Finding solace in the vastness of space

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers (TTBOOK). Original images from NASA (CC0), Aperture Vintage (CC0) and the author. 

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A few years ago, the Dutch writer Marjolijn van Heemstra became so anxious and panicky about the world’s problems that she couldn’t sleep. She realized that she needed a fresh perspective, and then she learned about the "overview effect" – a cognitive shift that many astronauts have experienced when they looked back at Earth.

This led van Heemstra, the poet laureate of Amsterdam, on a personal quest to understand her place in the cosmos – not to escape the messiness of daily life but to embrace a larger perspective. She became a space reporter for a local news outlet, and she started looking for ways that she might experience something like the overview effect here on Earth. She also fell in love with the night sky and became a dark sky activist. She writes about this personal journey in her book "In Light-Years There’s No Hurry: Cosmic Perspectives on Everyday Life."

I reached Van Heemstra in Amsterdam for "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." This interview is part of our Deep Time series.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Steve Paulson: You say there's a photograph that was taken from the Hubble Space Telescope that made a big impression on you. Can you describe the Hubble Ultra Deep Field?

Marjolijn van Heemstra: It looks like a lot of fractures, as if something had broken into millions of pieces. What you see is 3000 galaxies, so it’s huge. I mean, we cannot even imagine how big it is. And it's only a fraction of everything there is. 

This photo moved me very much because, from one side, it makes you very small. You can feel annihilated in comparison to that. On the other hand, you feel yourself in relation to something so grand.

SP: Why did this photo affect you so deeply?

MvH: When I began writing the book, it was 2019, and for a lot of people in Europe, it was a time when we really woke up to the idea of climate change. It was also the time when people started to feel this panic and not being able to breathe because of what is coming at us. From this place of worry, and with two very small children, I started to look for something that would give me — literally — perspective. 

When you feel the future is no longer something to look forward to, it can make life seem very suffocating. So I was looking for the biggest possible perspective, and then I remembered this photo.

SP: There's a phenomenon called the "overview effect," which has been reported by dozens of astronauts who've looked back at Earth from outer space and been overwhelmed by the experience. Can you explain what’s happened?

MvH: Yeah, the overview effect is this overwhelming experience. A lot of astronauts come back changed by having seen how Earth actually is. It’s not a collection of all different places, it's a unity. It's like one animal. It really changes your life. 

I even read that the people coming back from the Apollo program weren't allowed to join the Army because they were afraid the astronauts would be "soft" — after this trip, it's ridiculous to fight people because borders are just man-made.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The snapshot includes galaxies of various ages, sizes, shapes, and colours. The smallest, reddest galaxies, about 100, may be among the most distant known, existing when the universe was just 800 million years old. The nearest galaxies - the larger, brighter, well-defined spirals and ellipticals - thrived about 1 billion years ago, when the cosmos was 13 billion years old.

The image required 800 exposures taken over the course of 400 Hubble orbits around Earth. The total amount of exposure time was 11.3 days, taken between Sept. 24, 2003 and Jan. 16, 2004.

Credit: NASAESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team

SP: So you developed a project where you wanted to see if you could find some equivalent on Earth. Not blasting off into space, but just through our lives here. How did you go about searching for this?

MvH: I decided to make a space trip on Earth. So for about a year, I visited a lot of people who were dealing with space travel or cosmology. So poets, theologians, people in labs who were preparing for Mars missions. That was my way of being an urban astronaut. 

I also realized that if I wanted to have an experience in which I could see some sort of unity, I should also do that in my own neighborhood, where gentrification is a huge problem, and I was sort of the face of this gentrification. So I decided I would focus both on the stars and on the little garden I share with my neighbors to really zoom out and really zoom in at the same time. Also, COVID happened when I was writing this book, which was interesting because then we had all these interviews with astronauts because they were the experts on living in an enclosed environment. So yeah, that made me feel like an astronaut as well.

SP: You also started going out at night because you wanted to see the dark sky. That’s probably hard to do in Amsterdam, which is a very lit-up city. How did you try to embrace darkness?

MvH: I think writing this book has really changed my life because I've become a darkness activist almost full-time now. We are one of the most light-polluted cities in the world, and it's really bad. So I started this project called The Night Watch. This September we organized our first Amsterdam dark festival, and we had 2,000 people going into the night.

SP: Why do you want to be in darkness?

MvH: I first came into the darkness because I wanted to see the stars. But living in Amsterdam, that was so hard to find. And I started to dig more into light pollution and saw what it actually does to animals, to people, how it makes us more depressed, more obese, how many insects it kills. 

I also noticed that when you're in darkness, you experience your surroundings so differently. Not being able to really see your own boundaries, you feel maybe what the overview effect can also give you. You feel like you transcend yourself a little bit.

SP: You talked with one astronomer who said that if you really want to have an experience that’s close to the overview effect, you have to be able to see at least 450 stars in the night sky.

MvH: Yeah, and the Milky Way as well, I think. That really adds to the experience.

SP: Why? What changes?

MvH: It's a sense of something uncontrollable. This whole feeling of awe is about not having control. If I look up here in Amsterdam, I see maybe 70 stars and some satellites. So it still feels like a human-made world. But if you have this sense of so many stars and seeing the Milky Way, it's literally uncountable. And that's where the dizziness comes in. That's where you get lost. 

I think you need this sense of being a bit lost to be overwhelmed because you have to let go of this feeling of control. That's why I like walking in the dark so much, because you have to go really slowly so you don’t fall over something. You can’t expect the ground to be even. And even if you know a place, you lose the way all the time. I think that’s maybe also a way to live.