Heavens and Earth

Paper eagle in the night sky by the Greek artist Evi Sarantea. Courtesy Sarantea,

In ancient times, ranging at least two to three thousand years ago, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and other people looked at the stars in the sky with awe and respect. They thought they were connected to the stars in almost intimate ways. The Greeks had no doubt the stars were gods.

The Sun and the Moon

The Sun god Helios was the light and life giver, the king of heavens. His sister, Selene, the Moon, reflected at night the light it received from the Sun to the Earth. The Athenian comic poet Aristophanes reminded his fellow citizens the light from the Moon saved them money they would otherwise spend for night olive oil lights.

Landmarks in the sky

Stars benefited human in a variety of ways. Greek astronomers talked about constellations, that is, groups of stars that were landmarks in the sky, guiding travelers on land and sea.

A famous constellation is Pleiades. Seven stars represent Pleiades, and the seven stars were the daughters of the Titan god Atlas. Zeus placed the seven daughters of Atlas in the constellation Pleiades, from the verb pleo, to sail. Pleiades rose at the beginning of the sailing season in the Mediterranean. Both the epic poets Homer and Hesiod mention the constellation Pleiades.

In the Iliad, Homer describes how the god of metallurgy Hephaistos etched the constellation of the seven sisters on the Shield of Achilles. In the Odyssey, the moment Kalypso allows Odysseus to leave her island, Odysseus keeps looking at the Pleiades as his guide to finding his home island Ithaca.

In addition, seeing the Pleiades meant the start of the harvest, a real achievement in scientific observation. Moreover, the appearance of Pleiades was a fundamental sign to peasant farmers their crops were ready to be brought home. Harvest was a season of enjoyment and celebration in the countryside of Greece.

From mythology to astronomy

The entire pantheon of the stars is connected to the Olympian gods. The myths of the creation of each constellation represent powerful stories, which illuminate the emergence of astronomy. That is, natural philosophers, raised up in the myths of the stars, started careful observation and study of the size and motion of the stars. This helped them develop theories that gave them a more satisfactory explanation of the behavior of the heavenly bodies, including the role of the Sun and the Moon and the Earth in the Cosmos.

The Greeks had so much respect for the Earth, they put the Earth at the center of the universe. Their geocentric cosmology lasted throughout most of Greek history. Yet in the third century BCE Aristarchos of Samos dethroned the Earth and placed the Sun at the center of the Cosmos. His Heliocentric cosmology all but disappeared until modern times.

In the second century BCE, Greek scientists headed by Hipparchos, the inventor of mathematical astronomy and the greatest Greek astronomer of antiquity, designed and built in the island of Rhodes the Antikythera Mechanism. This was an astronomical computer of genius, a predictive machine with bronze toothed gears. It predicted the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon, including the Olympics and other Panhellenic games.

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Painting of the Antikythera computer by Dionysios Kriaris, a mathematician living in Athens, Greece. Courtesy Kriaris.

About three centuries later, in the second century of our era, the astronomer Ptolemaios of Alexandria enriched astronomy, geography, and our understanding of the heavens. Hipparchos was his model. He was the author of the Almagest, a mathematical astronomy book that educated the Arabs and the Europeans for centuries.

Ptolemaios spoke eloquently and with knowledge about the science of prediction, especially human and natural phenomena, including the prediction of the movements and positions of the Sun-Helios, the Moon, and the planets. He routinely predicted the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. In all likelihood, he owned an Antikythera computer which he called Meteoroskopeion.

The Greek Cosmos

Ptolemaios used his formidable astronomical knowledge in the writing of the Tetrabiblos (Four Books). This is an extraordinary document. It allows one to enter a culture that was spectacularly close to the stars. These heavenly bodies were far from the Earth but, in some ways, very close to the inhabitants of the Earth.

Ptolemaios is telling his Greek and Roman readers that the stars in the sky were intimate parts of their lives and civilization. In fact, the Sun ,the Moon, and the planets were, like the rest of the gods, all powerful in shaping their lives. They exercised a dramatic influence on their behavior and policies. Humans were creatures of the heavens. Stars formed their character. Stars also shaped the natural world.

Reading Tetrabiblos is shocking. Like the gods of Mt. Olympos, stars are masculine and feminine. They love and hate each other. They dominate the sky and humans like monarchs do. Alas to humans conceived or born at a time nasty stars are the big forces in heavens. They can expect diseases, poverty, and death. Yet good planets and stars are the carriers of health, intelligence, and civilization.

