Friday, March 24, 2006

Light and Darkness

Over at Unity of Truth another friend named "Hedgemaker" posts about the Dark Night and the ancient images of very distant galaxies now being photographed.

This brings up a very interesting question:

Why is the sky dark at night?

Yes, yes - the sun has set. But that's only part of the reason.

If the "universe is infinite" - and "there are always more stars" further out there somewhere - well then: why is the sky dark? Shouldn't the sky be light, all the time?

This question may sound like a joke. It is a very serious question - so much so that it is called "Olbers' Paradox" after the German physician and astronomer, Wilhelm Olbers (1758-1840) who explored the question.

Father Jaki has an interesting book - The Paradox of Olbers' Paradox - about the history of this topic, and how astronomers have both debated and avoided it.

But the paradox of the dark night sky is not the only curious idea which "Hedgemaker" has evoked. Far more compelling is the question about the light versus the darkness - and of course this idea immediately calls forth two of the most dramatic lines from all the books I know.

The first is from St. John's "Prologue" to his Gospel:
And the light shineth in darkness: and the darkness did not comprehend it. [John 1:5]
The second was from Chesterton:
"The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side." [Ward, GKC, 650]
It is light, and light alone, which brings us the knowledge of the stars, in a paradox far more Chestertonian than the one named for Olbers. For those nocturnal jewels which appear to be the smallest objects which we can see are indeed among the largest things in existance! Think about it - when you look upon the Andromeda Galaxy (which can be seen with the naked eye) you perceive directly some billions of stars. So - are the stars tiny or vast? But when you look upon them, they are just as much your own as they are great astronomers. Remember it was not that long ago I quoted Burnham on this? It's worth repeating:
"Considered as a collector of rare and precious things, the amateur astronomer has a great advantage over amateurs in all other fields, who must content themselves with second and third rate specimens. For example, only a few of the world's mineralogists could hope to own such a specimen as the Hope diamond... In contrast, the amateur astronomer has access at all times to the original objects of his study; the masterworks of the heavens belong to him as much as to the great observatories of the world." [p. 5, emphasis added]
Odd that he mentions jewelery:
I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they
are called so in Milton's Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.
[GKC, Orthodoxy, CW1:268]
Yes, despite what you see in some science fiction, there cannot be more than one universe - by definition. The cosmos, remember, is the Greek word which is used in the Bible, but often translated as "world" - but really means "ordered creation" or "universe". You might try using "universe" for "world" in that famous line from St. John's gospel - it's verse 29 in chapter 1, and the priest says it during the Mass, just before Holy Communion. (I want you to do it yourself, so I won't quote it here!) See? Now think about those distant galaxies again...

And since we have now united all these dramatic and paradoxical concepts - on the eve of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas Eve - how can I not fail to quote that most dear of all Chesterton's lines:
...the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.
[GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:301]


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