Over the last few weeks, most of my friends have been busy making elaborate New Year's resolutions. Losing weight seems to be the most popular goal for 2007. Seems harmless enough, but I worry. If everyone actually kept his promise to drop 10 pounds, it could throw the whole planet out of whack. The Earth might wobble and veer off into the sun. That's no way to start the new year.
This evening I have just spent the better part of an hour looking up at the stars. As the old year winds down, I want to step back and get a good look at the big picture. It's unseasonably warm tonight, so I don't feel threatened by the weather. There is nothing like a winter sky on a warm night.
Without the worldwide Web or CNN, the ancient Greeks often looked to the sky for their news. Bulletins from eternity. Astrologers predicted the future by reading messages in the constellations. Even the Athenian stock market was controlled by the caprices of cloud cover. The sky seems busy tonight. Orion marches proudly in the Zodiac, his glittering belt and shield a reminder of war.
The Greeks did not love war, but they adored poetry about war. Achilles, almost invincible, was the ultimate hero. But he was surpassed by the crafty Odysseus whose intelligence and wit were greater weapons than Achilles' biceps. Over in the east, the moon is fading as if a sliver has been sliced from the edge. I can easily locate the north star pointing the way to freedom as it did for runaway slaves not so long ago -- just a heartbeat in the universal clock.
In one of his sonnets, Shakespeare saw this same star as a symbol of constancy in love, always a valued commodity. Over in the west, the Pleiades cast their bright net in the darkness. Freedom, light, true love, constancy. Not a bad night after all.
I am an astronomer, but I don't calculate orbits or target asteroids or make predictions. Rather, I try to live by the lights from above. So many of the stars are based on the mythology of war. Bloody Mars, Giant Jupiter and even distant Neptune hold sway in the black fields above my head.
I am sure that Homer hated war. His terminator, Achilles, was killed off in battle, overcome by his own pride and the sharp spear of Paris. Later, when Odysseus praised him in the land of the dead, the somber Achilles rejects the ethos of combat by proclaiming that he would rather be a slave pushing a plow than the greatest warrior in the land of the dead.
We still live in war-torn times. Everywhere I look, I see troops on the march, car bombers multiplying, terror and death beating their drums. Instead of epic poetry, we make movies where heroes fly through the air shooting rockets with faultless precision. Enemies disappear painlessly. Death and mayhem have become good, clean fun at the push of button. We are in love with war and continue to dance in its dangerous embrace.
Might the planet make a resolution to calm down in 2007? Could we go on a strict regimen of peace? What if everyone resolved to drop 10 pounds of hate? There's a diet that's great for the heart!
War never produces a winner. When I read the news, I see the mathematics of despair. The numbers don't lie with their cold calculations. So instead I will look to the sky and follow the lights in 2007. Where there is light there is hope. The old story has been written in the stars. We just need to take the time to look up and read it.
Tom O'Malley, a teacher who lives in Buffalo, enjoys gazing at the stars.