“ After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.”
― Richard Dawkins
We keep the night at bay, and in doing so we shrink our existence to the size of the room, the city, or the ring of light around the fire. What are we scared of? I guess throughout human history there was plenty to be scared of...animal attacks, attacks by rival humans, getting lost, and in modern days, muggings. But when I am out in the Colorado Plateau, the embracing the darkness is one of the most special experiences I can have.
Our trip through the Abandoned Lands had been on the road for a week, and for a multitude of reasons, I was exhausted by the end of the day and had not really spent much time looking at the night-time sky. We arrived at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and I made a point of the exploring the darkness. I sat and watched the stars sweeping across the sky, and made a brief effort at capturing a bit of the night in a photo (above). I guess it was pretty late because only one tent in the camp was still lit up.
The ancients gazed at the sky and invented patterns. If you know your stars, you've probably already figured out the constellation that fills the center of the photo (you can click it for a larger view). People invented stories to go with the images and the stories involved heroes and legends and eventually gods. At some point the gods became more important than understanding the lights themselves, and the skies began to lose their significance.
In the case of the night-time sky, religious explanations settled matters for most people, and they longer had any other reason to look to the heavens, except to keep times and seasons. I look at the sky and I can still see Scorpio (I outlined it in the picture below if you don't know the constellations well), but because of science, I have a lot more to see. I've learned that each of those points of light is star like our sun, and that most of the stars out there probably have planets. The cloudy dim light that we call the Milky Way is made of so many stars our eyes cannot distinguish them. Other points of light out there are other galaxies beyond our own, made up of billions of more stars. And there are billions of galaxies. The vastness of the Universe is far beyond our comprehension, but we want to comprehend, so we try to invent new ways to explore. That's the magic to me of science. I don't know what the future will bring on our human journey, but I try to imagine sometimes how quaint our ideas of the cosmos will seem to whoever follows us.
We also hear echos of the past because everything we are is a legacy of those who preceded us. The DNA in our cells is a genetic road map that leads through our parents, our grandparents, and all who came before. Our responses to the environment we live in today were shaped by those who survived in the past.
But our responses are also influenced by something unique in all of human history: scientific knowledge. We now know the causes of diseases; we understand chemical reactions and the predictions made by physics; we know of the history of the Earth and the history of our species far beyond the stories handed down by our ancestors. We have an inking of our true place in the cosmos in a way that no humans have ever been able perceive it before. I am thankful to be living in a day and age when the sum total of all human knowledge is available to us in a book, a laptop or a smartphone.
Whatever demons may exist in the darkness, they are chased away by the light...