LOOK up. Millions across the planet did so this week, as a solar eclipse event took place.

The full darkening (or “path of totality”) spread across Mexico and the US, with a tiny late-evening bite visible in Scotland.

There are instant pleasures here. One of them would be the mean-spiritedness of American business consultants, assessing that the lost productivity involved in viewing such events approaches $700 million.

Imagine – stepping away from your shitty terminal, in order to gaze upon the universe making beautiful, interplanetary patterns with itself! Off to Human Resources with you!

What I love about solar eclipses is their mathematical regularity, and how the human response to them connects us across history.

In 1200 BC, scribes in Anyang, China, used oxen shoulder blades and tortoise shells to record eclipses. “The Sun has been eaten”, the scribes wrote. A delight to see the same semi-ecstatic, semi-terrified wonder in the faces of spectators this week.

In our world of increasing digital trickery and simulation, does the excitement around an eclipse arise from its inarguable, cosmological reality? The skies actually do darken; the sun really is eaten?

Though trust the human imagination to project scenarios that doubt even these celestial facts.

There’s a startling scene in the number one watched Netflix sci-fi series at the moment, titled 3 Body Problem. A human physicist is asked by an agent of aliens if they “want to see the universe winking at them”.

Sure enough, sitting on a hill in Oxford at midnight, they watch the starry firmament above them blink on and off as if it were a bedroom table light.

If you’re spoiler-sensitive, skip this paragraph. But it turns out that flicking the power switch of the cosmos is a tactic in the mother of all psy-ops.

It’s conducted by a desperate alien species who crave Earth’s stable planetary conditions, and are coming (in 300 years) to evict us.

But first, their technologies will derange us, our scientific confidence and what we take to be reality – so that we will be a fatally weakened opponent.

Star Trek – with its liberal, multi-species Federation, holding to the non-interventionist Prime Directive – this isn’t. Depressingly, Netflix’s version of alien contact seems all too consonant with the current drumbeat of war around us.

There is a respected argument in cosmology for the opposite view. Which is that alien civilisations who manage to get through “the gate” – ie ones that develop world-destroying technologies, but are wise enough not to terminate themselves with these powers – will be specific, constructive, relationship-oriented.

Instead, 3 Body Problem assumes the worst. Not only are the aliens invited to come by a woman who has suffered the worst persecutions of Maoist China – on the grounds that the tentacular ones could only improve matters.

But the aliens themselves, as they manifest on Earth, are zero-sum-minded, creepily manipulative, weirdly collective. Don’t look to other denizens of the stars as an ideal to stretch towards, says this show. As it is nasty, brutish and short below, so it shall be nasty, brutish and short above.

“In science fiction, it’s always about now”, the sci-fi giant Margaret Atwood said in 2018. “What else could it be about?”

Maybe we need to stay in touch with science in its most curiosity-driven form, if we want sustainably progressive, or even mildly optimism-inducing messages. Thus, as if on cue to remind us, we had the passing of Edinburgh University physicist Peter Higgs this week.

What the five Oxford scientists in 3 Body Problem perform as a pantomime of scientific genius, Professor Higgs incarnated. His dogged probing at a core question in physics – what gives subatomic particles their mass? – drove the building of the world’s biggest machine, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

What was a theoretical speculation that Higgs made in the ‘60s – that “Higgs boson” particles might be found, which would indicate a vast new background field in the universe – was proven in the collider in 2012, and in subsequent experiments.

Says Frank Close at the University of Oxford: “If you remove everything from the vacuum, all matter or quantum fluctuations, all electromagnetic stuff, all gravity, you will be left with the Higgs field. And we need that just like a goldfish needs water. It stabilises empty space.”

Recent theoretical studies even claim that the Higgs boson may be vital to ensure the stability of the universe.

Is that cosmically ambitious enough for you? But here’s another angle. Could the story of Peter Higgs, and his legendary modesty, be any more different from grandstanding employers bemoaning their sun-worshipping employees, or science-fictional schlock-meisters?

Acutely aware that deep science is a long-term collaborative exercise, Higgs himself often insisted that his discovery be titled the “Anderson-Brout-Englert-Higgs-Hagen-Guralnik-Kibble mechanism”.

His gentle other-worldliness isn’t disconnected from the mode of his discoveries.

“Higgs’s story represents an important lesson for us all about how science works: he would have been the first person to point out that science does not happen on the timescales of a few years”, said Suzie Sheehy, an associate professor of physics at the University of Melbourne, to Space.com.

She continued: “We need to ensure long-term support for curiosity-driven research if we are to make the kinds of breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe that Peter Higgs is celebrated for.”

One last thing to note: Higgs was no Oppenheimer, dubious and wracked by his assent to physics as the handmaiden to planetary apocalypse. I can personally vouch for this.

I was involved in a campaign arguing for the obsolescence of the Trident nuclear missile system, titled Trident: Time To Move On, around its moment of recommissioning in 2015.

Quietly and straightforwardly, Higgs was one of the earliest to sign up and approve of the petition. His involvement triggered a cascade of celebs including Damon Albarn, Young Fathers, Irvine Welsh, Vivienne Westwood, as well as Higgs’s fellow scientists Michael Atiyah and Noam Chomsky.

It was not, as you might have already observed, a decisively successful campaign. But I’ve always had Higgs marked from that point onwards, for all his shyness, as a publicly principled man.

Now, I’m well aware – as a lay follower – of the emotional seductions that universal theories (and proofs) of the workings of the cosmos deliver.

These findings can operate semi-religiously, as some kind of non-spiritual ground of “being” (Higgs was always furious about his discovery being popularly named the “God particle”).

The massive new tome by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The World And Us, warns against exactly this. Mechanisms of basic physics like Higgs’s drain the dynamism out of history, and reduce the possibility for humans to change theirs.

In his prior work with the physicist Lee Smolin, Unger points out an alternative account of the Big Bang and the birth of the universe. Which is that the very laws of physics are not mathematically universal; that they “historically” changed in those early moments.

If history and time really do exist all the way down, then that should give us hope – particularly politically, says Unger – that any current order that proclaims itself as natural can be overthrown or reformed.

More on Unger’s epic rewriting of philosophy when I finish it. But in defiance of the bean counters, let us at least agree that a gaze upon the cosmos is generative of the biggest questions for us down here on Earth. Keep looking up.