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The Elysian Fields

January 14th, 2015

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Credit: NASA/JPL

It feels increasingly awkward and embarrassing to read LaTeXed, peer-reviewed articles that quantify and delineate the habitable zone — the special region surrounding a star that is invariably (and rather fittingly) linked to a particular fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm.

Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that the concept of the afterlife might be inextricably entwined to the evolution of the mind’s ability to reason about the minds of others. A rational world view, however, frustrates ingrained atavistic yearnings and a belief in the supernatural. Habitable planets provide a respectable stopgap to assuage the discomfort of these incompatible poles. Could it be a mere coincidence that the ancient Greek and classical depictions of Elýsion pedíon, the Elysian Fields, are part and parcel the very image of the habitable zone?

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Credit: NASA/SETI/JPL

And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods…

— Hesiod, Works and Days (170)

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