The Moon and Jupiter are very prominent in the southern sky right now in the early evening, but my eye is also drawn to a less luminous object between them. It’s Saturn, which, back in the days when astronomers thought the heavens were composed of crystal spheres, must have been the weirdest of all the wanderers, being the slowest—it takes nearly three times as long to orbit the Sun as Jupiter, although in those days astronomers also believed everything revolved around the Earth. Saturn was also, for most of human history, the edge of the solar system. Things got even weirder when Galileo turned his telescope to it. He’d already discovered that Jupiter had four moons of its own—and those would be followed by dozens more—and Saturn at first looked to him like a planet with two very large moons, but he couldn’t figure out why they sometimes disappeared. Once they were recognized as rings, and that those rings are held in place by the influence of some of Saturn’s moons, it made sense. We see Saturn at an angle and the rings are so thin that when they’re flat from our perspective they’re practically invisible.
Maybe it was because of its distance that Saturn got its name. The other planets were all named after Olympian gods, but Saturn, mythologically speaking, was the father of the Olympians, the one who swallowed all of his children except Jupiter, and who was defeated, sent down to a second-tier position but kept some of his original glory, becoming the scythe-wielding god of the harvest and time, and through the Dark Ages and Renaissance people who were born under Saturn were believed to be moody and cynical, but also ambitious—most artists were believed to be influenced by Saturn’s position at their birth.
I’m a skeptic when it comes to astrology, mostly, but I do think it’s possible planetary movements have some influence over our lives, and who we become as we move through time. The Earth isn’t a closed sphere; our little planet is affected by the Moon and the Sun, and it’s not unreasonable to think the powerful tug of other planets plays a part too. There’s even the idea that regular meteor impacts on the Earth—the most famous being the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago—could be the result of where our solar system happens to be as it moves around in its outside arm of the Milky Way. If the universe beyond our solar system can affect, even destroy, life on Earth imagine what effects our closest neighbors might have.
And, looking up at Saturn, I remember one fall night when I was a kid and I was talking to a girl who lived across the street. Neither of us knew enough about astronomy to identify anything other than the Moon, and she said, “You know what would be cool? If all the planets were close enough or big enough that we could see them all clearly.”
That would be pretty cool but, with the way gravity works, I’m sure having every planet crammed in so close would have some powerful effects.