Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"When I heard the learn'd astronomer..."*

Non interludus

Parish priest Austin Brierley, in David Lodge's 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? [published in the U.S. as Souls and Bodies] would often go to the liturgical parties at his friends Michael and Miriam's house, where:
he often saw their eldest son, Martin, a keen amateur astronomer, crouched over his telescope in the dark garden, sometimes actually kneeling on the frosty lawn, immobile, habited like a medieval hermit in balaclava and a long, baggy, cast-off overcoat of his father's. Austin usually stopped to chat with the boy and through these conversations became seriously interested in the Universe. To the rucksack's contents he added popular books on astronomy, from which he learned with astonishment and some dismay that there were about fifty million stars like the Sun in our galaxy, and at least two hundred thousand galaxies in the Universe, each containing a roughly equivalent number of stars, or suns. The whole affair had been going for a very long time, and had spread over a very wide area. Galaxies now being observed for the very first time had started sending, at a speed of 180,000 miles per second, the light that was now being picked up by our telescopes, many thousands of millions of years before the Earth was even formed. If the history of the Universe was conceived of as a single calendar year, the initial Big Bang occuring on 1 January, then the Earth had been formed towards the end of September, and Homo sapiens made his appearance at about 10:30 p.m. on 31 December. Christ was born four seconds before midnight.

...The longer he looked, the more stars he could see, and beyond them were billions more that one could never see with the naked eye. It was statistically certain, according to the books, that some of them must have planetary systems capable of supporting life. It certainly seemed unlikely, when you thought about it, that the only life in the entire universe should be situated on this tiny satellite of an insignificant star in a suburb of the Milky Way. But if there was life out there, there must also be death. Had those creatures, like us, myths of creation, fall, and redemption? Had other Christs died on other Calvaries in other galaxies at different times in the last twenty billion years? Under the night sky, the questions that preoccupied philosophers and theologians seemed to reduce down to two very simple ones: how did it all start, and where is it all going? The idea that God, sitting on his throne in a timeless heaven, decided one day to create the Universe, and started the human race going on one little bit of it, and watched with interest to see how each human being behaved himself; that when the last day came and God closed down the Universe, gathering in the stars and galaxies like a croupier raking in chips, He would reward the righteous by letting them live with Him forever in Heaven—that obviously wouldn't do, as modern theologians admitted, and indeed took some satisfaction in demonstrating.
* From Walt Whitman (1819-1892):
* When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


  1. Wow. This is an awesome post. Two of my favorite subjects combined, and a way of looking at it that I've never considered before. The question of whether the lives on other planets have myths of creation, fall, and redemption, and other Christs, is a great one. I've always sort of thought the planets capable of sustaining life were inhabited by us; that maybe even those in our solar system that appear to be lifeless really aren't, but we can't see them -- sort of a reverse mirage effect, or some different dimension that we can't even conceive of. Or that they were once occupied by us, or will be in the future; and I tend to extend that concept to other galaxies. But now I have this Star Trek / Farscape possibility in my head, and that's even more mind boggling. I just hope it's true that when we die, we really do get to understand it all.

    I do believe in God, because after the things I've experienced, I can't not believe, but I sure don't know how to apply that belief to those other worlds. Just the fact that dinosaurs once roamed the earth (and aren't mentioned in Genesis at all, not a big fan of the Bible) is almost too much for me to conceive of. This post will give me something to think about for a long time to come, and if anyone deserves the Thinking Blogger Award it's you! You can pick that up over on my blog, if you've a mind to.

    P.S. Thanks for the Whitman, too. It's beautiful.

  2. I did visit your blog today to see what the Thinking Blogger Award was about. I'm glad that you find my blog pleasantly thought-provoking.