Premana Primadi is an Indonesian astronomer and head of Bosscha Observatorium, who shares Stephen Hawking’s ALS disease, but still stands for Indonesia’s astronomy study with her indelible charm. Her name is on a 10 km diameter asteroid that travels at 25 km/s, orbiting the sun every 4.5 years, but she’s a figure who is still largely unknown to most Indonesians.
As a subject, astronomy is a remote topic for many Indonesians. Even though Bosscha is one of the first observatories in Asia, Bu Nana is one out of 5 Indonesians whose name is in the sky, and there are currently 7 local satellites orbiting the planet; we find little to no reason to immerse ourselves in astronomy and get lost among the stars.
Yet, when constellations were our navigation system, in the islet of Nusa Tenggara, each island is said to be represented by a star. Sailing in the sea surrounded by different little islands, “If you want to go to this island, you find a particular star,” said Bu Nana.
In Jawa, Orion the Hunter was seen as a plow (Waluku) and its rising and setting helped farmers all across the island to know when the planting and harvesting seasons are. As farmers and sea-farers in the maritime islands for hundreds of years, Indonesians must have had great observations of the movements of the stars and planets to accomplish their routines.
Then comes technology and along with it, good reasons to abandon the natural governance of the sky.
It’s not a problem to embrace modernity. But detachment from our primal and instinctive nature can be disorienting in the long run.
For when early people looked up at, and thought about, the sky, they really were trying to answer what is perhaps the most human question of all: Where am I? What is my place in the universe? So are we.” Thomas Hockey
The study of the stars goes beyond collecting data, researching for patterns, making predictions, calendars, and the ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ days. It’s a space to stay grounded and to make meanings that, just like universe itself, goes beyond time.
Galileo pondered about the nature of goodness and truth as he observed the crevices of the Moon in such a great detail in the 17th century, Carl Sagan connected stories in the heavens and on earth in his PBS’ TV Series Cosmos, Janna Levin is a living novelist and theoretical physicist who finds striking similarities between the absurd nature of the universe and us. Beyond constellations as tools for practicality, the deep evening sky is a vast place to paint stories about us that can last for thousands of years; a place where the mystery and the sacred collide. It’s not a surprise, then, that we find profound sacredness in the night sky.
In 2016, during a total solar eclipse, Bu Nana and her astronomer team from Bosccha sent astronomical packs that includes a worksheet, DIY sunglasses, and pinhole box, to elementary school children throughout Indonesia. The 2016 total solar eclipse was the first for over a decade – and possibly the very first time these school children ever witnessed one. In the next few days, Bosscha was flooded with thank you letters from school children.
“There was a huge amount of enthusiasm from the school children. We sent 60 packets throughout Indonesia and these children sent us back letters telling what they’ve seen, the scenery, and the atmosphere.”
It’s a story that is similar to Catholic cosmologist’s Guy Consolmagno, where he concluded that everyone needs food for the soul, too, and pondering about our place in the universe and what it means to exist in this vast empty space is just one of them. Astronomy isn’t just a study of the stars, but first and foremost, the learning about our own presence in this tiny planet. This humanity-focused narrative is the heart of Carl Sagan’s PBS Cosmos series, which is probably why this 13-episode TV series, that connects everything from the origin of the cosmos to the evolution of mankind, makes such a lasting impact.
It is a shame that institutionalized education encourages the separation of the sciences in boxes that don’t even existed. Astronomy isn’t just about science; in it is an infinite gate away to so many human ponderations. And we should enter this space as wholly as we can; as a poet, an artist, a writer, a photographer, a lover, anything.