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Reading: Cause And Effect

A photo of the edge of the Milky Way galaxy

This photograph was taken by Andy.

It’s amazing sometimes what reading causes you to do. The book I was reading when I wrote this was Paradox by Jim Al-Khalili. Whilst the book has its fair share of issues, it has reminded me of the interest I have in astronomy.

I’ve always said that I’m not particularly interested in science, but that is in fact a bit of a lie. There is something about physics that enchants me; by the time, “in my day”, you first encountered the planets in school at the age of 11, I had already spent the most part of my primary education waiting for that couple of weeks when I would learn about the universe. Because for some reason it didn’t occur to me that I could just take a book from the library and learn about it sooner.

But I digress. Paradox induced in me a very strong need to see in person the stars Al-Khalili was discussing, to see the edge of the galaxy he spoke about being visible at night, to witness the International Space Station as it flies past the earth (or does it? Indeed aren’t we flying past the station?) Where the station is concerned I realised I’ve already seen it, it’s one of those objects that people come running inside to get you to have a look at because they think aliens are arriving. But the stars I hadn’t seen, nor the edge of the galaxy. And I felt left out.

But as Al-Khalili suggests, being someone living in an urban landscape, I wasn’t going to see them any time soon. So like any sane person I got my boyfriend in on the idea and we went out that very weekend to star gaze without a telescope at midnight of the full moon, when seeing the sky wasn’t particularly likely no matter how far away from humanity you were prepared to travel.

Suffice to say we didn’t see the edge of the galaxy. But what we did sight was something pretty amazing in itself. When you see a bright light shining in the sky, brighter than all others, you expect it to be a well-known star. You don’t expect it to be Jupiter. What is incredible is that whatever you see in the sky that’s not in visible motion isn’t actually there; the light you are seeing is the light that has taken a long time to reach earth, meaning that the actual planet/star has since moved on. We will never see the real thing, only ever history. Al-Khalili reminded me of that, too. I won’t mention the fact that when we got back Jupiter was bright enough to see outside of my building anyway so the good use of all that petrol is debatable.

On a wet, freezing night, when the clocks were going back and the radio was full of bad remixes, I took to the road because of a book. I learned something and put it into practise.

When was the last time you took action because of a book, and what was it you did?

Edited to add: if you’re in the northern hemisphere, as long as it’s a clear night, you should be able to spot Jupiter. It’s the brightest “star” in the sky right now.



November 12, 2012, 3:45 am

What a lovely post. Often when I get a little far from civilization (which rarely happens. Particularly in the winter when the stars are most brilliant), I am always amazed by just how many stars are in the sky- and we can’t see most of them! It is so humbling, and I am jealous of all those previous generations who took the stargazing for granted…

Chris Ciolli (@ChrisCiolli)

November 12, 2012, 8:48 am

This is a lovely post. I can’t see the starts in Barcelona proper, either. Ah, the pitfalls of an urban existence. The last time I a book moved me to action was when I read Jeff Goins’ You Are a Writer, So Start Acting Like One. It pushed me to be more confident about what I do and who I am.


November 12, 2012, 12:54 pm

Nice post! I always thought Venus was the brightest “star”, but it depends on the time of year?

I read a book about information consumption and how we tend to read articles that agree with our own view and I do now try to keep that in mind, and sometimes click on a link to something with the opposing view to mine.

Laurie C

November 12, 2012, 5:36 pm

I haven’t taken up an intellectual pursuit like astronomy, but I have started flossing my teeth after reading Drop Dead Healthy by A. J. Jacobs! I’ve also started being more deliberate about saying hello and goodbye to my husband when he and I come and go, after reading Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubins.


November 19, 2012, 7:17 pm

Aarti: Thanks :) Yes, there are so many. It takes a while to adjust to the light to see them, but it’s an awesome sight. You’re right, it seems there was a lot more stargazing in past times. It probably also helped that they didn’t have the other technological distractions we have, though, that said, using Google helped us find out what we were looking at.

Chris: Thank you! Yes, stars and cities (no longer) match. I read Jeff’s blog on occasion, I like the angle he takes, talking about writing whilst writing himself. If that was the result for you of reading his book, maybe I should do more than just look at the link to it!

Judith: Thanks! I think it may do – I’ve heard similar. I believe it was just under the horizon when we went. What an interesting idea for a book! That’s a good thing to practise, we’re definitely far more inclined to be attracted to things we already believe in.

Laurie: Both good examples of books changing us for the better! I remember reading an article that said the words we use least in relationships are “thank you”, something I now try to remember.



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