From Beetroot to Buddhism
XIII. Comets and the solar system, the zodiac and the rest of the fixed stars
17 May 1924, Dornach
Mr Erbsmehl: What do the comets mean that appear from time to time? And how is the zodiac different from other stars?
Rudolf Steiner: This question can help us to gain some understanding of astronomy. You are attending lectures on astronomy, and it may be quite a good thing to discuss this particular issue from a particular point of view.
Looking at the starry heavens [drawing], we see the moon as the largest star, which is also closest to us. The moon's influence on human beings on earth is therefore also most easily apparent. And you'll no doubt have heard people say how the moon stimulates people's imagination. This is something everyone knows. But I have told you of other influences the moon has, on reproduction, too, and so on. Then we see other heavenly bodies that behave in a similar way to the moon. The moon moves — you can see it move — and other stars, which are similar to it, also move. These stars, which also move, we call wandering stars or planets.
Now the sun also appears to move. And it does indeed move. But relative to our earth it does not move. It is always at about the same distance and it does not orbit the earth. The sun is therefore called a fixed star. And all other stars, except for those that clearly change their position, are also fixed stars.
Looking at the starry heavens we see more or less what we see when we look at them every night — especially on moonlit nights. But there are changes in the heavens. During certain weeks in summer in particular you can see one star after the other — seemingly — moving swiftly across the sky and disappearing: falling stars. They also appear in the sky on other occasions, but are particularly visible in some weeks during the summer when swarms of such small stars light up, pass rapidly across the sky and vanish.
Apart from them there are the stars to which Mr Erbsmehl referred in his question — the comets. These comets appear less often; they also differ from other stars in their form. Their shape is something like this [drawing]. They have a kind of nucleus and then a tail which follows behind. Sometimes they also appear to have two such tails behind them. If we look at the other stars that move we find their movements to be fairly regular, and we always know that they appear at certain times and at other times are beneath the earth and do not appear. But with these stars, the comets, one sees them coming and going without really ever knowing where they are going. Their movements are therefore irregular, as it were, among the other stars.
Now these comets have always been regarded as something different from other stars by people, and they have played a big role above all among superstitious people. These superstitious people thought that the appearance of a comet signalled disaster.
This should not surprise us, for anything that is irregular causes amazement and surprise. We need not take it too seriously, for people will also consider it to mean something special when objects that normally behave in one way behave differently. If you drop a knife, for example, it will not normally stick in the ground but fall flat. This does not signify anything, for we are used to it. But if the knife sticks in the ground, superstitious people will think this means something. When the moon appears it is something people are used to and it does not mean anything special. But when such a star appears, and what is more, has a special shape, well, then it does mean something special! So there's no need to get excited when superstitious people think things mean something.
We have to consider the matter in a scientific way. And above all the following is true. In times not that long ago, people went by what they saw in the heavens, and said the earth was the centre of the world — I am merely telling you how people saw it — and that the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun and so on moved around the earth, and that the whole of the starry heavens — as one also can see now, every star rises and sets 87Except for circumpolar stars. — was moving. So you see the starry heavens in motion. If you stay outside long enough you'd see the so-called fixed stars move across the sky. People took it the way they saw it in earlier times.
Now, as you know, Copernicus came along in the fifteenth, sixteenth century and said: 'No such thing! The earth is not the centre. The sun is the centre, and Mercury, Venus, earth and so on move around the sun.' [drawing] So the earth itself became a planet. A completely different system, a new way of looking at space, came up. And like the sun, so the other fixed stars were now said to be stationary. Their movements would thus only be apparent movements.
You see, gentlemen, the matter is like this. I spoke of this before, when Mr Burle asked about the theory of relativity, wanting to know if those theories were correct and also some other things that were said. Another theory was established by a man called Tycho Brahe, 88Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), Danish astronomer. for instance. He said: 'Yes, the sun is standing still, but the earth is also standing still,' and so on. So there were also other systems. But we'll look at these two, the old one, mainly based on Ptolemy, 89Ptolemy or Claudius Ptolemaeus (c. ad 87-165), Egyptian geographer, mathematician and astronomer. the Ptolemaic system, and then the Copernican system, which goes back to Copernicus. So there we have two systems of the universe. Each is right in some way. Above all we cannot tell, if we go into these things in detail, if the one is right or the other.
