The Great Conjunction & The Enlightenment
By Jas Johl
Astronomy has long been a tool for mapping changes in human history. Four hundred years ago, a celestial event called “The Great Conjunction” marked the beginning of paradigm shifting changes in scientific and philosophical thought.
The Great Conjunction, a planetary alignment last seen in 1623, will be visible in the evening sky as the planets Jupiter and Saturn come together on the night of Dec. 21. 2020. The last time the two planets were this close, the Renaissance Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was able to view the mountains and valleys of the moon, the satellites of Jupiter, and sunspots — observations that would play a huge role in discrediting the prevailing, church-endorsed view of an Earth-centered cosmos.
But the influence of astronomical events on intellectual history goes back even further. From the ancient philosophical texts of India, the Vedas, to early edicts in physics and mathematics, observations of the night sky have been central in establishing who we are as a species, both physiologically and psychologically.
The last Great Conjunction preceded the scientific revolution and enlightenment — paralleling our current age where advances in neuroscience, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence seem to be pushing us towards a new precipice in what it means to be human. Even modern capitalism has ties to the turning of the stars. The two major companies founded in 1602 and 1621, respectively, around the last Great Conjunction, were the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company. Capitalism as we know it began during the early 1600’s with the creation of new global networks and markets — and with the current Great Conjunction, the world financial order seems about to shift, once again.
Preceding the last Great Conjunction, Johannes Kepler — the German astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer and key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution — chronicled a 1604 supernova in De Stella Nova. Kepler not only recorded his experience seeing it in the night sky, but the reactions from people across Prague, where he lived at the time.
Kepler’s observations received further elucidation with the publication of Issac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687). Newton outlined his laws of motion, as well as the law of universal gravitation: any two particles in the universe attract one another with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton then applied the laws to explain other phenomena, such as the rise and fall of the tides and the orbits of comets.
These findings led to one of the greatest intellectual advances of the past millennium — the recognition that all of the laws of nature work the same way in both the laboratory and the cosmos. The current astronomical community stands poised to take advantage of the continuing breathtaking advances in computational speed, storage media, and detector technology.
In The Universe Within, a 2013 book that attempts to explain cell biology using concepts from astrophysics, author Neil Shubin notes: “There is something almost magical to the notion that our bodies, minds and ideas have roots in the crust of Earth, water of the oceans, and atoms in celestial bodies. The stars in the sky and the fossils in the ground are enduring beacons that signal, though the pace of human change is ever accelerating, we are but a recent link in a network of connections as old as the heavens.”