Through the glass darkly

The Rhapsody of Infinite Space

One of the most delightful consequences of the great ash plume exploding over Iceland, and the subsequent cancellation of air transport, has been the temporary clearance of the skies. Looking up, during the day and at night, we can experience something unknown to most people since the invention of the airplane – the heavens as they were seen before man began to colonise them.

I know there are still satellites whizzing round, but they don't impinge on us in the way jet planes do, with their miles-long tail-streams, or lumbering commercial airliners bumping the skies round Shannon or Dublin, or small craft buzzing across the lower heavens.

No, what you have now during the day are spacious and lofty horizons, and nothing flying but birds. In the west, looking over the bay or over the low hills of the Burren, it is easy to become dizzy with all this majesty of space. But then a jet starts to scratch its white line over the blue, or, worse yet, two or three of these parodic birds spread out with an eerie soundlessness, and you watch as the ghostly streaks plump and then thin out as distance carries them and their dark cargoes to another part of the Earth's envelope. But not now, or at least at the time of this writing.

But it is after the sun sets that the beauty of trafficless skies is most evident. I think there are few more awesome sights than a star-speckled night sky, with no artificial lights to intrude. And over the years, from my bedroom window, I have – and I strongly suspect I am not alone – had experiences that I think can only properly be described as spiritual.

Often I have sat in a chair till late, picking out stars and planets, tracing constellations, until I am too tired to watch anymore. But sometimes, on especially bright nights, I have taken my place again and had the commonplace but – unless you are awake for it – uncommon experience of seeing the stars shift their positions as the hours go by.

Of course, I know that this is not really so. The stars are not shifting. The Earth is shifting, turning, moving, from night to day. But, whatever scientists tell us, the age-old experience, shared with the Egyptians and the astrologers of Babylonia, is of the stars circling round us. And if it is not true scientifically, it will always have a poetic truth.

And yet it is possible to combine the two conceptions, what has been called the Ptolemaic Universe, with the Earth at the centre and the other planets and stars going round it, and the Newtonian-Einsteinian Universe, in which the Earth is but a tiny speck floating round an ordinary-sized star in a cosmos which borders on the infinite.

One of the most incredible things about this modern view of the heavens is the link between space and time. I can still remember the sense of vertigo that swept me when my teacher explained that because the speed of light can be precisely calculated, the distance of the stars we see can also be precisely measured. But the kicker is this: the light we see from any even common star started moving through space thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years ago. To look at a star is to look back into time. And, there is something even more stunning. We are able to be so precise in our measurements that there is general agreement that the universe itself, of which we are a tiny but not insignificant part, first 'happened' 13.7 billion years ago, though in that word 'happened' lies a perhaps insoluble mystery.

Pascal, at the beginning of the Scientific age, looking into the heavens that people like Copernicus and Galileo were now saying were greater in dimension than previously had been thought, confessed, “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.”

Yet the 19th century essayist Thomas Carlyle, taking on board the results of scientific discovery, declared that wonder is the basis of worship. And Einstein, in whose universe we are living, maintained “that the cosmic religious feeling” was “the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”.

At a time when organised religion is on the ropes or infected with extremisms, perhaps those dissatisfied with the crudities of Dawkins et al, who seek a non-dogmatic spirituality, might turn to an ancient formula that pre-dates but certainly does not contradict one of the central insights of the great religions - "Out of two things, the immortal and the mortal, God made this one thing, man ... that he might behold the things of heaven with wondering reverence, and tend the things of earth."

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