The thing is this, gentlemen. I told you before that some people cannot say, when I drive a car from the Villa Hansi up to the Goetheanum, if the car is moving or the Goetheanum is coming to meet it. Well, it is certainly something you cannot tell by just looking, but only by the fact that the car gets worn, the car uses up petrol, and the Goetheanum does not. You can tell the difference by things that are internal. In the same way you can tell, if you walk to Basel, if Basel is coming towards you or you are going there because you get tired. So it is internal things that tell the difference.
This is only to show you that really every system of the universe is such that in one respect it may be correct and in another it may be wrong. You cannot tell with absolute certainty. That is how it is. You really cannot say which system of the universe is completely right and which is completely wrong. Ah, you'll say, these things are worked out by calculations! Well, you see, those calculations are made, but the calculations that are made are never entirely correct. If you calculate the rate at which a star moves, for example, you'll know that after a certain time it must be in a particular position in the heavens. So you work out where a star should be at a given time, and you turn your telescope in that direction — now it should appear in the telescope. Often it does not, and then the formula has to be corrected; and so one finds that one's calculations are never quite right. The thing with the universe is that none of our calculations are ever exactly right.
Why is that? Imagine you know someone quite well. You'll say to yourself that if he promises something you can definitely rely on it. Let us assume you know someone pretty well. He has promised to be in a particular place at 5 in the afternoon on the 20th of May. You will also be there. You'll be quite sure he'll be there, because you know him. But it may happen after all that he does not turn up. And that is how it is with the system of the universe. Looking at minor things one may say: You can rely on it that things will happen the way you know they will. So if I make a fire in a stove, it will, according to the laws of nature, bring warmth to the room. It is not very probable that a fire will not make a room warm. But this is no longer so, gentlemen, when we get to large-scale events in the universe. The matter then becomes as certain as it is with an individual person, and it also becomes as uncertain as it is with an individual person. So that everything one calculates always has a flaw in it somewhere. And where does this flaw come from? The flaw is not only because these solar systems do not exist on their own. Let us assume the person saw something he really liked as he was on his way to meet you. He was held up. If these planetary systems were such that nothing could happen with them but what sun, moon and stars are doing, we would also be able to calculate them. We would know exactly where a star will be at a particular time, to the thousandth of a second, for calculations can be extremely accurate. But, as I said, there is a flaw. This is simply due to the fact that these systems are not permitted to be entirely free and easy amongst themselves in the universe, for the comets come in, passing right through. And with these comets coming in from the universe, the universe is giving the planetary system something that is rather like what we are given when we eat. The comet is a kind of food for the planetary systems! And it is like this. When such a comet comes in, small changes occur in the movements, and so one never gets an entirely regular movement. So that is the situation, gentlemen. The comets bring irregularity into the state of motion or of rest in our whole planetary system.
Now as to the comets themselves. You see, people will say: 'Yes, such a comet, it comes from so far away that you do not see it at first; you begin to see it when it comes closer to the solar system [drawing]. So there you see it. Now it moves on; you still see it, then you see it a little, and then it vanishes.' So what are people saying? They are saying: 'Well that is above the earth, and one can see it. But then the comet moves over there, becomes invisible, and comes back again there after a number of years.' That is what they say.
If I draw the solar system for you, we have here the sun; here the planets. People imagine that the comet comes from far away, from beyond the solar system, and enters the sphere of the sun; and there you no longer see it, when it is down below. There it comes back again. So they imagine the planets move in short ellipses, and the comet in a tremendously long ellipse. And when it comes and we have it above us, so that one can look up, it is visible; otherwise it is invisible and then comes back again. Halley's comet, called after the man who discovered it, 90Halley, Edmund (1656–1742), English astronomer. appears every 76 years.
