Date: February 10, 2010
Title: Astronomical Lessons for Life
Podcaster: Mark Jones
Links: Mark’s website, Astronomy Mark: www.astronomymark.com
Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health: www.ecrh.org
Neurofeedback San Antonio: www.neurofeedbacksanantonio.org
Dazzling and Devine: www.dazzlinganddivine.com
Description: Five astronomical lessons for life. Mark reflects on his experiences with astronomy and the many lessons for life that astronomy has taught him.
Bio: Mark Jones is the Clinical Director of the Ecumenical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he provides psychotherapy and neurofeedback services in the South Texas Medical Center and adjacent areas. His latest book, Dazzling and Divine, is a psychological and spiritual guide for contemplative sojourners. He is also affiliated with the Texas Astro-Imaging Group, which is a clandestine motley collection of rabid astrophotographers who eat too much barbeque.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Keith Brandt – physician, amateur astronomer, and all-around science geek, and is dedicated to his son Joshua, a budding programmer, astronomer, and science geek in his own right. Happy 21st birthday Joshua!
Astronomical Lessons for Life
The night sky is more wonderful than star charts and planetarium programs can depict. The glory of the Milky Way far outshines any photometric light curve or Power Point presentation about quantum physics or string theory. The simple pleasures of gazing at the heavens and giving oneself to those vistas with an appreciative mind and an awestruck heart, awaken within us a sense of wonder at life and our place in this world of mystery. It teaches us to pause, to suspend judgment and worry, and to allow ourselves to be swept over with the sheer immensity of existence.
Hi, my name is Mark Jones and I am a psychotherapist in San Antonio, Texas. I’m also an avid amateur astronomer. While I have nothing of a technical nature to contribute to the science of astronomy, I do have some reflections on my experiences with astronomy and the many lessons for life that astronomy has taught me. In this brief podcast I share five such astronomical lessons for life with the hopes that you, too, can relate to the ways that astronomy has shaped my life.
1. Lesson number one: letting go. San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the United States with the light pollution to go along with it. The sky is clear only 29% of the year on average, so I’ve had to cope with the frequent frustration of clouds and haze obscuring my vision of significant astronomical events. The good news is that with only a few hours drive west on Interstate 10, I can be in some of the darkest and clearest skies in the country. But, even at that, I’ve had numerous disappointments with planning trips to the pristine skies of west Texas only to be greeted with clouds, rain, and even a freakish winter storm. I can plan all I want, but the lunar eclipse or meteor shower may remain hidden from view.
Such is life. Life is uncertain. I can’t control the weather or the possibility that some big rock might someday take us out. This is a lesson that has helped me with life in general, whether it is coping with unpredictable traffic conditions for my morning commute or my existential angst over getting bonked on the head by some falling space junk. Heck, don’t take life so seriously. Just make the best of it.
2. Lesson number two: the universe does not revolve around me. The history of astronomy is this lesson learned over and over again. It was once thought that our world was the center of the universe and that everything revolved around it in perfect order. Galileo, among others, faced persecution for suggesting that this was not the case. Then there was the debate about whether our solar system was at the center of our galaxy. It isn’t. Then we learned that our galaxy is just one among billions. Get the point? This is one I that I have to remind myself of on a regular basis. Hey, it isn’t about me, is it?
3. Lesson number three: life is awesome! Astronomy has become my chief spiritual practice. Looking through the eyepiece at the Orion Nebula is a sure bet at getting me into a profound sense of awe and wonder. It blows my mind that some of the photons that hit my retina have been in route for thousands, if not billions, of years. It helps me keep things in perspective. When I get home at night from a long day at the office, a glance up at the stars seems to put things right. And, if by chance, it is a particularly clear night—and I can muster up the energy to roll out my scope—then I’ll soon lose myself in the wonders of space.
4. Lesson number four: the best things in life take time and effort. While participating in the 2006 Grand Canyon Star Party, I had dozens of park visitors look through the eyepiece of my 12” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at a glorious view of Saturn. Many simply took a peek and said “cool.” Some took the time, however, to take a long look and were spellbound as I coached them to see the bands on the planet’s surface, the Cassini division in the rings and the four brightest moons. At least two people burst into tears. It was a profound experience.
Astronomy rewards those who wait and put out the effort. It takes a good thirty minutes for one’s eyes to fully adapt to darkness, but with dark adapted eyes I’ve actually seen Jupiter’s shadow on my tee shirt. And, some faint objects in the eyepiece require averted vision to see, which is an art all to itself. It also pays to be a consistent observer, taking in as many nights as possible. Atmospheric conditions can be radically different from one night to the next. Even with clear, dark skies, the seeing—or level of distortion caused by turbulence—can blur images terribly one evening, but enable spectacular views the next.
Another cause for waiting is the fact that not everything you might want to see is visible tonight. If you’re wanting a good look at Jupiter, for example, you’ll need to wait until next Fall. Jupiter only comes around every so often. It will teach you patience.
5. Lesson number five: the universe is too complex for simple answers. Try this one. I’m going to read a quote and you see if you can guess who said it. Ready? Here goes. “I believe there is life on other planets. We have this galaxy, the Milky Way, and they now speculate that there are millions and millions of galaxies. And in each galaxy, a trillion stars, planets and all that. I can’t imagine that we’re the only one that has life. That would be a terribly egotistical thing for us to say as a planet.” OK, who said that? A. Albert Einstein? B. Carl Sagan? C. Al Gore? D. Teddy Roosevelt? Or, E., the Reverend Billy Graham? I’ll let you know at the end of the podcast.
I’ve lived long enough to discover that things aren’t always what I thought they were. It is human nature to come up with a reasonable explanation for a mystery and to dogmatically stick to that explanation in spite of evidence to the contrary. Astronomy is a field that teaches this lesson over and over. Einstein once believed we live in a static universe until Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. It is no longer mere speculation that there are planets around other stars—hundreds have now been discovered. And, to me, the biggest mind bender of them all is the current widely held belief among astrophysicists that roughly 95% of the universe is made of stuff we have yet to comprehend. For lack of better terms, they call it dark matter and dark energy. Life is like that, though. The more we learn, the less we know and we best maintain some humility.
Well, that’s it for now. Thanks for listening. To learn more of my passion for astronomy, visit my website at astronomymark.com. Oh, by the way, it was Billy Graham.
Background music: “Bathed in the Light,” courtesy of Kevin MacLeod
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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I am impressed by your ability to stay on the cutting edge of learning and growth. You have a thirst for learning.
Very thoughtful and inspirational! Thank you!
Mark: I have to “ditto” Lindell with my thoughts I have about your “adventure into space”! Wouldn’t it be something to discover something in space that would be named after you!!!!
Keep on, keeping on. Thanks for sharing!!!
I am also a psychotherapist and equally awed by the universe’s grandeur.
But I wanted to particularly thank you for sharing your life-lessons without imposing a religious tone in your essay (notwithstanding the reference to Billy Graham.)
As indicated by your litany of possible authors of the Graham quote, human experience does not require a supernatural overlay to appreciate the natural world. Because you kept your podcast secular, I could listen to your words without questioning your motives. Thanks.