When Photons become Thoughts: Understanding how Stars influence who we are

Stars are amazing.

Spheres of fire, floating in an endless dark. Engines of light that keep the universe alive. Apart from being important to physics textbooks, stars or stargazing for that matter can be a huge influence on our psychology as well.

And no, I’m not talking in astrology terms.

In this article, we’ll discuss why stargazing is important to our culture, what it means to be cognizant of the universe under a blanket of stars and how the experience of understanding our relationship with the stars can be a transformative one.

Buckle up, this will be fun!

A good way to understand this is to be aware of the feeling of serenity we experience when we tilt our gaze upwards. For some reason, we are drawn towards the night sky, it’s captivating and satisfying at the same time.

But what is so attractive about the night sky?

Why can’t we help but pause, breathe and enjoy the calm every time we look up?

The answer, I believe, might be stories.

Generations under the stars.

For generations, our ancestors have shared stories around the fire under a blanket of stars.

We used to gather around in big circles, share the day’s hunt and try to communicate to the best of our ability.

It was a time set aside for relaxation and conversations.

Art was being created and cultures were born, all of this under a twinkling canopy.

Higher social interactions meant larger brains. As we evolved more complex brains the night sky became the outlet for our imagination.

This is what Anthropologist Polly Wiessner had to say after spending 174 days living with the Ju/’hoan (!Kung) Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia:

Fireside gatherings are often, although not always, composed of people of mixed sexes and ages. The moon and starlit skies awaken the imagination of the supernatural, as well as a sense of vulnerability to malevolent spirits, predators, and antagonists countered by security in numbers.

Our species has evolved under the stars, it’s where we found ourselves vulnerable to nature for the first time and realized that the only safety we had, was with each other.

The night sky gave us a sense of ‘nakedness’, of being out in the open and in doing so brought us closer as a society.

The cycle of life and death.

Stars were surely important to primitive culture but their role shifted from being the mysterious lights in the distance to the structures that power the universe as our understanding of them grew.

Today physics tells us that stars too have life cycles.

Stars are born out of collapsing gas clouds (hydrogen mostly). As the gas gets compressed under its own gravity the pressure rises up to a point where two individual atoms literally smash into a new, heavier one.

And boom! Nuclear fusion!! A star is born!!!

The energy from the fusion tries to rip apart the star while its gravity pulls it together, a star’s life is all about the balance between the two.

Over time heavier atoms form in the core of the star as it ages until it exhausts itself and dies scattering all those elements across the universe.

Surely this is a ridiculously simplified explanation of the real process but the point I’m trying to make is that every atom that’s not hydrogen (or maybe even helium in some cases) was born inside the core of a star.

Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it the most astounding fact:

Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.

The awareness that we’re made of star stuff shifts not just the way we look at stars but also the way we look at ourselves.

Maybe the atoms that make up your body came from the same star as mine did, this binds us into a universal kinship with everything that’s alive on the planet!

The sun, in the latter part of its life cycle, will swallow earth entirely as it grows to become a red giant. Meaning, that the atoms that we’re made of came from stars and to a star they shall return.

This is the cycle of life and death.

And we, you must have realized aren’t external entities but mere configurations of atoms at the cycle transitions from one stage to another.

When the universe introspects.

This type of a view forces our identity to dissolve and we can’t help but see ourselves as a part of a whole.

We aren’t just in this universe, we’re a part of it and not just any ordinary part but the most complex thing we’ve found so far.

We are to the Universe what the brain is to the rest of the body.

We are the ‘thinking stuff’ of this cosmos. When we ponder about ourselves and the universe, it’s the universe pondering itself.

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” ― Carl Sagan

The very existence of our species is an act of introspection. And just as a single neuron is never aware, but nonetheless a part of the immense cognitive ability of the brain, we as tiny individuals we’ll never experience this cosmic ‘connectivity’ with everything else in the universe but might very likely be its smartest bit.

From photons to cognition.

But coming back to stars,

You might have all sorts of mind-blowing thoughts racing inside your head next time when you stargaze, but for a moment let’s trace the source of these thoughts.

By NASA and the European Space Agency. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is the image captured by NASA’s Hubble telescope, it’s one of the furthest images we’ve ever captured called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

But what comes to your mind when you look at this?

Whatever it is I can tell you that the universe took billions of years to think it up. Don’t believe me? Let me show you.

Some of the galaxies in the image are roughly 13 Billion light years away. Since it takes 1 year for a beam of light to travel a light year, what we see in the image is the traces of light that left those galaxies billions of years ago only to be captured by a floating tube in space in some remote corner of our galaxy.

(Life on earth or even the entire solar system didn’t exist back then!)

Which would then be digitally reproduced and shared with you over your screen to sensitize your retina and thus your brain in a way that makes you think what-ever you’re thinking right now!

Phew, that’s a lot to take in… but it is also a conspiracy, executed by two distant corners of the universe over a span of billions of years as a result of which you are feeling whatever you feel, looking at that image.

This is how energy gets translated into thought, how photons induce cognition, how the physical causes the abstract. 

You are the bridge between the real and the imagined, a way for matter to transcend into an abstract reality.


Take a deep breath, witness this feeling.

Be aware of what it feels to be alive.

Know that you’re among the most complex structures of the universe, an inevitable manifestation of the laws of nature, an expression of existence itself.

You are the universe; being aware of itself.

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For those who need more, here is a video I made on a similar topic:

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