Sunrise Sunset

The earliest sunrise doesn’t take place on the longest day.  Things like this are what kept me out of a career in astronomy.  No, the earliest morning occurs about a week before the summer solstice.  It keeps staying light later in the evening, but the darkness creeps back in the a.m.  I know this because I awake before sunrise and I jog at first light in the summer.  For a couple of weeks now I’ve been having to start my jog later and later as I wait for the sun to catch up.  The latest sunset is about a week after the solstice.  Now matter how you count it, the days are getting shorter now.  Another lesson I’ve learned from my early morning jogs is that it’s chilliest just before sunrise.  The temperature keeps dropping from what it is around 3:00 a.m., meaning that it’s coolest just before the sun comes up.  Life lessons from the jogging trail.

I took astronomy both in high school and college.  Always fascinated by space I guess I was optimistic that perhaps the mathematics would’ve dropped out of it somewhere between diploma and baccalaureate.  My mind is more of the humanities type, dealing with approximations and analogies.  The concepts I get, but I can’t swim in formulas.  One of the main sources of perplexities was just what I’ve been describing about the earliest dawn and latest evening.  Shouldn’t they be the same day?  And how is it that the longest day is neither the earliest sunrise nor latest sunset?  Math may explain that, but I can’t.  There’s a wonder in it all.

Jogs before work (for I start that early as well) are possible only a few months of the year at this latitude.  They will give way to lunchtime breaks soon enough and yet summer has only just started.  The days will seem longer although in fact they are getting shorter.  You see what I mean about approximations and analogies?  I still occasionally read books about astronomy, and when NASA (or some privately funded venture) makes announcements about what’s going on in the heavens I pay attention.  Yes, I would liked to have gone into astronomy, but life has a way of steering you down certain paths.  Besides, there’s a certain wonder in retaining the mystery of how the longest day occurs three times in the course of two weeks, depending on your definition.  

Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.

New Religious—Bang!

Religion, no matter what the skeptics say, gives us something to believe in. Even those who claim no religion believe in their non-religion. We can’t escape belief. It’s no surprise, then, that new religions constantly emerge. As people find new things—or events—meaningful, and they come together around the phenomenon or episode, a religion eventually emerges. Take the example of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. On February 15, 2013 a resounding explosion rocked Chelyabinsk. What was likely a former asteroid had headed for Russia (which they seem to prefer almost as much as Donald Trump) and became a meteoroid (the name for meteors while they’re still in outer space). Once it entered the earth’s atmosphere and became a meteor proper, it superheated and exploded in the sky—a phenomenon known as a bolide. For those of us who’ve experience them, bolides are unforgettable. Once the pieces of the exploded meteor hit the earth they became meteorites.

Image credit: NASA/ESA, public domain

Meteors are an everyday occurrence. Any time you see a shooting star—which you can do any clear night—you’ve seen one. Large, exploding meteors are rare. Shortly after the Chelyabinsk meteorite fell, according to Astro Bob, the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite formed. This group did not wish for the main body of the surviving meteorite to be raised from Lake Chebarkul, where it fell. Their protests became religious as they chanted, prayed, and sang. A new, if temporary, religion was born. Astro Bob goes on to say that religions and meteorites are no strangers. Indeed, up until the Middle Ages and even a little beyond, it was believed that rocks could not fall from the sky. A meteorite, then, was a sign from either God or, well, you know who. When the impossible happens religions are quick to follow. Astro Bob’s story was written in 2013, so he doesn’t declare the fate of the Church. The meteorite was raised from the bottom of the lake in October of that year.

New Year’s Day in 1987, while I was home from seminary on break, putting a puzzle together with my brother, our house shook. A loud boom accompanied the shock wave. We ran outside to find the neighbors staring at the sky, and a few casting a wary glance toward the petroleum refinery in town. The news later that day told us a bolide had exploded nowhere very near us. We were within the shock wave, and those fortunate enough to be outside that January saw a flaming meteor in the daytime sky. I remember it well thirty years later. I already had a religion at the time (Methodism, starting to tend toward Episcopalianism) so my plate was already full. It was nevertheless a dramatic event, and when your world is literally shaken, you will naturally look for something to believe.

