In this blog, I want to start exploring a subject that's always fascinated me — the relationship between stargazing and science fiction. Logically, there's no connection at all. But human beings don't live by logic alone. Most stargazers that I know are, or have been, science-fiction fans. Moreover, many cite science fiction as the main thing that got them interested in astronomy in the first place.
The historical connection is also intimate. Science fiction isn't a well-defined genre, so it's impossible to say when it started. It shades into fantasy and allegory, which were major literary genres in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and they in turn shade into mythology, which is the oldest genre of all. But space flight, that staple of science fiction, became a literary theme alost as soon as Galileo first turned his telescope to the sky.
I recently saw the movie Avatar, and was surprised how much I liked it. I had low expectations, having been told that it's corny and unoriginal — which is certainly the case. But that's somewhat missing the point. If you view this film as a piece of mythology, then unoriginality is a plus rather than a minus. All myths are derived from other myths; the more references they make to earlier works, the better.
One theme of Avatar that particularly interests me is nature versus technology. The primitive life of the Navi is presented altogether sympathetically, while the mining operation is presented altogether unsympathetically. But it's not quite as simple as nature good, technology bad. Our first view of Pandora is of giant machines tearing the land apart — clearly evil and ugly — but the spaceship that brings Jake there is lovely. And the technology that allows Jake to walk the world in a different body is quite clearly good — constructive rather than destructive. In Avatar, the scientists are the good guys.
So it is with stargazing. I see two clearly different strands among amateur astronomers. One camp sees astronomy as a fundamentally technological pursuit, and is drawn toward machines and mastery. The other, which sees it as a branch of nature study, is drawn toward simplicity, and toward admiration as opposed to manipulation.
But in practice, just about everybody I know — me included — straddles this divide, has a foot in both camps, though in varying degrees. Most amateur astronomers don't pretend to be "real" scientists. But we share in common with scientists the desire to probe and manipulate our subjects while at the same time respecting their integrity. It's often a tricky balancing act.