When one has weighed the sun in a balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?
~ Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Quantum mechanics has it that the act of observing a system alters that system. Electrons, they say, are constrained by observation to behave like particles rather than waves. I don’t fully understand this, but I wonder about applying the “observer effect” more broadly. It may be that stars and planets droop with the gravity of a million gazes, that celebrities can’t help but make fools of themselves, and that introspection will get you no closer to self knowledge than watching reality TV.
If the earth must perish, then astronomy is our only consolation.
~ Joseph Joubert
It sounds like a Hawking-esque call to colonize the galaxy, until you remember that Joubert wrote this in 1784. Astronomy here stands for the knowledge of (supposedly) eternal principles. A twenty-first century nihilist will ask what good any knowledge doomed to extinction can be. And yet we naturally prefer that each comet, each supernova, each exotic body orbiting an alien sun, at least fall under the passing gaze of someone. Possessed by one, the knowledge of a thing belongs to all. It becomes one step more in the project of humanizing the cosmos. Knowledge for its own sake sometimes gets a bad rap (trivia needn’t be trivial), but in a world under death sentence the thirst for knowledge is always at bottom a thirst for immortality.