that’s through dietary restrictions, art, agriculture, photography, writing, environmental education, activism, charity or other means, a sustainable lifestyle looks different for everyone, but we all must play our parts and know better than to shrug off our individual responsibilities. 

As Theodore Roosevelt, the “conservation president” who laid the framework for the National Park System, once wisely advised, “Keep your eyes on the stars, but your feet on the ground.” Every time you look to the stars, remember where it is that you have the privilege of looking from and carry that reverence for Earth and all life with you wherever you go.

Gabriel Levin (he/him) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.

Correction, Oct 26, 12:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that a switch opens the observatory. It is actually a hand-turned wheel that does so. This error has been corrected.