Tuesday, May 29, 2007

He wishes for the cloths of heaven

In my Skeptics and True Believers, I talk for a bit about the 1996 apparition of Comet Hyakutake. In particular, I recount the events of one special night:
Best of all was the evening of April 3, when we forsook the observatory for a broad dark field where we watched the Moon rise in full eclipse, a spooky pink pearl. The comet was in the northwest, showing a degree or two of tail. Venus had joined the Pleiades, a blazing beacon. Meteors streaked the firmament. I was with a group of young people, students at the college. I was impressed by their reverence, wonder -- and especially by their intense desire to know. I described the physics of cometary motion and produced a three-dimensional model of the orbit that I had previously constructed. We talked about the chemistry of comets and the chemistry of life. Knowledge, wonder, and celebration played off one another in perfect harmony. I thought: How sad that such experiences are not part of our formal religious traditions. It was at that moment, in that field, watching that comet, that I decided to write this book.
In a sense, just about everything I have written during the past decade had its origin in the inspiration of that special evening and those special young people. Knowledge, wonder, celebration: Those have been my themes.


Now, a reader of Skeptics and True Believers, Jeff Pickens, has sent me a re-creation of that evening, using Starry Night software, which is the same program I use to plan my skywatching. He sends two views, one to the west (above), with Hyakutake and Venus with the Pleiades, and another to the east (below), with the moon rising in eclipse. You will have to click on the images to see them properly.


And it all comes back -- the chill of the night air, the cloudless sky, the intense pleasure of being in possession of knowledge that my young companions yearn to hear. In that same chapter of my book, I quoted a verse from a poem of William Butler Yeats:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
I spread the cloths. The long ellipse of the comet. The planet 20 million times closer than the stars of the Pleiades. The moon slipping though the rapier-thin shadow of the Earth. But sharing the dark cloths meant nothing without my eager companions.