Tetrabiblos is all about a magical future. It’s not superstition, but the other side of reason. Confronting the gods in the sky is neither rational, nor irrational experience. It is an Earthquake. Tetrabiblos is such an Earthquake.

In the second century BCE, for instance, the makers of the Antikythera computer had in mind the prevailing culture of the fourth century BCE, when a Moon eclipse terrified a large Athenian army in Syracuse. That fright – seeing the Moon disappear at night — triggered the annihilation of that army. Predicting the will of the gods was crucial.

Yet the four books of the Tetrabiblos percolate with philosophical and astronomical ideas. Tetrabiblos reminded me of reading Works and Days of the epic poet Hesiod, the Phenomena of Aratos, a third century BCE Greek astronomer, and an Introduction to the Phenomena by the polymath astronomer Geminos, who flourished in the first century BCE: the same convictions about the role of the Sun-Helios in giving life to the crops and natural world; the same anxieties about the influence of the Moon, rains, and the winds on the growing of food and the behavior of farm and wild animals; and the same veneration of the gods.

These ideas about the stars prevailed for centuries, in fact down to my teenage years in the 1950s. I remember my father and mother praising the stars and connecting them with our lives and civilization. Harvest time was the time of Pleiades.

The great reset

This culture is no longer alive, however. The forces for the overthrow of the Cosmos painted in the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemaios are those of modern science, especially the development of nuclear weapons, advanced telescopes and satellites, and the hegemonic notion of human control of everything.

The mathematical physics of Archimedes, the mathematical, and engineering genius of the third century BCE, the mathematical astronomy of Hipparchos, and the Heliocentric cosmology of Aristarchos of Samos are still the pillars of modern astronomy. Yet Aristarchos is barely visible as Western scientists focus on Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473-1543, the Polish priest / mathematician / astronomer who appropriated Aristarchos’ ideas. They readily claim Copernicus founded modern astronomy.

However, modern astronomers ignore Copernicus and the Greek astronomers before him. They are obsessed with nuclear weapons, the military use of space, machines, and computers. They are dazzled by high tech to the point of converting astronomy to abstract mathematics and engineering projects as well as flashy pictures from orbiting telescopes. Their wild guesses about the structure of the heavens are troubling.

Astronomers talk about millions and billions and trillions of stars. No doubt there are unfathomable number of stars out there, but trillions? Who counted them? A machine? From millions of light years away?

In the same problematic enthusiasm, astronomers and physicists have been saying the universe came out of a massive explosion of an atom-sized matter. The date for such big bang wavers between 12 billion years ago and 14 billion years ago.

The advocates of this big bang theory refuse to say what came before the big bang. Nothing is not an answer. They refuse to confront that their conclusion about the universe emerging out of nothing is identical to the Biblical teaching that the god of the Jews, Christians, and Moslems created the universe out of nothing. How do the big bang theorists explain their hidden theology?

But the most disturbing consequence of the big bang astronomers (seeking another livable star) is that it diverts human efforts to stop the bullet train of climate chaos already slumming onto the planet and civilization.

Here’s an editorial from the New York Times of February 11, 2021 chiding astronomers for not looking hard enough for extraterrestrial life. After all, “Aliens Must Be Out There.”

But what infuriated me was the irresponsible way of downgrading the Sun and the Earth, foolishly suggesting that they are ordinary stars, so ordinary in fact, that hundreds of millions of stars like the Sun and the Earth are in our own Milky Way galaxy alone. No wonder the opinion writer, Farhad Manjoo, speaks of the Earth like it was an abandoned farm. The Earth, he says, is “a lovely place to raise a species but, as planets go, perhaps as unusual as a Starbucks in a strip mall.”

Imagine this hubris, asserting that billions of stars in the Milky Way could have planets with Earth-like ideal conditions for life. There’s practically no credible evidence for such statement.

It’s this language, full of nonsense, that does the damage. Yes, it’s theoretically possible there may be another Earth-like planet hiding somewhere in the vast universe.

But humans living now on our tortured and endangered Earth are risking everything on a flimsy suspicion astronomers are cooking up.

Besides, we have yet to understand the gigantic distances (in light years) that separate us from those stars. Light travels 186,000 miles per second. One light year is 5.88 trillion miles. Remember also, humans are mortals. So, expecting to find an

Earth-like planet hundreds of thousands of light years away is worse than a chimaera. It’s pure and dangerous deception.

First, let’s eliminate our addiction to petroleum. Move fast to solar and wind energy. Regain confidence the Earth is no longer risking annihilation from our own malevolent actions. Then search for other stars resembling our only Earth, which Plato called the oldest of the gods.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.