Hoping for Light

Although the stores have been playing Christmas music for some weeks now, it is technically Advent. I think we could all use a little Advent as days grow shorter and dark nights increase their influence over our lives. As a nation we’ve been brutalized by a minority candidate and this has become a bleak December that Poe would certainly have understood. The spinning mind occasionally falls upon George W. Bush who somehow has begun to look normal. The president who told us when America was under attack we should shop. After all, that’s what people do in December, right? We buy things to make ourselves feel better. It sure is dark outside most of the time. Advent is all about candles and light and hope.

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One of the more endearing aspects of human beings is our ability to see the positive amid negativity. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. Stars are tiny points of light in an endless cold and dark universe. Most of what’s out there has no light beyond those willing to burn bright enough for others to see. We, however, see the light of daytime as normative, slumbering away the hours of darkness. We thrive in light and the light has to be augmented by candles as we struggle against the natural darkness that would, if it could, encompass the universe. Darkness, despite its emptiness, is endlessly hungry. Advent reminds us that we must be light if we want anyone to see in the growing nighttime.

We miss this important dynamic if we leap straight from Halloween to Christmas, pausing briefly for Thanksgiving. The church has made its fair share of mistakes, but Advent wasn’t one of them. Experts tell us Jesus wan’t born in December. Christmas isn’t really a physical birthday. It’s an ancient rite concerned with the return of light to darkened skies. A fervent appeal for our colorful lights and candles to encourage the light that we know, we believe, is out there to return to us. Scientists tell us that it’s just that the earth lolls at 23 degrees on its axis and all of this is just a balancing act. That may be so. I’ve never been off the earth to check. Down here on the ground, however, the days come only reluctantly and the nights linger longer and longer. And we can choose to see darkness as our natural state, or we can ignite a candle to encourage the light to return.

The Neighborhood

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Let me send out a warm welcome to the neighborhood, I think. Not that I officially represent Earth—or anything for that matter. I’m just friendly, I guess. Now that astronomers have strong evidence that the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, likely has a planet, it’s not premature to head over with a casserole. It’s not every day that a new solar system is discovered. We don’t know for sure that the planet’s there, but chances are pretty good. In reading about this discovery I learned that the orthodoxy has changed since I took astronomy in college. It seems now standard wisdom teaches that most stars likely have a least one planet. I can’t even count the stars—I usually start to trail off after I get to about ten—so I can’t imagine the number of potential planets out there. And where there are planets, there are gods.

Let me rephrase that. If there are billions and billions of planets it is very likely that there’s life out there. I know I’m racing ahead of the evidence here, but let me have my fun. If there’s life, there’s a chance, a glimmer of a chance at least, that given enough life we’ll find consciousness. I’ve always thought it was a touch arrogant on our part to assume we were the only ones out here. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so, ahem, astronomically high we seem to be afraid to admit the possibility. We don’t really want to be alone in this cold, vast, universe after dark. Enter the gods. Conscious beings—even arrogant ones—have no trouble supposing that there is an even greater presence out there. I suspect this isn’t an earth-bound bias. I should hope that conscious life looks toward the stars with wonder, and even after they discover that there’s no lid on their planet they might still ponder what else might be out there.

Let’s suppose there are other creatures out there with other gods. When the meeting takes place we’ll need to have that discussion. You know the one I mean. We’ll need to ask whose deity is really real. Is it yours or is it ours? Hopefully we’ll enter into this with an open mind. I suspect it will depend on who’s in the White House, and all the other big houses, at the time. There are certainly those who claim their own almighty brooks no rivals. If it turns out that we can’t agree, I hope it doesn’t come to blows. There will always be other planets to explore, and maybe even new orthodoxies to accept. It’s an infinite universe, after all.

Digging to Look up

Ancient technology is a growing field of interest. A couple years back I gave a talk about ancient technology at a local Steampunk convention. The smallish audience that attended had lots of questions about how ancient people accomplished marvels such as the Antikythera Mechanism, or even the pyramids of Egypt. As new discoveries continue to show, our antique forebears had access to knowledge we have always assumed to be beyond them. An article in Gizmodo tells the story of how Matthieu Ossendrijver, an astroarchaeologist (and hey, this was simply not a job description I ever found in a college catalog, for the record!) at Humboldt University, has been studying an Akkadian clay tablet (the article doesn’t specify which one, beyond “text A”) that demonstrates that the Babylonians understood one of the principles that led to calculus. Tracking the movement of Jupiter, the Babylonian priests knew that measuring the area under a curve could provide the distance traveled by an object. This principle, in the annals of science, wasn’t discovered until about 1350, C.E. Babylonians knew it over a thousand years earlier.

