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Equilibrium

It was probably because of science fiction that I began to associate the vastness of the cosmos with my mental illness. Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey shows the disconnectedness of two astronauts and a sentient computer. The latter is the most human of the three, which is why he struggles the most with loneliness on the flight to Jupiter.


In Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, this same loneliness reflects the trauma of the main character, who lost her daughter on Earth. In her grief, she perceives her surroundings and the mission in low-Earth orbit as if through thick glass, even without a helmet.


Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and James Gray's Ad Astra are also about the separation of parents and children - combined with the near impossibility of ever coming into contact with other life outside the protective atmosphere of the earth.


The balance in our universe lies in movement and relativity. The "Galaxy Song" from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life sums up the speeds at which we are always moving:

  • Earth revolving at 1670 kilometres per hour

  • Revolution around the sun at 31 kilometres per second

  • Rotation around the centre of the galaxy at 12 million miles per day

  • Expansion of the universe at the speed of light of eleven million miles per minute

These speeds and the distances they imply are hard to believe—and even unbelievable to some people, which is why they are attracted to the supposed simplicity of a flat, stationary earth.



In this race not against but with time, there are places where there is relative standstill. Every collection of two objects, such as the earth and the sun, has five of these points named Lagrange after their first calculator. At them, it is possible for comparatively light objects to linger between the heavier two bodies.


This is relevant for space stations between the earth and the moon and probes and telescopes between the earth and the sun. In addition, bodies at the Lagrange points can change from the orbit of one body to that of the other with little energy. So we can send a probe from Earth via a Lagrange point in an orbit around the Sun. Conversely, the Earth can capture an asteroid from its orbit around the Sun.


Mentally, I spent ages at the first Lagrange point between the earth as a place of life and the sun as a source of energy. From there, satellites and I enjoy a round-the-clock view of Earth's illuminated hemisphere. We are also early warners and sufferers of solar winds and flares.


L1 is an unstable point. Without course correction, we satellites wander away from this point and either approach the earth at high speed or lose ourselves for a while in an orbit around the sun. The same thing happens with my mood. I either tend towards hypomania, gaining and losing vast amounts of energy in a flyby around Earth, or I am catapulted into the dark expanse of depression.


Einen Teil der International Space Station über der Erde
Image: NASA

When my bipolar disorder was joined by anxiety, this regularity of instability became too much for me. I shifted to the second Lagrange point, the counterpart to L1 on the dark side of the earth, where I would encounter the James Webb telescope as of late. Averted from the active side of the Earth and cut off from the life-giving light of the sun, the JWT and I have a clear view of the vastness of the universe. Relativity ensures that this area has a slowing effect on us. Suddenly, other sources of energy than the usual become visible. For the telescope, it is the light of distant stars; for me, this power originated primarily from myself.


But L2 is just as unstable as L1. In space, it takes an average of 23 days for bodies to migrate from both points. In my life, L2 was more stable than L1 in the short term, but not a long-term permanent state like L1 had offered me. Something drew me back to the sunny side, where life happened. Spending the necessary energy to stay at L2 seemed more and more like a wasted effort the longer it went on.


Das Hubble-Teleskop über der Erde
Space telescopes like Hubble and James Webb allow us to view the depths of space (Image: NASA)

So I moved on to L3. With reference to the earth and the sun, L3 is on the exact opposite of Earth's orbit. Both the ancient Greek philosopher Philolaus and modern science fiction place the counter-earth Antichthon at L3, which is always obscured by the sun. Like L1 and 2, however, L3 can only be occupied by comparatively light bodies. Antichthon would turn the two-body system into a three-body system—a demonstrably unpredictable chaos.


I was on L3 for about six years—years in which I participated in life all around me but always felt diametrically opposed. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy; I no longer felt alone because my choices and emotions were different from others, but made choices to be different. Nevertheless, because of my bound rotation, I always looked at the sun and compared myself to the earth hidden behind it.


Die Sonne mit Sonnenwinden und -flecken
Is there an object behind the sun we never get to see? (Image: NASA)

It turned out that my stay at L3 was a side effect of medication. This was upsetting for me, as I had nurtured this feeling for many years in the centre of gravity inside me. Fortunately, I went from L3 directly to L4. It and its counterpart L5 form two isosceles triangles together with the earth and the sun as corner points.


Provided the mass difference between the two bodies is large enough, L4 and L5 are stable and even attract objects. Several planets in the solar system have so-called Trojan asteroids at their L4 and 5; two Saturnian moons in turn have Trojan satellites. If a body departs from L4 or 5, it is not ejected but goes on a kidney-shaped orbit around the Langrange point.


Illustration einer Nahaufnahme von Saturns Ringen, in denen einzelne Gesteinskörper zu sehen sind
In addition to its rings, Saturn has at least 83 moons, two of which also have satellites orbiting around them (Image: Alessandro Ferrari)

Since I reached L4, there have been no major changes. Twice I went on a month-long rotation through the depression, only to find myself back on smaller rotations. Meanwhile, L4 and 5 are not completely harmless. The Giant Impact Hypothesis states that a body called Theia once collided with Earth from one of the two points, forming our moon.




In orbital mechanics, L4 and L5 are equivalent. Conventionally, L4 is the point ahead of the smaller body on its orbit. L5 lags behind by the same distance. I feel ahead of the times with my expectations about personal interaction, protection of the environment, and our social and economic system.


Perhaps at some point in the future, the switch to L5 and the feeling of being behind the times awaits me. Perhaps over time more and more bodies will join me, just as colonies are formed in science fiction works to divert expensive solar material into Earth's orbit. The heavier we become, the greater the likelihood that we will stray from our stable point and move back into orbit around the Earth—or become one with it again.

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