Now, gentlemen, this is something where the science of the spirit cannot agree, because of observations made in it For it is not true that the comet moves like this. The real truth is that the comet only comes into existence here, and it sunders matter together 91This is the phrase Rudolf Steiner used. Translator. from the universe; matter from the universe gathers. There it comes into existence [pointing to the drawing], moves on like this, and here it vanishes again, dissolving. This line [ellipse] here, actually does not exist. So we are dealing with a structure that develops some distance away and passes out of existence again at some distance. So what is really going on here?
Now one gets to the point where one says: It is not true that the sun is standing still. It is standing still in relation to the earth, but it moves at tremendous speed in relation to space. The whole planetary system is rushing through cosmic space, moving forward. The sun is moving towards the constellation of Hercules. Now you may ask how people know that the sun is moving towards Hercules. You know that if you go down an avenue and stand at one end, the trees near you seem further apart, and then they come closer and closer. You know, if you look down an avenue, the trees seem to be closer and closer together; but when you walk in this direction it seems as if they move apart. The distance you see between trees keeps growing. Now imagine this here is Hercules [Drawing], the stars in that constellation are at some distance from one another. If our solar system were standing still, those distances would always be the same. But if the sun were moving towards it, the stars in Hercules would grow bigger and bigger and would appear to move apart. And this is what they actually do! It has been observed through the centuries that the distances in Hercules are getting bigger and bigger. This shows that the sun is truly moving in the direction of Hercules. And just as it is possible to calculate things here, using ranging instruments, how close we are when walking past and how fast we are walking — when someone walks faster, the distance increases faster than it does for someone else — so it is possible to calculate how the sun moves. The calculations are always very accurately done. Our whole planetary system is thus rushing towards the constellation of Hercules.
This rushing pace affects the planetary system just as work does you. Working, you lose some of your substance and need to replace it. And as the planetary system rushes through cosmic space it is also all the time losing some of its substance. This needs to be replaced. So you have the comets moving around. They gather the substance, and it is captured again as the comet passes through the planetary system. Comets thus replace substance for which the planetary system no longer has any use and which it has eliminated. But the comets also cause irregularities as they enter into the planetary system, so that it is in fact not possible to calculate the movements.
This also shows that if you go far enough, things come alive for you in cosmic space. Such a planetary system is really a form of life; it needs to eat. And the comets are eaten!
What do these comets essentially consist of? The most important substance they contain is carbon and nitrogen, which is indeed something needed in the planetary system and has to come from the heavens. We need nitrogen in the air, and it has to be renewed all the time; we need carbon because all plants need it. And so the earth does truly get its substances from the universe. They are always replaced.
But there's more to this. You know that when you have a meal you eat things that are still quite large when they are on your plate. You reduce them in size by biting. First of all you cut them up. And you have to do this, for if it were possible for you to swallow a goose whole, this would not be good for you! You need to cut it up. You also can't swallow a whole calf's head; only snakes can do that, people cannot. It needs to be cut up. The planetary system also does this with its food. Comets may sometimes — not every one of them, but some can sometimes be swallowed whole, snake-fashion. But other comets are broken up when they enter the system. The comet then breaks up, just as a shower of meteors has broken up into lots of small stars. These meteors are tiny parts of comets that rush down. And so you see not only how cosmic food enters into the solar system but also how this cosmic food is consumed by the earth. We are thus able to get a clear idea of the role that comets, which appear at irregular intervals, play for the earth.
Now you see, the thing is like this — we must leave aside all superstition. The comet coming from beyond the earth has an influence on everything that happens on the earth, and this is something we can see. It is certainly a strange thing. As you know, there are good and bad years for wine. But the good years really come because the earth has got hungry. It then leaves its fertility more to the sun, and the sun gives the wine its quality. Now when the earth has had a good wine year, you can be pretty certain that a comet will appear soon after, for the earth has been hungry and needs food again for the other things. You then get poor wine years. If there's another good wine year, a comet will follow. The earth's state concerning its substance is definitely connected with the way in which comets appear or do not appear.
