Grasping at Stars

The wonder we feel gazing up at the night sky has long guided us. How can we reconnect when the lights dim?


Illustrations by Tu Tran. Photos courtesy Adobe Stock.


A group of Neolithic people carve and raise the enormous slabs of Stonehenge in wide circles to welcome the summer solstice and honor those buried below …

An Iroquois father points to the sky where a constellation marks the hole where Sky Woman fell from a floating island to land upon the back of Big Turtle …

A boat on the Pacific rides thousands of miles through choppy waves while its Polynesian navigator consults the stars for the way back home …

An Egyptian pharaoh is laid to rest, the inside of his coffin painted as the night sky so Iris can protect him on the other side …

The Book of Genesis opens with God creating the heavens and the earth. Then, God said: “Let there be light,” separating the light of day from the darkness of night …


One million miles away from Earth, NASA’s James Webb telescope dances in orbit around the sun, capturing miraculous images of stars, planets, and newly discovered galaxies beyond our own. Humanity can behold these glorious pictures and marvel at this cosmic symphony laid before us, expanding since its birth in the Big Bang.

But thousands of years before our species had the methods or mathematics necessary to tell this scientific origin story, we still found answers to existential questions in the night sky.

The star cluster called the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters is known to the Cree people as Pakone Kisik—the hole in the sky from which many North American Indigenous people believe the first humans came, falling into our world from an island above the clouds.

Contemporary Cree astronomers still trace Pakone Kisik today, along with other traditional constellations of bears, sweat lodges, thunderbirds, loons, and fishers. It’s a practice that carries forward the stories of their ancestors, preserving their culture and honoring their connection to the world around them.

Weaving stories into the stars over generations has always been an irreplaceable part of our humanity and spirituality across cultures, says Santa Clara University environmental studies lecturer Ted Grudin.

“Think about a child looking up to the sky, developing their own sense of the universe, the world, and themselves,” he explains. “Having a visual aid reinforces the spiritual imagination and folklore that can emerge from that experience.”

But if seeing is believing, what will be left to believe in if our celestial inspiration disappears? What happens to our understanding of ourselves if we can no longer see the stars?

Today, billions of people from Las Vegas to Hong Kong work and play deep into the night thanks to LED street lights, digital billboards, and neon business signs. While these cities shine brightly enough to be seen from space, it’s that very light that obscures the stars behind a haze of light pollution down on Earth.

In 2016, astronomers found that light pollution affects more than 80 percent of the world. Of course, the solution isn’t to plunge the world back into darkness. People still need to move about the night safely. But by reflecting on our past and reimagining our present, could we restore a sense of nocturnal wonder to our lives?


Beloved 20th-century astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the notion that humans aren’t just observers of the cosmos, but its descendants—that the matter that makes up our bodies was created in the same moment as the matter that makes up stars and planets.

While this scientific understanding of astronomical lineage is fairly recent, the idea of a relationship between humankind and the heavens is not.

“Across the various pantheons of the ancient world— whether it’s Egyptian, Babylonian, or Greek—the sky is always up there at the top,” says Carolynn Roncaglia, associate professor in the Department of Classics. “It was a pretty common spiritual belief that humans were created from this long line going back to the sky.”

Many early rulers would claim they were descended directly from the gods and, upon dying, they would be brought up to the heavens to live forever among their godly ancestors.

“This was often connected to celestial signs,” Roncaglia says. “For example, when Julius Caesar was assassinated, his nephew, the future Emperor Augustus, argued for Caesar’s divinization, pointing to a comet that was seen in the sky and claiming it was Caesar’s soul going up to the heavens.”

To bolster these divine connections, leaders poured literal blood, sweat, and gold into the construction of political and religious monuments, like the Incan Sun temples or the Egyptian temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. Often, these were designed to be dramatically illuminated by the sun’s specific position on solstices or equinoxes—thus reaffirming that ruler’s link to the heavens.

This desire for a personal connection to the stars extended beyond the ruling class. Just as we enjoy reading what our zodiac signs say about us in magazines or BuzzFeed quizzes, everyday people in the ancient world were also fascinated by what it meant to be a Leo or a Sagittarius.

