by Francesca Fragkoudi
“So what does astronomy have to do with peace?” I was asked by one of the children in the classroom we visited during the pilot run of the “Columba-Hypatia” initiative in October 2016.
First, some background on how this project came to be: the island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974, due to a complex series of events, essentially fuelled by nationalism and fed by divide-and-conquer politics. These culminated in the military coup d’état of 1974, staged by Greek-Cypriot nationalists and backed by the Greek junta – which tried to overthrow the president of Cyprus and aimed at annexing the island to Greece. As a result, Turkey invaded the island which lead to it being divided in two, with Greek Cypriots in the south and Turkish Cypriots in the North. The two communities, which before the turbulent years of the 60’s and 70’s had peacefully coexisted in mixed villages, lived isolated from each other for 30 years, until the borders partially re-opened in 2003. Since then, there have been renewed efforts to reunite the island, both politically and through grass-roots initiatives. The Columba-Hypatia project was born out of a desire to facilitate contact between the peoples of the two sides of the island, through astronomy. So, why astronomy?
Science has always strived to enhance our understanding of the world, and astronomy in particular has shaped our cosmovision, our view of our place in the Universe, throughout the aeons. From the time of Copernicus, when astronomy revealed that we are not at the centre of the Universe and that everything does not revolve around us – to the cosmovision offered by modern astrophysics, that our Earth is just one of the many planets, of the many solar systems in our galaxy, which in turn is one of the many galaxies in the Universe. This humbling vision of our world, I believe, imposes on us the necessity to coexist peacefully, to set aside our differences and try to both preserve our planet as well as cherish one another. It gives us an understanding of our truly common origins, of how everything we are made of, all the carbon, oxygen and other atoms in our bodies, emerged from within a giant star which exploded at the end of its life, spewing the galaxy with atoms that eventually went on to form our solar system, our planet, and eventually, us. When one sees the vast Universe for what it is, is it not more worthy to try to find common ground, to work towards finding a better understanding of ourselves, of each other and of the world we live in rather than engage in hostility, rivalry and war?
Having participated in another project by GalileoMobile in schools in Peru, where the aim was to bring astronomy closer to children there, I had a simple yet beautiful realisation. Travelling to a country on the other side of the world from my own home country, with a very different culture to my own, and talking to children there about astronomy, I was struck by how similar we all are at our core. How we are all amazed by the wonders of the Universe, how looking through a telescope for the first time at the moon or at Saturn, can produce the same sparkle in our eyes, as we do the most humanly possible thing there is to do: wonder at the Universe, at the meaning of it all, at why we are all here. Sharing that moment together, under the same sky, is truly a beautiful and life changing experience, one that I believe can bring people together.
Students observing the Sun during the Columba-Hypatia pilot project last October in Cyprus.
Our hope is that by sharing the sky together, by exploring the cosmos through the lens of modern astrophysics, we can inspire the children of Cyprus to not only be curious about science and the Cosmos, but to also help create a better understanding of our common humanity, thus promoting meaningful communication and a culture of peace and non-violence on the island.
I think Carl Sagan, as always, said it best, and so I leave here his reflections when contemplating an image of our planet Earth taken from the outskirts of the solar system, in which Earth looks merely like a tiny blue dot:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
The “Columba-Hypatia Project: Astronomy for Peace” is a collaboration between GalileoMobile and the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research, funded by the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development. The project will run all throughout 2017 in schools around the island of Cyprus on both sides of the border, as well as carrying out astronomy events for the public in the buffer zone.
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