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Although we marvel at the engineering of the ancients, we tend to think of them as superstitious. After all, they believed in gods and things like that. As Maddie Stone points out in her article, however, priests were also astronomers. Believing that messages from the gods existed among the stars, peoples of ancient times kept careful track of the heavens. Apart from romantic couples looking for time alone, how many people spend an evening under the stars, looking up at a universe that is so much larger than the internet that it can actually made you shudder? There is a wonder out there that can’t be replicated electronically. People knew that the sky and the gods somehow belonged together, and they knew this millennia ago.

Given that many of us hold doctorates in reading ancient, dead languages (too many, perhaps), you’d think all the clay tablets found would’ve been read, catalogued, and neatly stacked away by now. This is far from the truth. Tens of thousands of tablets were excavated back in the days before archaeology became an endangered practice in places like Iraq and Syria. Crates full of these tablets were shipped to museums and few have been transcribed, let alone translated. There is ancient knowledge stored away among the receipts and chronicles and myths of people who lived in the cradle of civilization, and now that information remains buried in museum basements because it is deemed not worth the money spent to provide jobs for those who can read them. As is often the case, however, when we are willing to listen to others, even long dead, we are amazed at what we can discover.

Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

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No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.

Somewhere, Out There

With Pope Francis’s impending visit, the New York-Philadelphia corridor is abuzz with discussions of traffic and commuting disruptions. From a little further away, Irish Central is reporting that the Vatican chief astronomer has gone onto record stating that he believes in extraterrestrial life. (Despite the headline, the article doesn’t say anything about UFOs, and the astronomer, Fr. Funes, is noted as saying that he doesn’t believe extraterrestrials are flying here.) The real issue, however, is metaphysical, rather than physical. How would life elsewhere impact theology? Long ago the Vatican expressed some comfort with the idea of evolution. As early as Augustine of Hippo, thinkers have noted that reason cannot contradict truth and still be convincing. The evidence for evolution, overwhelming as it is, falls under that rubric. Life in space, at least according to orthodox science, is more a matter of mathematical certainty rather than experiential. And like any scientific idea, not all scientists agree with the astronomical odds in favor of life in space.

Funes, according to the article by Frances Mulraney, believes that aliens are not fallen races in need of salvation. The grand master plan laid out in the Bible was unique to this world only. Human beings sinned, we required divine intervention, and, as you’d expect from a Christian source, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s only son. It does raise interesting questions about what the aliens might think of a chosen race. How could you not think yourself superior if you had no need of God’s special attention? One can only hope that ET isn’t the jealous sort.

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

For years those who speculate about non-earth-based life have argued over how religions would handle the news that humanity isn’t alone. Would religious observance increase or decrease? It might depend on what our fellow universalists have to tell us. This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of ancient religions. Founded when worldviews were pre-scientific, back when the earth was the center of everything, they didn’t add an infinite universe into the equation. And infinity always complicates things. Fr. Funes says the Bible isn’t a science book, and indeed, biblical scholars have long known that to be the case. It’s the contingencies outside the ordinary of two millennia ago that are most worrying to literalists. Even with all we have learned of science, we have a great deal yet to comprehend. Religion is a uniquely human response to an uncertain universe. And since ours is apparently infinite and expanding, religion may very well be something we’ll need to take with us to the stars.

Contacting Faith

Contact_0001Sometime after the movie Contact came out, I saw it while on a flight to somewhere here or there. As with most movies on airplanes, it didn’t receive my full attention and I seem to recall not hearing a lot of the sound. Having always been intrigued by the possibility of aliens, however, I told myself I’d watch it again. Several months ago I did just that, but as Carl Sagan hoped, much of the story had become somewhat dated. I finally finished reading the novel, and this was a case of the book being better than the movie (as is frequently the case). A number of things surprised me about the story, the primary one being just how prominent religion is in the plot. In the movie some crazy preacher sabotages the first machine just as it’s nearing completion, and even though Ellie Arroway is long connected to Palmer Joss, their relationship doesn’t seem to dominate the script the way it does the book.

