The Wonder of It All

Like many astronomers, I try, at least once a day, to check in with NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day, or APOD. It’s like one of those calendars where you tear a new sheet off for each day, and it has a deep thought or Farside cartoon or stupid thing that someone who was actually in possession of the nuclear football actually said. Except that APOD offers a daily glimpse of reality, the wider universe in which we live and wonder.

Today’s APOD, by Florian Breuer, is one of the most striking images I have ever seen of a clear, dark, sky, and it comes from a place that might be one of the last places on earth where such a dark sky is visible, if humans keep stringing up lights to illuminate every shadowed corner of what is seen as their exclusive realm (that is to say, everywhere). This photo is from Namibia.

In the lower left, you see two fuzzy patches. These are the Magellanic Clouds, two small galaxies, galaxettes, if you will, or galexitos in Spanish, that the Milky Way accumulated at some point in its twirling about the cosmos. Groupies. That thick arch of stars and dust and gas and, we now know, planets, is the disk of our Milky Way Galaxy. The brightest area of the arc is the core the Milky Way. Earth, the Sun, our entire solar system, are orbiting that galactic core, and our galactic year is about 250 million earth years. The entire galaxy is spinning.

The image is stunning too for the strange, wonderful Quiver Trees in the foreground, which are not trees but succulents, a variety of aloe. Rub that on your face! Some of these trees have been staring at the night sky for three centuries. On the best of nights, which I can only count on one hand at this point in my life, I have seen a night sky that looked pretty much like this. Not quite as colorfull or as deep, but we have to forgive the photograph; it has to exagerate to make up for the fact that it is, ultimately, a simulation. Most of these nights occured in the last few years, during visits to National Parks out west and a haven of dark skies in the east, Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park.

I am a nonbeliever. Or rather, I believe in a lot of things, like truth, justice, reason, and the fact that both bacon and butter are each distinct, complete food groups that somehow occupy the top level of the food pyramid concurrently. But I don’t believe in God. Haven’t for a long time, longer than I could articulate the proposition in my mind. This sentence should be accepted by most readers the same way “I’ve been practicing Buddhism since I was 17” would, but I know that it won’t. Nonbelievers are scary, alien to perhaps the majority of humans. Ironically, a life of belief is similarly alien to me, and I led one for some years, earnestly.

I don’t preach nonbelief, or anthing, at the eyepiece of my telescope. I want to illuminate the universe, but the message people get from that view, well, that’s between them and the universe. That message is sacred to me even if I don’t receive the same one, and facilitating its transmittal is one of the enduring joys of my life.

But I couldn’t contextualize why this night sky portrait so moves me without getting into my world view, so I appreciate the indulgence. A few people have stated, sometimes personally to me, and sometimes to the wider world, that they think the universe would be diminished without belief. For me it’s not. It’s actually the opposite. The more I see, the more I understand about what I see, the more beautiful the universe gets. The more I wonder. Believers may take this as a compliment to the being/s they credit with creating all this. They did a spanking good job, because it’s a wonderful, complex, beguiling, thing, a vivid thing that shrugs off whole phalanxes of adjectives without seeming even a teensy bit tarnished from the onslaught.

And this photo reminds me of that deep complexity and beauty. Or rather, it reminds me of the times I have stood under that clear window in the universe and felt that euphoric sense of wonder wash over me, bathed by the photons of the real universe above me.

What a beautiful universe we live in, and how lucky am I to be gaze upon it! I guess that’s kind of like a prayer.

Even when I was a believer, it was the natural universe that held my imagination. I actually had a pact with God. I don’t remember when or the circumstances that brought about this particular covenant, but basically here was the deal; I was going to be a good Christian, and lead a good, Christian life. But in return, God would excuse me from eternal choral duty in heaven. Instead, my plan was to zip around the universe. I wanted to watch planets form, stars explode in Supernova, galaxies collide and races from distant worlds meet. I wanted to bear silent witness to humanity surviving the progress trap bottleneck we are in the midst of, and reaching out across the planets of its solar system and then across the stars. I wanted to see what would happen next!

But then I realized there was no dealmaker, and therefore, no deal. And that was the hardest part about losing faith. I had to become mortal, to accept that my vision is limited in both distance and time, that I won’t ever know happens next on a geologic or galactic time scale. Acceptance of this has been a daily challenge, and I’d be dishonest if I presented myself as some sort of space monk with a peaceful inner life. I still want a great many things I cannot have!

But right around the time this happened, I began to look up more, and astronomy came back to me. And though there are some things that are, and will remain, beyond the reach of my telescope, I still consider myself a fortunate traveller to have seen as much as I have, more than many people will ever see. And I consider myself fortunate to have undertaken such an enjoyable mission on earth, to show other people at least some of what I have seen, and open up the lines of communication between the people in my community and their universe.

You may notice what looks like a sunset, or sunrise, in the sky portrait above. It’s neither, though perhaps it is both. It’s what’s called a light dome, and it’s created by a city with artificial lights pointing in the wrong direction. I say it might as well be a sunrise, because people seem quite content to wipe night off the face of the earth, and it might as well be a sunset because the unlimitless energy that is needed for such wanton acts of excess comes at a stiff price, one that may in the end be our undoing. The world won’t end in a few weeks like some crazy wackoes misrepresenting the Maya say it will, but that doesn’t mean it won’t end, or that one of these tomorrows might look frighteningly unlike its yesterday.

So me, I’ll try to cherish all that realness, while it lasts. While I last.

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