The second I saw it, I involuntarily gasped and jumped backwards. I looked around assessing my solitary surroundings – a humid summer night, pesky flying bugs I couldn’t see but knew were on me, a black sky polluted with more suburban light than desired, yet still scattered with the brightest of glittering constellations as the moon rose through the trees over the horizon. In my peripheral vision, another meteor broke apart in one last blaze of glory.
I had finally figured out how to use my mediocre telescope, finally pointed it towards Saturn, and as I leaned in for another look, I simply could not believe my one open eye. I was looking at the ringed-planet for my first time ever, in real life. This was not another page in a book. It almost seemed unreal, as if the images of Saturn we’ve come to know have all been computer generated by some creative graphic designer in a dim cubicle, except instead of being imagined, Saturn was unmistakably, unbelievably, there. The Cassini Division gap in its rings barely revealed itself to my eyes struggling to focus, or was that Encke Division? “Probably Cassini, it’s bigger,” I answered myself. How unimaginably astounding it must be up close. With a deep breath and unable to look away, I, the astronomical late bloomer, was finally seeing Saturn.
Staring at it felt like I had traveled to some far-off land, that feeling I have only gotten when I stood on the Great Wall of China or saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It is the kind of experience where you realize you are living something you never imagined you’d live, and yet there your lucky ass is, living it.
As I followed the colossal sphere across the midnight sky, I thought about Galileo on a patio in Italy gazing up at Jupiter for the first time 400 years before me with a new invention, a telescope far inferior to mine, after which he provided further proof that the sun was the center of our solar system, not the earth, and that Jupiter had four orbiting moons (it now has 79 that we know of as of this month) – and they threw him in jail for it.
This may be what draws me to science – the questioning of authority, the search for authenticity and truth, the willingness to find my own answers and stand in my own convictions, even if it means I’m swimming upstream in the flowing strength of the doubt of others. Galileo, and those throughout history like him that gave us math, science, answers and more questions, against popular beliefs of the time, are the most hardcore punk rockers of all. Except the part where Galileo confined his illegitimate daughters in convents for their entire adult lives – that parts sucks, Galileo. Not cool, dude. Not cool.
The more I stared at the elegance of this distant tiny image in my mediocre telescope, the more the symmetrically round planet surrounded by its glowing rings looked reminiscent of the Eye of Providence on a dollar bill, a symbol that historically represents the eye of God watching over humanity.
The shape is also not unlike the eye drawn on an ancient Egyptian statue. Surely, somehow, those distant human ancestors must have seen this planet with their own eyes, too. Was this image of Saturn the inspiration of humanity’s use of those eyes across time? In that moment, seeing Saturn’s eye look back at me, I had a relatable understanding of how humans would have made this attribution. What other explanation could they have had at the time? How terrifying and hopeful it must have been without scientific explanation.
This similarity of Saturn in the sky to a drawing of an eye is not an accident. Everything we discover in the universe, all the images we document of the distant, bizarre and beautiful, are indeed the same as what we see of life on earth. Not because we interpret it that way, but because it is literally what we are made of.
The pupil of a human eye looks like a living replica of a nebula, an eclipsed sun looks like an esoteric sunflower, compacted interstellar gas and dust look like cumulus clouds, frozen carbon dioxide-capped poles on Mars look like earth’s frozen water-capped poles, the ethereal aurora on Saturn looks like the same aurora caused by the same solar flares we routinely receive on earth.
Everywhere we look in the universe, we are seeing reflections of ourselves. With one open eye, we are looking at where we came from and why we’re here. We are looking at our past and our future. Just as humankind across all origins, tones, ideals and cultures share love, hope, despair and fear, all the universe, including humankind, shares chemicals and evolution, existence and dying. The only thing that makes us different at all is that we exist now. It is our turn to be born, to live, to die, contributing to the only planet that has any life at all, so far, in the inconceivable vastness of the expanding universe. This is our chance, before we become just memories, and then just dust.
We don’t have time for hate. We don’t have time for apathy. We only have time to live.
*None of these photos are my own. I stole them all from the internet, but it’s for a good cause. You can’t put a price on enlightenment.