“There was a real belief that if the movement of the heav- ens, the constellations, and the planets can tell when spring is coming, when you should plant crops, and when the Nile is going to flood, why would it not also announce what the rest of your life was going to be like?” Roncaglia explains. “Perhaps, they thought, the night sky could inform a human future as well as a natural future.”

This led to a blending of astronomy and astrology, a blending so deep that in ancient Greece the names of the two disciplines were used interchangeably. In fact, the father of trigonometry, Hipparchus of Rhodes, accurately calculated the orbits, distance between, and sizes of the sun and the moon, all while doing astrology readings on the side.

Eventually, understanding the secrets of the sky became an elite obsession, with nobility and royalty becoming patrons to astronomers and paying large sums of money for astronomical calendars or calculators to show off at parties—the most remarkable example perhaps being the Antikythera mechanism dating from roughly 200 B.C.E.

A culmination of the ancient sciences of Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Europe, the bronze device—often described as the world’s first computer—could predict constellation movements, the orbit of the moon, eclipses, and the positions of five visible planets.

It’s a complete marvel, Roncaglia says, that such a complex device could have been created using nothing more than an abacus and observations made with just the human eye.

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“If you ask a Christian child ‘Where is God?’—they’ll point up,” says William Dohar, a senior lecturer in religious studies, discussing the way Christianity shifted how people in medieval Europe perceived their relationship with the stars.

Despite the impressive astronomical tools once available in the ancient world, the Dark Ages turned the clock back on European science. The last theory standing was Ptolemy’s model, which incorrectly put the sun and planets in orbit around Earth.

The theory appealed to Catholic scholars, lining up neatly with the expectations set out in scripture. It centered humanity in the story of God’s universe, producing a sense of order in a chaotic world.

“It was around this time that they adopted this vision of a sphere around humanity—a sublunar world—that becomes the place of flux and change. It’s where we experience seasons, birth, and death,” describes Dohar. “However, when you look to the night sky, you move beyond that sphere, into a place of higher order—the abode of God.”

This lofty perspective found its way into Catholic Church-commissioned art and cathedrals. Back then, cathedral interiors were painted in striking reds and blues, with golden stars adorning vaulted domes. They seemingly stood tall enough to touch the heavens—a reminder that the Church was an extension of heaven itself, the closest you could get to divinity in this world.

If Earth was no longer the center of the universe, where was God? What was up? What was down?

That is, until one man turned European science on its axis.

Galileo Galilei had originally wanted to join the priesthood but was encouraged by his father to explore the sciences. There, he found a higher calling—literally.

Although he was not the first to point telescopes at the stars, his observations of the Milky Way made him a prom- inent defender of heliocentrism—a belief that threatened the existing religious and political order. If Earth was no longer the center of the universe, where was God? What was up? What was down?

The Church asked Galileo to recant his views, but he refused. He held firm to his faith in mathematics, which was, in his words, the true “language of God.

Declared a heretic and sentenced to house arrest, Galileo continued to believe in the divine mathematics he had seen in the night sky until his final breath.


More than three centuries after Galileo’s death, in the Arizona desert, the night sky shimmers with thousands of stars, and beyond them, distant planets, moons, and nebulas—made all the clearer by the area’s lack of urban light pollution. In the mountains, a 6-foot-wide telescope points at this cosmic scene. Beneath it, a community of Jesuit priests gazes up in awe.

Directly funded by the Holy See, the Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG) established its presence outside of Tucson in 1980, where its work has benefitted research in dark matter, meteorite classification, and galaxy inventories.

Some might be surprised to learn that the same church that once opposed Galileo’s theories now studies the stars themselves, but for Paul Schutz, associate professor of religious studies, it’s a clear connection.

“The classical Catholic definition of theology is ‘faith seeking understanding,’ and seeking to understand the world we inhabit from the standpoint of faith must include engagement with the sciences,” Schutz explains. The Church now accepts heliocentrism as fact, and in 1992, Pope John Paul II formally acknowledged the Church’s mistake in condemning Galileo.

And the Catholic Church hasn’t just accepted cosmological theory—its members have also been highly influential in the development of the field.