The other question was how the zodiac differs from other fixed stars.
You know, if we simply look out into the distant universe we see countless stars. They seem to be irregularly placed. But one can always distinguish groups of them, and these are called constellations.
Now the stars we see are further away from the moon or closer to it. Looking at the stars we see the moon pass through the starry heavens like this [drawing], don't we? But whilst some constellations are positioned in such a way that the moon always passes through them, it does not pass through others. So if you consider Hercules, for instance, the moon does not pass through. But if you look at the Lion, then the moon always passes through the Lion at given intervals. Twelve constellations have the special characteristic that they form the path, as it were, taken by the moon and also by the sun. We may say, therefore, that the twelve constellations Ram, Bull, Twins, Crab, Lion, Virgin, Scales, Scorpion, Archer, Goat, Water Carrier and Fishes mark the path of the moon. It always passes through them and not through the other constellations. We are thus always able to say that at any particular time the moon, if it is in the sky, is in one constellation or another, but only a constellation that is part of the zodiac.
Now I want you to consider, gentlemen, that everything there is by way of stars in the sky has a definite influence on the earth as a whole and specifically also on man. Man truly depends not only on what exists here on earth but also on the stars that are there in the heavens.
Think of some star or constellation up there. It rises in the evening, as we say, and sets in the morning. It is there all the time, and always influences the human being. But think of another constellation, the Twins, let us say, or the Lion. The moon passes that way. The moment it passes that way it covers up the Twins or the Lion. I see only the moon and not the Twins. At that moment they cannot influence the earth, because their influence is blocked. And so we have stars everywhere in the sky that are never blocked out, neither by the sun nor by the moon, and always have an influence on the earth. And we have stars which the moon passes, and the sun seemingly also passes them. These are covered up from time to time and their influence then stops. We are therefore able to say that the Lion is a constellation in the zodiac and has a particular influence on man. It does not have this influence if the moon is in front of it. At that time the human being is free of the Lion influence, the Lion's influence does not affect him.
Now just imagine you are terribly lazy and won't walk but someone gives you a push from behind, and you have to walk. He drives you on, and that is his influence. But imagine I do not permit him to influence you; he cannot give you a push. Then you are not subject to the influence; and if you want to walk you have to do it yourself.
Human beings need these influences. And how does this go, gentlemen? Let us hold fast to this: The Lion constellation has a particular influence on man. It has this influence for as long as it is not covered up by the moon or the sun. But let us take this further. Again consider an analogy from life. Let us say you want to know something. Imagine you have a governess or a private tutor — he usually knows everything. When you are a little boy you don't want to think for yourself, you ask your tutor and he'll tell you. He'll also do your homework for you. But if the tutor has gone out, so that you do not have your tutor available at the moment and have to do your homework, then you have to find the power in yourself. You have to recall things for yourself.
The Lion continually influences human beings except when it is covered by the moon. Then the influence is not there. When the moon blocks the Lion's influence, man must develop using his own resources. Someone able to develop his own strong Lion influence when the moon covers the constellation may thus be called a Lion person. Someone able to develop particularly the influence in the constellation of the Crab when this is covered up is a Crab person. People develop the one or the other more strongly depending on their inner constitution.
You see, therefore, that the constellations of the zodiac are special, for with them, the influence is sometimes there and sometimes not. The moon, passing through the constellations at four-week intervals, brings it about that there is always a time in a four-week period when some constellation of the zodiac does not have an influence. With other constellations the influence is always the same. In earlier times people took these influences that came from the heavens very seriously. The zodiac was therefore more important to them than other constellations. The others have a continuous influence which does not change. But with the zodiac we may say that the influence changes depending on whether one of its constellations is covered over or not. Because of this, the influence of the zodiac on the earth has always been the subject of special study. And so you see why the zodiac is more important when we study the starry heavens than other stars are.
