The weather on Tuesday provided a lovely spring night, mild and dry, with a crystal clear sky. Disappointed at having missed the lunar eclipse on Sunday night due to clouds, I set up my telescope to take a few photographs. The best picture I captured shows the Great Hercules Cluster, known formally as Messier Object 13, or M13. The Hercules Cluster lies 22,000 light years from earth. It spans 145 light-years, and its volume contains approximately 300,000 stars. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a globular star cluster, it was probably this one.
Imagine living on a planet orbiting a star near the center of M13. The closest stars to the planet’s own would be just over 2 light years away. There would be a half-dozen or so at that distance, and dozens more at 4 light years, the distance of our sun’s closest neighbor. The night sky would appear as a dense star field, perhaps even too crowded with lights for observers to define constellations. A few close, bright stars would be visible during the day. If we lived on that planet, under those stars, our entire view of the universe would have developed very differently from the view we hold here on Earth. Creation stories, legends, scientific theories, and our sense of divinity would all differ completely from what we believe. And we would believe those different things fervently.
With a prompt and a moderate amount of imagination, you just contemplated a radically unfamiliar view. Not the details of the view, rather the plausibility of its existence in light of an unfamiliar set of conditions. Ironically, the existence of a fantastically different perspective is easier to imagine than the existence of a subtly different view.
We can picture a star-filled sky as seen from a world thousands of light years away, and how that setting could engender a sense of existence different from our own. Why then, is it difficult to appreciate that people here on Earth, under the same sky as us, might hold different beliefs? Why do we default to assumptions that others should share a worldview with us? They obviously wouldn’t if they lived on a different world, under a different sky. They don’t under this sky, either, even when they stand right beside us, searching for our respective fates in the exact same stars.