If The Andromeda Galaxy Were One-Million Light-Years Closer

Today, I’ll take a brief break from political commentary and indulge myself in a subject close to my heart and the hearts of many out there – astronomy. At least, I’d like to think, rambling about astronomy won’t invite zero-sum debates. I hope, instead, it will invoke some existential debates of the benign kind. Allow me to take you on a ride in the realm of wild hypothetical thinking. Apologies to the hard-core scientists in advance.

Astronomy ignites some of the biggest and challenging questions about ourselves, our surroundings and, undoubtedly, the fabric of reality. Observing the universe is a wild ride on board a time machine. In fact, more poetically, your telescope, binoculars  — even your unaided eye — are windows onto the past. You are not seeing a star as it is at the moment, but as it was when the photons of light left the photosphere many years ago. The Andromeda Galaxy in your eyepiece is the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million years ago.  What you see in the present has long become a fragment of the past.

Through my telescope, the Andromeda Galaxy (or as pretentiously referred to as Messier 31 or M31), fills my field of view… bright yet smudgy.

I have to admit, it is not a difficult target to find in the night sky and I do not think of it as my favourite celestial object. That would be embarrassingly predictable otherwise.  But its importance stems from being the closest spiral galaxy to us and the fact that it can be spotted with the naked eye as a faint foggy smudge — provided you’ve got decent skies free of significant light pollution, and miraculously don’t have an inconsiderate neighbor who thrives on paranoiac ultra bright security lights.

Although it appears more than six times as wide as the full Moon when photographed through a larger telescope, only the brighter central region is visible to the naked eye or when viewed through binoculars or a small telescope. It is probably the largest galaxy in the local group which includes our Milky Way, the Triangulum Galaxy and about 30 smaller ones –- some of which are deemed to be galactic satellites and not full-blown left-home-and-went-to-college independent galaxies.

That said, let us play the ‘what if’ card and cut down the distance by 1 million light years, putting M31 at 1.5 million light-years away –- and no, it does not matter whether GMT or Pacific time. If you know enough about astronomy you would think this distance would not be discernible as far as astronomical impacts are concerned, but I choose to apply a poetic license to science. Hear that, Lawrence Krauss?

Common sense, if such a thing actually exists, dictates that at a distance of 1.5 million light years the Andromeda Galaxy would certainly appear bigger in the night sky. It would roughly become a 1.1 magnitude brighter. An astronomical magnitude, by the way, is the measurement of a celestial object’s brightness. Sorry to betray your ‘common sense’, but in reality, if Andromeda were much closer, the surface brightness would not increase and the Galaxy might not stand out as one would imagine or hope. Surprise, surprise! Oh yes, the definition of ‘surface brightness’ is the measure of an object’s brightness per unit area.

In layman’s terms, suppose you aim your torch at the wall. The produced circle of light will get bigger and, more importantly, less bright the further away from the wall you move. But the original light output will stay the same. Therefore, the Andromeda Galaxy would still have the magnitude of 3.4, but the surface brightness would be 13.5 due to its extended size in the sky. Got it? It is not really rocket science. Oh, wait, in a way, it has something to do with rockets science.

Now, let us suppose the laws of physics have somehow been twisted and bent at least temporarily. Suppose that at a distance of 1.5 million light-years from us Andromeda has become much brighter and more prominent in the night sky —  remember, surface brightness does not matter anymore.

Just visualise the spectacular new view, the glowing spiral shape of Andromeda dominating a large portion of the night sky, dwarfing even the stunning path of the Milky Way, which for some bizarre reason, unlike Andromeda, is still bound by the laws of physics. Selective physics, huh? Let us call it scientific heresy. But, hey, for argument’s sake, imagine what kind of effect a change in our night sky would have on our understanding, be it scientific, metaphysical or even philosophical!

With a banned scientific arbitrariness and yet valid curiosity, one might wonder how the much brighter, more prominent Andromeda would have impacted upon our knowledge of astronomy?

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the universe was perceived as a finite cosmos completely dominated by the Milky Way Galaxy, but the study of Andromeda shattered these conceptions, paving the way to an infinite universe of countless galaxies and incomprehensible distances. Through the study of the then-called Andromeda nebula, Edwin Hubble – an eccentric, often viewed as an arrogant man with a not-so-original British accent and a pipe — reached the astounding conclusion that the Milky Way was in a fact a whole different galaxy and not part of our Milky Way.

It took about 400 years after the invention of the telescope for someone to reach such a conclusion. In all fairness, there were earlier hypotheses — before Hubble decided that a British accent and a pipe were a cool look for a scientist — that highlighted the possibility of other galaxies, sometimes termed “island universes.’’

One has to wonder if a closer and brighter Andromeda would have changed our approach to cosmology and astrophysics. I cannot ‘predict’ scientific whereabouts in retrospect, there’s a large tax on scientific ironies and spiritual death penalties to heretics like myself who invent their own versions of not-so-scientific science. Can you blame me? I love science, but I am not a scientist and cannot claim that quantum physics is my favourite topic at a dinner table or jotting down mathematical equations is my idea of a fun afternoon.

