Friday, January 02, 2009

Debauched on light

And so it begins, The International Year of Astronomy, with the theme "The Universe, yours to discover," marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first observations through a telescope in 1609.

According to the IYA2009 website, the celebration will portray astronomy as "a peaceful global scientific endeavor that unites astronomers in an international, multicultural family of scientists, working together to find answers to some of the most fundamental questions that humankind has ever asked."

As upright primates, the sky is half of our visual field, but we give it only a tiny fraction of our attention. Food, drink, clothing, shelter, sex are all to be found close to the ground. What goes on above our heads is mostly irrelevant.

Irrelevant to the body, that is. To the mind, and whatever it is we call spirit, the sky is supremely important. Every culture has put their chief gods in the sky. Sun, moon and stars figure prominently in the history of religion. Mathematics and science began in the sky. Few things evoke so profound a sense of awe as a dark sky ablaze with stars.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes: "To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being further off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes." Vision is the sense that puts us in touch with infinity.

Ackerman suggests that perception is a form of grace. In Catholic theology, one must be disposed to grace to receive it. The International Year of Astronomy has as its purpose disposing us to grace -- grace capacious enough to contain the universe.