Almost immediately upon reading about adult Ellie, it became clear that religion was a major interest that Carl Sagan had. While the chiliasts receive many scathing comments throughout the novel, thoughtful Christian thinkers, such as Palmer, find a way of being taken seriously by Ellie, despite her own personal unbelief. Unable to understand how someone could not accept the evidence before their eyes, she wants to belittle religion but can’t when serious thinkers like Palmer remind her that they have a sophisticated worldview as well. The story represents a long struggle between alternative outlooks. While as a novel it doesn’t always flow, it pulls the reader along, partly based on the intriguing character of Sagan himself.

Carl Sagan believed in life on other planets. He was less sanguine about the possibility of either ancient astronauts or current-day visitors from space, but he kept an open mind. While he was the respected author of numerous scientific papers, other astronomers didn’t always know what to make of such a popularizer. Of course I never knew him, but I have to wonder if his true beliefs didn’t appear in his fiction rather than in his factual writing. At times I found the novel slow and plodding, and as the machine gives ambiguous results, I wondered where the rest of the story could go. Sagan profoundly brings the end back to belief. Without evidence, Ellie finds herself in the place of the religious who believe on the basis of experience and faith alone. And she finds her best friend is a clergyman. Contact, with its God-like aliens, is really a story of finding oneself a place in an infinite universe. To do that well, Sagan seems to have believed, requires both science and religion.

Like a Virgin

Having more than two days in a row when I could be both home and awake, led to some premature spring cleaning over the last few days. One of the artifacts discovered among the piles of “deal with it later” things was a booklet that was likely an impulse buy—a stocking stuffer or perhaps a whimsical birthday giftie. In our house it could have only been directed at me since it was a little book about Virgo. I have never, even in my most experimental modes, considered astrology to be anything but pure fantasy. I do, however, realize that it is just as old as astronomy, and ancient peoples firmly believed that the sky had unseen influences on everyone. Still, the calendar dates during which you are born can’t provide personality traits any more accurate than gross generalizations. Two of my brothers and I are Virgos, and we are very different personalities, despite having grown up together.

Still, curiosity compelled me to take a few minutes to look at the guide by Teresa Celsi and Michael Yawney. It begins with a brief introduction to astrology, and as I thought about it, I realized that there are indeed people who take it seriously. Long ago I recognized that the criticism “ridiculous” (apart from being offensive) is never an adequate antidote to religious belief. Many elements in conventional Christianity, and other mainstream religions, fall into the similarly implausible realm. There is a kind of science to astrology—labeling and categorization, observation and recording. I still don’t believe it, but I can see how it might appeal. And I thought I could recognize myself in the Virgo the booklet described. Yes, some of that was definitely me. Then I got to the bit about a Virgo’s house being neat and tidy, and how people appreciate it. We live in a small apartment and visitors (who are few) are more inclined to make sure their immunizations are updated after leaving, rather than praising our housekeeping skills. Fact is, clutter doesn’t bother me that much.

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The majority of the little novelty book was about relationships, of course. I still remember the days when “what’s your sign” was considered an acceptable pick-up line, at least if movies are to be believed. I couldn’t remember my wife’s sign, and was surprised to read, when I found it, that we might encounter some conflict, should we decide on a permanent relationship. We’ve been married for 26 years with barely a raised voice in all that time. Maybe it’s because I’m a Virgo. Or maybe it is because we are more the agents of our own destiny than the stars. Nevertheless, it would be a comfort if we could pick up a chart and know what our lives might be like. It’s easy to see why astrology has taken on the quality of a religion for many. Please excuse me but, according to my nature, it is about time to get back to my cleaning.

Holistic Universe

HolographicUniverseThings have been so busy that a satellite landed on a comet and I didn’t even know. I have always wondered about the universe. In fact, as a young man, vying with my tendencies toward ministry I had a vibrant interest in astronomy. The universe, however, has a predilection towards mathematics that frustrates my attempts to understand. I did well enough in my college astronomy class, but I knew it could never be my major. My recent reading reminded me of Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe—a book that has been on my shelf since about the time it was published. In my mind, holograph had translated into arithmetic, and every time I picked it up, fear gripped me anew and I vowed I’d read it later. Later caught up with me the last few days, and I found myself plunged down a rabbit hole that I did not even know was there. When I took physics there was no talk of quantum mechanics. It was all the three laws of thermodynamics and the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection and things like that. Nevertheless, I continued to read science written for the laity, and Talbot’s book rather caught me off guard.