For example, Georges Lemaître was a Belgium priest and astrophysicist who is credited with proposing the Big Bang theory, which Albert Einstein described as “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Lemaître made headlines around the world not only for his bold new theory but also for his belief that it did not conflict with the story of Genesis.

In studying the intersection between science and faith, Schutz visited the Arizona-based Vatican Observatory in 2015 to better understand one of its most public theologians and scientists—William R. Stoeger, S.J. A classmate of Stephen Hawking, Stoeger worked at the VORG from 1979 until his death in 2014. He is most remembered for his abiding commitment to both a belief in God and the scientific method, once writing: “There are many different sources of truth, but what they indicate can never be in essential opposition if we properly understand them.”

“Gazing into the night sky opens us to this awareness of the divine, the transcendent, God, or whatever name we give that which lies beyond our understanding.”

Stoeger believed that faith and science had a great deal to learn from each other, and if they were in respectful dialogue, they could create a perspective greater than the sum of its parts. One plus one could equal three.

Perhaps nowhere is this possibility most evident than in the night sky, Schutz says.

“When humans lose the ability to look out in the night sky and perceive the vastness of our universe, we forget our part in this bigger system. Gazing into the night sky opens us to this awareness of the divine, the transcendent, God, or whatever name we give that which lies beyond our understanding.”

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On a clear night, the tapestry of stars tells us a story that encompasses not only human history and belief but also 13.8 billion years of cosmic history.

It seems ironic that electric lights—an invention not even 200 years old that has literally illuminated every aspect of our daily lives—could be erasing our connec- tion to this infinite story. With light pollution doubling every eight years, could humanity be hurtling toward a new, spiritual Dark Age?

“The meaning we seek in the cosmos remains in every atom or molecule or cell around us,” insists Grudin, the environmental studies lecturer. “However, we can often be limited by our perceptions—if we don’t see something, it can be easily forgotten. If we understand the value of the clear night sky, we should do more to support people in accessing that.”

It’s a mission that drives assistant professor of philosophy Kimberly Dill’s research into global dark sky preservation efforts, which aim to remove light pollution to “re-wild” the night sky.

“Being connected to the stars evokes so many transformative emotions,” explains Dill, who fondly remembers seeing solar systems in the night sky during childhood camping trips. But with artificial light dominating urban skies, these transformative feelings are lost and human health suffers. Excess light at night affects our ability to sleep restfully, and studies have linked it to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and cancer.

These implications extend to the animal kingdom, where darkness is a necessity for nocturnal animals’ migration, hunting patterns, and pollination ability. This creates a cascading ecological effect on surrounding flora, fauna, and environments—all tied to a city street lamp turning on.

While many quick solutions like motion-activated lights and less-bright, low-sodium bulbs already exist, Dill hopes humanity will go further in our obligations to ourselves, our planet, and our night sky. Her dream? A world illuminated by nature itself.

There, she posits, warm, wet cities like Portland or Beijing could line their public walkways with glowing, photoluminescent fungi. Other urban areas might glitter with bulbs filled with shining algae or bacteria. Across this world, cities and towns might glimmer with gentle blue and green lights, bright enough to see the path below, dim enough to appreciate the stars above.

“While I know it sounds like science fiction, I think it’s a beautiful potential future,” Dill says. “There’s no reason efficient urban planning should discount aesthetics, sustainability, or innovation.”

And if we could create a night as magical as what Dill imagines, what stories might we rediscover? Could our nights be filled with spiritual reveries like the ones that spurred Galileo to look up, or led to the creation of the Antikythera mechanism, or identified the Pakone Kisik, that hole in the sky whence we all came?

Perhaps. But only if we view this new night sky with equally curious eyes.

“There’s still so much to be understood and discovered,” says Dohar, the religious studies lecturer. “If we slowed down, took a look at the universe around us—not to confirm any laws of physics, but to see what could possibly be revealed in the experience—we can once again open ourselves to that wonder and awe, that deeper way of knowing.”

After all, what’s the point of restoring the night sky if we don’t take the time to really observe it? Though humans may be just a blip in cosmic history, our small, individual experiences of this story are what make looking at the stars so collectively meaningful. Storytelling is about knowing ourselves, and we need only gaze up to get started.

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