While the particle a millionth of an inch long whose defences are destroyed by washing our hands in soap and water for 20 seconds, also known as Covid-19, continues to wreak havoc around the world, the cosmos is doing its best to entertain us.
Since the summer I have been watching Jupiter and Saturn closing in on each other in the night sky. Back in England I had a telescope, good enough to see the Jupiter’s four biggest moons (just like Galileo), as well as the rings of Saturn. Even with the telescope, the planets look tinier than my little fingernail - but it’s like the difference between a photo of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and seeing the original in London’s National Gallery.
So I could see the planets getting closer but I had no idea until a few days ago that they were heading for a Great Conjunction, appearing side-by-side in the night sky. And closer than they’ve been since 1623 when Shakesepeare’s First Folio was being published.
Now I’m in Valencia, Spain, without a telescope, but with pretty much guaranteed clear skies every night. Saturn is bearing down on Jupiter, or so it seems on the two-dimensional canvas that’s the night sky. Last night they were half a fingernail’s width apart, and at 19.37 on the 21st December they’ll be indistinguishable with the naked eye. Yet looked at ‘from the side’ they’ll be about 650m kms distant from one another. Then they’ll begin drifting apart and won’t be so close again until 2080. For me this is very much a one-off event.
The 21st December is also the Winter Solstice, so some eight hours before the Great Conjunction the earth’s northern hemisphere will begin to tilt back towards the sun and the days will get longer. And the universe turns another notch, insensible to our trials and tribulations.
So here are we humans, stuck somewhere between a tiny particle that threatens to undo us in the short term and the motion of the quantic universe leading inexorably to heat death. The cosmos doesn’t much mind what happens to us. But on the other hand we may be the only beings in the universe capable of that thought, so we should take care of ourselves and all that sustains us.