The phone rang about 5:45 this morning: Ginger called to let me know she was getting on a flight and would be in Providence by 7:30. I got there about 8:00 and we left around 10:00. One of her bags has still not made it home. I drove her straight to the church for a meeting and I ran errands until it was time for to pick her up and take her on a Valentine’s date (Mexican food) and then home for a well deserved and anticipated nap. As usual, while I was driving around, I was listening to NPR. On Point was focused on the legacy of Carl Sagan ten years after his death. One of the questions Tom Ashbrook asked was what advances had been made in astronomy and physics since Sagan died. The answer intrigued me.
What we know now that we did not know a decade ago is the universe is both expanding and accelerating. (Sagan only knew it was expanding.) Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the scientists being interviewed, said the implication of that combination meant that astrophysicists of the future would not see the same sky we see. A time will come when it will look as though we are alone because the universe will have expanded so far and so quickly that we will only be able to see the planets closest to us. He went on to say it’s important for us to keep and preserve good records of what we see so people in the future will not think it has always been the way it looks then.
We live in a time when we are able to see deeper and farther into space than anyone who has lived before us, thanks to Hubble and the like, and we are people who can see less of the stars than anyone who has come before because we have been too busy making lights of our own. When the Psalmist, captured by the wonder of the night, wrote,
I often think of the heavens your hands have made,
and of the moon and stars you put in place.
Then I ask, “Why do you care about us humans?
Why are you concerned for us weaklings?” (Ps. 8:3-4)
he saw a sky crammed full of stars with his naked eye. For centuries, ships determined where they were on earth by what they could see in the heavens. The sky that was familiar to them and the stars they knew by name are not things most of us know anymore. From our back deck here in Marshfield I can see more of the night than I could in the city. My incredibly amateur eye can recognize the Pleiades, Ursa Major (since when does a bear have a tail?), Casio Pea, Orion – my favorite, and Sirius (the dog star, not the satellite radio). I know the names because they have been passed down, person to person, over the centuries, but the list of names I know is far shorter than those known by those who named them to begin with. As my universe has expanded to include iPods and oil fields, hard drives and Hubble telescopes, I’ve lost sight of what was once the common field of vision.
About a decade ago, I remember reading that the body of knowledge in the world doubled every five years, which means there is now four times as much to know as there was when I first learned that bit of information. When the term “Renaissance Man” was coined to describe someone who pretty much knew everything, knowing everything was an accomplishable task. Now there is too much to know before we even get to the stars. Tyson is right: as the universe accelerates, we are left to assume the universe is only as big as what we can see.
When it comes to the stars, we measure distance in time: light years. If the scientists tell us a star is three million light years away, then the light we are seeing is three million years old. What we see on any given night is light that is old and tired and yet new to us; we have no idea what is really happening where that light began. What looks like a sky full of lighted dots to us is a panoply of history, a polyglot of light we can barely begin to translate. It makes me wonder if the first draft of Psalm 8 went something like, “Who are we to think we matter at all?”
When we lived in Boston, one of our favorite places to take people who came to visit was the Mother Church of Christian Science. The main sanctuary has a beautiful dome. About the second or third time we visited, I noticed the room was considerably lighter. I asked the docent leading our tour what had happened. She told me they had been renovating the dome when they discovered skylights that had been painted over during World War Two. Once the war was over, people forgot to uncover them and they had stayed dark for over fifty years. I was struck by the fact that the church had met in that room every Sunday since the windows had been darkened and yet still managed to forget what they had done as life accelerated and moved away from the fear that caused them to paint the skylights to begin with.
We, as human beings, have already forgotten more than we have discovered. A trip to the Mayan ruins or the Pyramids will bring that home in hurry. One of the fallacies we have bought into in our age is that an accelerating universe means we have to keep looking ahead if we want to keep up. What I continue to find to be paradoxically true is most of the meaning I’ve been able to make of my life and our world comes from looking back and taking in the light that finally reached me. We get some sense of ourselves in our universe from the records we keep and the stories we tell. However fast and far we are flung by the centrifuge of existence, what makes us human is our capacity to remember that the oldest, most tenacious, and most permeating light is love. We are not alone.