First off, I still have no idea how a holograph works. It is something that seems, to my pragmatic way of thinking, impossible. As Talbot explores this strange concept, however, he introduces a universe I began to recognize. This is one of those realities where the edges don’t quite meet and things that shouldn’t exist show up anyway. In other words, phenomena that are often called “religious” can be made to fit into a holographic universe. Talbot spends a great deal of time discussing miracles and healings. We know that they happen, but we’ve been conditioned to question them. They don’t fit into that universe Mr. Wynecoop told you about in eighth grade. And yet, there they are.

Even after reading the book, I can’t claim to understand how a holographic universe works, but I did come away with a model of reality that allows for the evidence generally swept off the table. Everything from ghosts to time warps are possible in a universe that is a holograph. I’d step off the bus never sure which reality I’d encounter. Still, glancing up at the dark sky, I knew that millions of miles away, someone had recently scored a direct hit on a comet and if we can’t even interpret all that we see on Mars, we’d better be prepared to open our minds for something new. After all, we only see what we allow ourselves to see. Society programs us, just as surely as any computer. And if, like a virus, you play by your own rules, you’ll be the enemy. If you’re willing to ask the uncomfortable questions you’ll be labeled as having tea down a rabbit hole. Maybe, however, I can find a home here. As long as Deacon Dodgson can take care of the math.

Earthbound

Major news outlets have been raving over Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film. I’ve not seen it yet, and it hasn’t had the same kind of hype that Noah received earlier this year. It isn’t, after all, biblical. Still, the reviews for the movie borrow liberally from religious language. One of the obvious reasons is that the vastness, the incomprehensibility—I think I’m safe to say it here—the impossibility of space, almost demand such language. Ironically, it is considered unsophisticated to say similar things of religion, that fall-back for those of weak intellects who, well, believe the impossible. Whether science or religion, we are faced, when we look at interpretations of reality, with something we barely comprehend. Even by conservative measures, on the scale of the universe, we are somewhere around the level of a sub-atomic particle to an earth-sized universe. And yet, with great confidence, indeed, at times arrogance, we claim that we have it all figured out. God? Not possible. Science, less than a millennium old? We’ve got it all figured out. And we haven’t even stepped beyond our own satellite yet.

Having grown up in a rural setting, I was used to seeing stars at night. From a young age astronomy fascinated me. My high school, built during the era around Sputnik, had a working planetarium (and this was not an affluent community). I took astronomy as a junior elective and ran into my teacher at a weekend retreat for lay preachers. A man of science who looked at the universe and came away with wonder. On clear winter nights, away from the light pollution that has become my daily bread here in the orbit of New York City, I would shiver and look upward, knowing that I was reaching both the limits of what the earthbound could see, but also infinity at the same time. The vastness of space still weakens my knees. Even more than my age does naturally.

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In at least one of the many interviews, Nolan admits to having been influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the genesis of the believable space movies, giving Star Wars a jump start and we’ve been exploring deep space in our celluloid fantasies ever since. The constant in all of this is the humility of humanity. “Humility” derives from Latin humilis, literally, “on the ground.” It is no accident when the concept of divinity began to emerge that the human, or perhaps porto-human, gaze was cast upward. The gods, whatever else they might be, weren’t down here with us. They have access to up there. And even a scientist can get away with calling the sky “the heavens.” This journey of Interstellar began long before Kubrick, and we are flocking in numbers to see what the latest rendition might be. Wonder might just be what the doctor calls for on a dark night, when the hope of humanity could use a little humility.

I See Only Nothing

Once considered to be bad omens, comets are becoming a fad for those who can take their eyes off the screen for a few moments to look at the sky. Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), apart from falling trippingly from the tongue, is apparently now visible with the naked eye. I’ve been looking forward to this comet since at least January, although living just to the west of New York City complicates viewing possibilities quite a bit. You see, although I am now an urbanite, I’m really a rural rube at heart. I grew up in a town of less than 1000, and was born in a town of less than 15000. I attended college in a small town and my first teaching job was in a rural setting in Wisconsin. Apart from the fact that I’m now convinced people have very little control over their own destinies, I have preferred to live in places where I can see the night-time sky. Perhaps it was my love of science fiction as a child, but for whatever reason, space has always captured my imagination. I used to drag my brother out on frigid nights to look at the stars, and even tried to teach myself the azimuth coordinate system to document precisely where I’d seen something. I took astronomy classes in high school and in college. In middle school I did an intensive report on comets that saved my science grade that year.