You will see from all this that mere calculations cannot really give us all the knowledge we want of the heavens, as I told you before. We certainly have to consider things like those I have been speaking of.
Talking about such things one is still thought to be a dreamer today, something of a fool, for people say: 'If you want to know something about the stars you should go to the astronomers at the observatory. They know everything!' As you know, there is a saying — because conditions like gout also depend on all kinds of external influences, some people will tell someone with gout to go to the observatory and have the matter sorted there. But when you want to speak of these things out of the spirit today, people think you are something of a fool. But the following kind of thing happens. Having gained knowledge through the science of the spirit, I was able to say the following in a series of lectures I gave in Paris in 1906. 92Steiner, R., Kosmogonie (GA 94). Lectures given in Paris, 25 May-14 June 1906. The summaries by E. Schure in this volume do not include Steiner's statements concerning the comet atmosphere. If everything is like this with the comets, if they really exist to perform this function, then they must contain a compound of carbon and nitrogen. This was something people did not know before. Carbon and nitrogen combine to form cyanide, prussic acid. Carbon and nitrogen would thus have to be found also in comets. I said this in Paris in 1906. People who did not acknowledge the science of the spirit did not need to believe it at the time. But a short time after this I was on a lecture tour in Sweden and all the papers brought the surprising news that spectroscopic analysis had shown comets to contain cyanide.
You see, people are always saying that if anthroposophists know something they should say so, so that it may later be confirmed. There have been many such instances. Honestly, I predicted the discovery of cyanide in comets in 1906! It was made soon after. You can see, therefore, that these things are correct, for the truth will be confirmed in due course, if one sets about it in the right way. But of course, when this kind of thing happens again people do not mention it, they hush it up because it does not suit them. But it is true nevertheless. Spiritual perception thus enables us to say things about the comets, including their chemical composition, and this will be confirmed in due course. This is one such example.
So I am not afraid to say things that may seem utterly foolish to people: that the comets come into existence here and pass out of existence again there, gather matter here and vanish again here as they leave the planetary system. Spiritual observation shows this, and in due course physical observation will confirm it. Today one is only able to state it on the basis of spiritual observation.
Many things said in materialistic science today are utterly fantastic. People imagine the sun to be a kind of gaseous sphere, for instance. It is not a gaseous sphere, but really something quite different. You see, gentlemen, if you have a bottle of carbonated water you get those small beads in there. So one might think: Right, that is carbonated water, and in it are small beads — things that float in it. But that is not how it really is, for there you have your carbonated water, and there it is hollow [drawing]. You have less in there than in the rest of the water. It is of course carbon dioxide gas, with water all around it, but the gas is thinner than the water. With reference to the water, you have a hollow space in there, and compared to water you merely have the subtle nature of the gas. The sun, too, is a hollow space in the universe; but this is thinner than any gas; it is extremely thin in the place where the sun is. And what is more, gentlemen, when you move around in this world you are in space. But space is also hollow where the sun is. What does it mean: 'space is hollow'? You can see from the following what it means when we say space is hollow.
If you create a vacuum with a vacuum pump, removing all the air [drawing], and then make an opening here, the air rushes in with a tremendous hissing sound. The situation with the sun is that what you have there is definitely above all a hollow space; empty not only of air but also of heat. It is above all a hollow space. The nature of this hollow space is such that it is spiritually closed off all around, and something can rush in only at intervals through the sun spots. Astronomers would get a big surprise if they were to go there in a space car or space ship — it could not be an airship, of course, for the air does not go as far as that. The astronomers would expect that when they got up there and arrived at the sun they would enter such a nebula, for the sun, they think, is red-hot gas. And they would expect this red-hot gas to bum them up, that they would perish in flames, for they believe they would find a temperature of many thousands of degrees. But you do not get the opportunity to burst into flames, for the sun is hollow also as far as heat is concerned. There is no heat either! One would be able to tolerate all this. One would also be able to tolerate the temperature if one went to the sun in a giant space ship. But something else could not be tolerated. The situation would be similar to the air rushing in with a hiss — rushing in, not out — and you would immediately be drawn into the sun and would instantly turn to dust, for the sun is a hollow space that sucks in everything. You would be completely absorbed. It would be the most certain way of disappearing.
