Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The discovery of ignorance

Like me and Tom, many of you appear to be addicted to APOD, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. For this daily delight we are grateful to astronomers Bob Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, who have maintained the site since 1995.

On a good dark night, one might see some thousands of stars with the unaided eye. In a dark place like Exuma, one can see a few things that do not appear to be stars: the blur in Cancer called the Beehive by the ancients, the double blur between Cassiopeia and Perseus, the blur in Andromeda, the blur in Orion. And what about all that darkness between the stars? Empty, or so it seems. The stars are like pinpricks in the black canopy of night.

Well, not quite. Point a modern telescope in almost any direction and the canopy of night reveals itself to be full of an astonishing profusion of wonders, many of which we are treated to by APOD. The cozy Earth-centered universe of the ancients turns out to be vast and full on a scale that is almost impossible to grasp.

What is the meaning of it all? There are certainly enough folks who think they know, who claim a "personal" relationship with the creator, and who perform acts of inspiring charity and horrendous violence in his name. The only meaning I know is that which I make for myself, with those I love, in this minute corner of the universe, out of the accumulated graces of the commonplace -- including those APOD glimpses into the overwhelming abyss of our ignorance.