Monday, August 15, 2011

The bright boroughs, the quivering citadels

I know that, like me, some of you regularly check out APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). As often as not it is a telescopic photograph of a star-birthing nebula or supernova remnant, some swirling splash of color on the dark sky. Who could have guessed, before the invention of the telescope, that the dome of night was awash with color, huge canvases of pink and green -- pigments of hydrogen and oxygen -- an all-enclosing gallery hung with the Creator's far-fetched dreams?

Who could have guessed? Dante guessed. Blake too. And Van Gogh. They saw the many-hued majesty of the universe with their mind's eye.

The rest of us are more or less relegated to a universe of black and white -- pinpricks of light in the dome of night. There are two kinds of light receptors in the retina of the human eye: rods and cones. The cones are the color sensors, but do not respond to faint illumination. The rods are more finely attuned to dim light, but do not discriminate colors. When we look into the night sky, it is the sensitive, color-blind rods that do most of the seeing.

And so we are given only fleeting intimations of cosmic grandeur. "The night does not come with fruits and flowers and bread and meat," wrote the naturalist John Burroughs; "it comes with stars and stardust, with mystery and nirvana." The best observers of nature have the capacity to take a hint, said Burroughs. Just as well then that we have such fragmentary glimpses of the night. "To have it ever present with one in all its naked grandeur would perhaps be more than we could bear," he wrote.

Imagine that we could see the night with eyes the size and sensitivity of the Hubble Space Telescope. How paltry then would seem our terrestrial gods, our shabby deities with human faces. How ridiculous our intolerances, how hollow our claims to have privileged access to the mind of God.