The sun is thus seen entirely in the wrong light by materialistic scientists. It is a hollow space with regard to anything else; and this really makes it the lightest person among all the stars nearest to us out there in space, lightest of all. The moon is relatively heavy, for it once came away from the earth, taking with it the heavy substances for which the earth had no use. It would be lighter than the earth, of course, if we were to weigh it, being much smaller, but relatively speaking, in terms of what we call the specific gravity, it is heavier. It follows that spirituality comes from the sun, for it is the lightest body in cosmic space. This is why I was able to say, when Mr Dollinger asked about the Christ, that the greatest spirituality comes from the sun when we are born, for the sun is the most spiritual entity. The moon is the most material entity. And if the moon is the most material body, its influence on human beings goes beyond the ordinary in material terms. You see, all the other stars apart from the moon also have an influence, of course. They have an influence on material processes. But if you imagine you're eating a piece of bread, the bread is gradually transformed into blood; something is transformed into something else. Part of the human being is created, blood is created, when you transform bread in the metabolic process. If you put salt in your bread, the salt goes into the bones; it is transformed. It is always a part that is produced, for these materials relate only to parts of the human being. All things on earth can only create part of the human being; and whatever is produced must remain in the human being. The moon itself has a powerful material influence on reproduction, but in that case it is not part of the human being that is produced but a whole human being. The sun influences the most spiritual part, the moon, being material itself, the material aspect. Man thus creates himself, or an image of himself, under the influence of the moon. That is the difference. Sun actions may be said to recreate our thoughts, our powers of will all the time. The moon's influence is that it recreates the material forces, reproducing the material human being. And between the sun and the moon we have the other stars which bring about parts of the other things that happen in man.
We can understand all this. But you must include the human being whenever you consider astronomy. You see, an astronomer will say: 'What I see with my naked eye does not impress me; I have to use a telescope. I rely on my telescope; it is my instrument.' The spiritual scientist will say: 'Why bother with telescopes! Of course you'll see a great deal, and we acknowledge this. But the best instrument you can use to gain insight into the universe is man himself.' You perceive everything through the human being. Man is the best instrument, for everything becomes apparent in him. What happens up there in the Lion is apparent in the circulation of the blood. And when the moon is in front of the Ram, our hair grows more slowly, and so on. It is always possible to see in man what happens in the universe. When someone gets jaundice, for instance, we must of course primarily consider the cause in the body in medicine. But why, in the final instance, does a person get jaundice? Because he has a special disposition to develop the powers of the Goat from his own resources when the moon covers up the constellation of the Goat.
We can thus always see that man is the instrument by which all may be perceived. When a person is no longer open, for instance, to the Water Carrier influence, that is if the Water Carrier is covered up by the moon and the individual is unable to develop his own Water Carrier powers, he'll get corns. And so we can always use the human being as an instrument to see what is happening in the universe. We have to do it scientifically, however, and not from superstition. And so, in this way, it is a proper scientific method used in the science of the spirit. Of course, it is vague the way many people think it, and then one cannot see anything from what they are thinking. This is where the old maxim applies: When the cock on the midden crows, the weather will change or stay as it was. It is indeed exactly the way many people think about the world: When the cock on the midden crows, the weather will change or stay as it was.
But when we really go into the matter, that is no longer the case. Through the human being, the most perfect instrument you can have, you perceive things more perfectly than through anything else in the universe. So it is not a matter of simply inventing things, but you study what goes on in the human being. You need to know, of course, how it is with corns, how they develop out of the skin, and so on, and only then can you see what happens when the Water Carrier is covered up. Studying the matter through the human being, we can study the whole universe through the human being.
Our next meeting will be on Wednesday, then.