Last week my eye was drawn to something a friend posted on facebook: a nice photo of a star cluster, with the following text overlaid:
“When you wish upon a star,
you’re a few million light years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”
Now, I understand that when someone is wrong on the internet, web etiquette requires you to correct them. So, comment I did.
“Attention pessimists (I wrote): most stars you can see by eye are only a few tens or hundreds of light years away, and most stars live for billions, not millions, of years! Your dreams are fine.”
While happily typing this tiny little piece of electronic reassurance, I started wondering about why it is we make wishes when we see shooting stars. Which aren’t stars, by the way - they’re meteors, space rocks crashing and burning in our upper atmosphere.
Blogger Shivya Nath notes that “[the] Greek astronomer Ptolemy, around AD , wrote that the Gods occasionally, out of curiosity, or boredom, peer down at the earth from between the spheres, and stars sometimes slip out of this gap, becoming visible as shooting or falling stars. Since the Gods are already looking at us at such a time, they tend to be more receptive to any wishes we make!” Wishing upon shooting stars carries on all around the world today, she says. “In Chile, for instance, when you spot a shooting star, you must pick up a stone in the same moment, while making a wish. If you’re in the Philippines, you must tie a knot in your handkerchief.”
For a superstition to last as long as this, and become as widespread as this, there must be something in it. The thing about a shooting star is that it’s gone almost as soon as it’s appeared - blink, and you’ve missed it. So, when you make that wish, you have to make it really fast - so fast, in fact, that you barely have time to think. If you can wish without thinking about it, what you get is a little flash of insight from your unconscious, what Daniel Kahneman calls your “experiencing self.” This is the part of your mind that assimilates your experience, allows you to act fast when you really need to, and sometimes seems to know you better than your “remembering self” does.
In February 2006 I had been lucky enough to get two job offers, one from Caltech and one the University of California Santa Barbara. A good problem to have, you might think, but all I could see was the having to decide. I made lists of pros and cons, organised by topic: research projects, costs of living, future prospects, proximity to national parks, density of friends, and so on. I made 20 pages of these lists, and the pros always came out equal to the cons. I was really stuck! UCSB had given me a 6pm deadline, but I missed it, and carried on staring desperately at my pieces of paper well into the night. Eventually, the Sun came up, and I knew I had to pick up the phone and tell the UCSB faculty something. And as the clock ticked around, and my exhausted brain went round and round in circles, something slipped into place and I called them and told them I would be coming to Santa Barbara.
The stupid thing about this ridiculous story is that now, when I look back at that episode, I didn’t make my decision at 8:59am on the morning after the deadline at all. Two weeks earlier, I had visited UCSB, had a nice day at the physics department, and was driving into town to stay in a hotel for a night before heading down to Pasadena to visit Caltech the next morning. I drove along Shoreline Drive along the cliff tops at sunset, and the road curved round and suddenly I could see the harbor, and a bay full of sailing boats, and ahead, through the palm trees, I could see the city, from above. And a little bright thought appeared: it would be really nice to live here. That was really when I made my choice, not with my head but with my heart.