Hyakutake, 1996.  My first comet.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

Comet ISON, however, has been refusing to behave as it was projected that it might. Although it could still turn into a very bright sky-show, so far it has been difficult to spot, and, at least for my location, at inconvenient hours of the day. Much to the chagrin of creationists, ISON is 4.6 billion years old, although it is just getting out for it’s first tour of the solar system. Part of the Oort cloud region, Comet ISON is probably a piece of a never-formed planet out past Neptune that decided to take its first cosmic stroll about a million years ago. It’s had a date with the sun since that time. The scientific jury’s still out as to whether ISON will go out with a blaze of glory after its close encounter with our sun and if it will come back around again to wow generations of our distant progeny (presuming we survive that long). For me it will be a matter of seeing if the clouds ever break in the east at 4 a.m. so that I can actually get a glimpse of the sky.

Hale-Bopp, 1997; a little over-exposed--one of the hazards of amateur photography with film.

Hale-Bopp, 1997; a little over-exposed–one of the hazards of amateur photography with film.

Comets were once thought to be heralds of the gods. Like other variable objects in an otherwise pretty predictable night-time sky, they can be either very bright or very dim (even invisible, for all practical purposes). When Halley’s Comet came around in 1986 I was living in Boston and couldn’t see the heavenly visitor. In 1996 Hyakutake buzzed earth, I stood in wonder in the woods of Wisconsin, photographing my first comet. A year later when Hale-Bopp blazed through the sky, I was out with my camera trying to capture it on film (a medium, I understand, that is about as old as Comet ISON). Were these visitors bad omens? One comet may have been decidedly devastating for our dinosaur friends, while some speculate that life on earth was seeded by a comet (making it a kind of secular god, I suppose). I’m only convinced that we have no control over our fate as I stand outside at 4 a.m. yet again, only to find clouds in the east and a comet in my heart.

Where No One has Gone Before

766px-VoyagerI already miss Voyager. Not that I ever met her, but I followed her progress from her youngest days and to when she was a curious youngster flirting with Jupiter and Saturn, to her more circumspect considerations of the outer gas giants. An extension of human curiosity itself, Voyager 1, like the Energizer Bunny, just kept going and going and going, revealing a solar system more beautiful and complex than we earth-bound denizens knew. And she didn’t see God. Ancient people had always supposed, given the human disposition to climbing, that God was somewhere above us. Even the discovery that we live on a globe didn’t really change that—we are still down here, so God must still be up there. Voyager 1 has traveled 11 billion miles with nary a glance at the divine, and she is now the first human-made object, besides perhaps God, to exit the solar system.

Space has always been a personal fascination. I took astronomy both in a Cold War era high school that actually had a working planetarium (in a very moderate-income town, even!), and in college (where there was no planetarium). In unguarded moments I even considered astronomy as a career. I don’t have the “right stuff” to be an astronaut, but I can stare at the sky for hours and wonder. Voyager was out there doing things I’d never do, seeing what I could never see, experiencing the deathly frigidity of cold, cold space. And now she’s leaving home. No one is certain how long she’ll keep serving humanity with new images and information. It will take her a long, long time to reach anywhere else, unless she’s abducted by aliens. In the meantime, all of us down here will age and die, as will the next few generations. Voyager will simply keep going.

Space is beautiful in its solitude. The objects that we’ve glimpsed out there have been full of wonder and mystery. Still, we are told, it is mostly empty space. Or dark matter. Perhaps because of the active volcanos on our own planet we were once told that Hell lay under our feet. There is a fiery world below, to be sure, as science has demonstrated. We call it the mantel rather than Hell, and visits to it are decidedly short-lived rather than eternal, but ancient religious thinkers got the temperature about right. If the analogy holds, Voyager 1 may yet meet some kind of deity out there. She, after all, has escaped the solar system and has slipped into Heaven. In order to explore eternity, we need to boldly let her go where no device has gone before. Although I never really knew her, I already miss Voyager 1 badly.