Royal Observatory, South Building / Greenwich, London, United Kingdom / February 2016
On retaining a sense of wonder at the world, recognizing our place in the universe, and taking in a planetarium show at the Royal Observatory.
It is an unfortunate fact of adulthood that we are forced to sacrifice our childlike sense of wonder at the world for an indifference borne of too much knowledge. If a kid asked me, “why is the sky blue?” I would probably answer (because Google told me), “well, because of little particles in the air and the way our eyes perceive color.” And with that, it’s sorted – the vast cerulean expanse above us is explained. It becomes easy to think we can know everything about everything and therefore the universe holds no surprises. But man, if this blasé attitude isn’t sometimes a burden.
It’s nice to know that a brief visit to the planetarium, long the sole province of grade school field trips, can jolt some awe right back into a world-weary adult. On this particular Sunday afternoon, a film was playing which opened with the beautiful, unifying words “we are all made of stars” and ended with me whispering into the dark, “this is the best movie I’ve ever seen.”1 How can it be that nebulae clouds a billion light years away may be formed of the same matter as my puny human body? The mere act of pondering this, and looking upwards at the huge, solid planetarium dome – not the actual sky, but a close proxy – was restorative.2 According to Carl Sagan, we might even call this a religious experience: “By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky.”
The planetarium is housed in a stately terracotta building forming part of the Royal Observatory, which sits on top of quite a steep hill in Greenwich Park. It was Christopher Wren, architect of most of London following the Great Fire of 1666, who chose the site. From here, all of the city stretches out in the distance, though in the skyline now Wren would probably only recognize his own St. Paul’s Cathedral. Below the Royal Observatory crouch the low-slung white buildings of the Old Royal Naval College,3 and just beyond those spring up a cluster of bank-branded skyscrapers representing the financial district of Canary Wharf.
The juxtaposition of these buildings makes it hard to avoid thinking about our old and new ages of exploration. In the history of humanity, exploration (at least the state-sponsored kind) has often been fronted by breathless rhetoric about wonder and curiosity but backed by more base motives about consolidating power and wealth. The Royal Observatory was founded in the late seventeenth century to develop astronomical information essential for improving navigation and cartography (and, as a cynic might add, finding new lands to plunder). An accompanying post, the Astronomer Royal, was created to head the Observatory. Incidentally, this position comes with one of the best job descriptions of all time:4 “forthwith to apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so-much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.”
Today, having charted all presumed locations of value in the physical world, it looks like we’ve set our sights on the virtual world of the markets, and a new breed of explorer has emerged to navigate it. The modern Masters of the Universe hail from an altogether different Greenwich, peer into terminals instead of telescopes, and read stock tickers instead of the stars.5 If I squint (or close my eyes), I can almost see shadowy figures stomping around the top floors of the looming towers on the horizon, searching for the next big financial discovery. From that perspective – in offices already among the clouds – the natural impulse is to look down into a screen, and the observatory can be readily dismissed as an antiquated monument to another age.
Still, this little homage to the cosmos remains firmly planted in the park where it has stood for centuries, a defiant reminder to continue to look up even if no riches are to be had from it, and even if we expend all our riches only to find we know pretty much nothing about everything. Lest you think all wonder is lost from the world, I can attest that the mysteries of the universe remain as mind-blowing and unmastered as ever. You need only scale a hill in the corner of London to find them.
And . . .