Twenty thousand years ago, in a cave in France, Palaeolithic humans painted a great bull with a collection of seven dots above his shoulder. Scholars are divided over the meaning of such paintings, but at the start of this book Jo Marchant makes a convincing and picturesque argument that the image is a remnant of a fairly sophisticated astronomy, in which the movement of stars informed human hunting: “a star calendar, with the Pleiades marking key moments in the life cycle of the aurochs bull”.
It’s the earliest of many stories in which the cosmos is intrinsically bound up with human behaviour, beliefs, art, science, discovery and understanding – a fundamental connection whose recent loss, Marchant argues, is bad news for humans today. The star myths we tell “are not just stories. They’re cultural memories passed through generations for thousands of years.”
Marchant’s vast and fascinating story packs in plenty of human detail, such as all the gossip about Captain Cook’s sailors in Tahiti ransacking their ship to sell its nails for sex with the locals, and why in the late 19th century the Egyptologist Brugsch brothers broke a 4,000-year-old pharaoh in two, each carrying half of him under one arm. Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s response to finding a series of unexplained pulses in the radio signals she was analysing is also included: “Here was I trying to get a PhD out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us.”
The book takes us from “the very first humans who looked to the stars, and the answers they found in the sky” to the mind-blowing advances of 21st-century physics. Scientists now analyse data on screens and most people can’t see the stars through light pollution and smog. Marchant calls this “a catastrophic erosion of natural heritage” and is astonished that there has not been a major outcry about “the loss of a view treated as fundamental by every other human culture in history”.
She analyses new research about circadian rhythms, weighs up the possibility of extraterrestrial life (and the meaning of “life” itself) and even talks to a psychologist who studies “awe”, to argue that human experience and the science of the universe should get reacquainted, urgently. It’s an inspiring and persuasive argument. If humanity is in the gutter, at least some of us could be looking at the stars.
• The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars is published by Canongate (£16.99). To buy a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.