Thursday, November 04, 2010


Check out this APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) of the region of the sky around the constellation Orion (click to enlarge). The bright red star Betelgeuse, hot blue Rigel, Bellatrix, Saiph, and the three stars of the Hunter's belt are familiar to even a casual stargazer. These bright stars and glowing clouds of (mostly) hydrogen gas are relatively close, just 1500 or so light-years away, in our own arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Most of what we see in this photograph is invisible to the unaided eye, and for most of human history we had no idea such wonders existed. Other than the bright stars, the only thing the eye can detect is a glowing smudge in the Hunter's sword, the Great Orion Nebula, M42. The Englishman William Derham, who wrote on cosmology in the early 18th century, believed the glow was an opening in the celestial sphere through which we observe the radiance of God.

A peek-hole in the all-enclosing Celestial Sphere, through which we view the Elysian Fields.

Ah, the Elysian Fields, place of blessedness, eternal happiness, where ripe fruit always hangs low on the trees, balmy weather kissed by zephyrs, lovely youths (including you and me) flitting in diaphanous garb to the piping of flutes. Where boys pile new plums and pears/ On disregarded plates. The maidens taste/ And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

The oldest dream of humankind, so old that we are not even sure of the origin of the word Elysian. To be sure, we Catholic youths were not explicitly offered the hanging fruit and piping flutes, but the Beatific Vision was supposed to make up for those more corporeal pleasures, a Divine Visage so beautiful that we would spend an eternity gazing upon it without getting bored.

I'll take the fruit and flutes.

In the meantime, you want a Beatific Vision, try this APOD.