One Astronomical Step for Activists and Humankind

Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.

— Blaise Pascal, in Pensées (1658)

One year before meeting with Tycho Brahe in 1600, Johannes Kepler had determined to make use of the Danish nobleman’s highly valuable astronomical instruments. He revealed his game plan in a letter to his mentor:

Any single instrument of his cost more than my and my whole family’s fortune put together…. My opinion of Tycho is this: he is superlatively rich, but he knows not how to make proper use of it as is the case with most rich people. Therefore, one must try to wrest his riches from him.

The “riches” young Kepler was writing about bitterly referred to the instruments Tycho Brahe used for his heavenly observations. And had Kepler not succeeded in getting hold of Tycho’s treasure, he could never have discovered his historic planetary laws. Furthermore, Isaac Newton was born only twelve years after Kepler’s death, and without the planetary laws he could not have arrived at his monumentally important synthesis. No doubt somebody else would have done so (if Newton hadn’t), but it is at least possible that the scientific revolution would have carried different metaphysical undertones if it had been fathered not by an English empiricist, but, say, a Frenchman with Thomist inclinations, or a German mystic.

The point of such speculation is, in part, to insert a question mark against the supposed logical inevitability and cast-iron determinism of the evolution of scientific thought… or any other kind of thought. The shape of Cleopatra’s nose influences not only wars, but ideologies. The mathematics of the Newton universe would have been the same whoever worked them out, but its metaphysical climate might have been quite different.

The point for activists today is that — at present — there is an invaluable instrument which we must secure for fighting the good fight. And that “instrument” is in the form of significant reins of decision-making power. Those at the helm in the most crucial corners do not deserve to have an exclusive hold on those reins. We must take possession of that power since “democracy” today does not permit us access to the decision-making process vis-a-vis our collective crises, except minimally (at best). It is important that well-meaning souls, such as the readers of this site be the ones who call at least some of the shots in our troubled universe.

We must put to rest the notion that such reins cannot be secured. It is true that on the federal level the doors are pretty much closed to us at present, and — in fact — have been for quite some time. But that doesn’t mean that the gubernatorial level is lost to us. Ditto for other realms. And if well-meaning, informed individuals who are not career politicians secure significant decision-making capacity, we’ll all at least have a chance at dealing with our horrid societal/environmental momentum in a new way.

Let us work for the day when we can begin to turn things around. When, like Kepler, Newton and others, we will be able to take in what’s encircling us with new eyes.


We don’t need money to carve out historic inroads in the electoral arena. We’re going to have to drop that notion, just like astronomers in the 16th and 17th centuries had to dispense with the lie that our planet lay in the center of our solar system.

All we need is to honor our love for doing the right thing.

Rachel Olivia O’Connor is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He can be reached at Read other articles by Rachel Olivia O'Connor and Richard Martin Oxman.