Thursday, June 09, 2005

Twinkle, twinkle...

At Ireland's latitude in summer, Vega dominates the night sky by virtue of its place near the zenith. Vega's light moves away from the star's surface in every direction, out past the glowing ring of protoplanetary dust, into the emptiness of space, a vast expanding sphere of energy. At our distance from the star -- 27 light-years -- Vega's light is spread out over a spherical surface with an area of 320 septillion square miles (an unimaginably large number, 320 followed by twenty-eight zeros). My eyes form an image of the star with the infinitesimal fraction of the Vega's light that falls upon my pupils -- twice the area of this letter o.

I sit here on our hill in the short Irish summer night and the light from 10,000 stars (it's a rare clear night) enters my eyes in sufficient quantities to allow me to form perceptible images, 10,000 distinct wavelets of energy from slightly different directions, and somehow my brain sorts it all out, puts every star in its proper place, enables me to recognize familiar constellations, throws the sash of the summer Milky Way across the night, and opens my soul to a universe whose breadth and complexity exceeds my wildest imagining.

Attention is a kind of prayer. The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich asked: "What is the use of praying if God does not answer?" In starlight, I have my answer.