A more prominent Andromeda, I dare to say, would have affected how our knowledge of astronomy evolved. Perhaps we could have learned 200 years ago that the universe was expanding instead of waiting for the Mount Wilson 100-inch telescope to be built and Edwin Hubble to light up his pipe and measure the distance to Andromeda (which at that point, by the way, was wrong at 900.000 light years).

Smaller telescopes could have done the job. Probably William Herschel or Isaac Newton could have reached the conclusion that our universe was not confined to the Milky Way but was made of billions and billions of galaxies in all shapes and forms. There is a lot in science that is measured by analogy and a more prominent Andromeda would have created a whole new set of analogies to measure against.

Who knows? Probably a very close Andromeda with its large amount of dark nebulae and dust clouds would have blocked us from peering through the universe, significantly limiting our knowledge. To take this to an extreme, we may have thought that there were only two galaxies in the universe balancing and interacting with each other; or — even more ridiculously — two single galaxies merged into one.  How about a single galaxy and nothing else?

I admit these sound like outrageous assumptions and there is a good possibility I will get lynched for that. But for what it is worth, scientific accuracy is not my major concern. I simply intend to present a ‘what if’ scenario of a less rigid, if not unbound, scientific nature, allowing your mind to morph, stretch and shrink and even jump the way you see fit. We have so far established that the laws of physics no longer applied, have not we?

I am particularly interested in the social and mythological impacts of a cosmic change and curious about the kind of effect a more prominent Andromeda would have had upon human civilisations and, accordingly, our understanding of history.

Very early cosmology, from Neolithic times, 20,000 to 100,000 years ago, was extremely local. The Universe was what you spiritually interacted with. Cosmological things were weather, earthquakes, sharp changes in your environment, etc. Things outside one’s daily experience appeared supernatural. Early people projected their own inner thoughts and feelings into an outer animistic world, a world where everything was alive. Through prayers, sacrifices, and gifts to the spirits and gods, human beings gained control of the phenomena of their world. This was an anthropomorphic worldview of the living.

In Greek mythology, Andromeda is mainly a reference to the constellation of Andromeda, rather than the Galaxy itself. Many galaxies take the names of the constellations they are located in. Except for  Galaxy chocolate bar, of course.

Andromeda is the Ethiopian princess and daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, whom Perseus rescued and married. She became queen of Mycenae and, after she died, a constellation. She is represented in the sky as the figure of a woman with her arms outstretched and chained at the wrists. Of course, you will need to squint and twist your neck to make out the constellation shape.

A more prominent object in the Constellation Andromeda would have probably changed  or, at least, influenced the plot in the myth; it is no longer a group of stars that form the constellation, but could be, perhaps, a group of stars with a large ‘’eye of the Gods’’ or  a ‘’gate into heaven.’’

Think about it, when you gaze at the night sky, you might not be contemplating the intricate details of astronomy and cosmology. You may instead be gripped by the majestic power of nature, the grandeur of the heavens, the infinite vastness of space and above all the insignificance and smallness of your own self. It is indeed a religious experience regardless of your beliefs, reinforcing your sense of awe at the power of God/nature and the complexity and immensity of creation. This is how the curious tendencies of the mind fabricated the old myths and, in many cases, formed and spiced up ancient religions.

In ancient Greece, the mythology of Andromeda, amongst many others, played a significant role in the day-to-day religious practices and rituals. The night sky, in general, had a great deal of influence on the ancient religious cosmology. The history and evolution of the cosmos were woven through a group of mythologies. Princess Andromeda ascended on her death to become a constellation; the Pleiades (Seven Sisters), in order to escape Orion, were transformed by Zeus into doves, and then into stars (the Pleiades open cluster) to comfort their father, Altas, who was forced to carry the heavens on his shoulders. There you go, the ancient Greek version of Genesis. Imagine how different the creation myth would have been if the Andromeda Galaxy was more accentuated.

Clearly, the religious connection to the night sky is a universal phenomenon and not exclusive to the Greco-Roman civilisation. On the southern side of the equator, Australian aborigines — arguably the oldest ‘astronomy culture’ — took the same route of religious interpretation of stellar objects, yet varied in details and essence. The reason is simple; unlike in the Northern hemisphere, Southern hemisphere observers have a rich tapestry of celestial objects, many of which are not available for Northern observers. The most important of which are the Magellanic Clouds (dwarf galaxies 20-degrees apart in the night sky, believed to be galactic satellites to our Milky Way).

The Magellanic Clouds, visible to the naked eye, feature in many Aboriginal legends as “the camp of the sky people.” The Large Magellanic Cloud is the camp of the old man and the Small Cloud that of the woman (ignore the sexist nature of these camps) — serving as both a holistic social value system and a religious reference.

Notice how that the change of scenery in the night sky between the Southern and Northern hemispheres resulted in different myths about the nature and origins of the universe. Of course, the myths also differ amongst civilisations that existed within the same hemisphere. If Andromeda over-dominated the night sky in the Northern hemisphere, we would have had a larger or, at least, a different amount of mythological and historical variables in our modern lives.

Without a doubt, a bigger, brighter and more prominent Andromeda Galaxy in the night sky would have changed the scene of ancient literature and philosophy — bearing in mind that ancient philosophy derived a portion of its wisdom from myths and noticeably influenced ancient astronomy and cosmology. But, to what extent… and how? We can only speculate.

About the Author
British-Palestinian academic specialised in the political and social psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.