I wrote this piece almost three years ago (on September 17th, 2013), but I think it's aged well. I just thought it was time to take a break from our pilgrimage, put up our aching feet for a minute or so, sit back and enjoy the sky for its own sake. So here goes:
This morning was just too beautiful to let pass without taking advantage
of it, so I decided to walk the 3 mile round trip to the grocery store to get the
handful of items I needed for tonight's dinner. Along the way, I
couldn't help but notice the horizon-to-horizon cloud-free sky overhead.
My first thought was, "Why couldn't it be like this in the middle of
the night, dammit?"... But my second thought was, "Wow, look at all that
blue up there - it almost hurts the eyes!" And boy, was it ever blue.
As it can only get on one of those late-summer, low humidity, hint of
fall in the air, mornings like today. I found I couldn't take my eyes
away, and had to stop for a while before I ran into something.
that brilliant blue got me to thinking about how we visualize our place
in the universe. All too often, we thoughtlessly dismiss how the
Ancients viewed the cosmos - Earth at the center, everything else
revolving about us in concentric spheres, like a gigantic version of one
of those Russian nested dolls. But when we pay attention to how artists
and writers living before Copernicus actually depicted the Cosmos and
forget what we have projected back onto them, we discover that wasn't
really the case at all. A far more accurate statement would be that they
considered the Earth to be the bottom of the universe, and only incidentally its center. Near the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante imagines himself has having traveled to the Sphere of the Fixed Stars, looking back on the Earth:
My eyes went back through the seven spheres below,
And I saw this globe, so small, so lost in space,
I had to smile at such a sorry show.
Who thinks it the least pebble in the skies
I most approve.
(Paradiso, Canto XXII, lines 133-37)
there are many, many other examples as well. But this should suffice to
put to rest the misguided idea that the Ancients somehow believed that
we occupied some sort of privileged spot in Creation.
does all that have to do with that blue, blue sky up there this morning?
Just this - up to only a few centuries ago, Mankind thought that the whole universe
looked like our daytime sky. They were well aware since at least 200 BC
that the Sun was far larger than the Earth, so it was easy for an
educated person to deduce that the Earth's shadow would be a cone (as it
in fact is). And being unaware as yet of the refractive properties of
light, they may be excused for imagining that the darkness of the
nighttime sky was restricted to that part of the Heavens which happened
to be within the Earth's shadow. The rest of "everything up there" was
assumed to be as brilliantly lit as the noontime sky on a cloudless day.
What a glorious vision! No wonder Milton could write such lines as:
Those happy climes that lie
Where day never shuts his eye
Up in the broad fields of the sky.
we know better now, right? Hah! Speaking for myself, despite all I know
about the structure of the universe, the Milky Way, the Solar System
and our place in it, I still
picture the sky as being somehow "overhead", with myself "down here"
looking up at it. I still refer to Sunrise and Moonset, and to Polaris
not moving in the sky. And it's damn hard to not think in that way.
was only a week or so ago, when for a brief moment at a Carrs Mill Star Party, I caught a glimpse of what it would be like to visualize
things as they actually are. There were only two of us there that
evening, Dwane and myself. I was looking straight overhead at Vega, when
without warning I (quite literally, and not figuratively) practically
lost my balance, I got so dizzy. I suddenly saw Vega as not being above
my head, but rather straight in front of me. The Earth was no longer
beneath me, but instead I felt like it was a wall to my back, with me
somehow pinned to its side - looking not up, but out, at the stars
around me. I had to sit down.
I was almost relieved when things
got back to normal - Earth down here, stars up there. (It was rather fun
to take a peek at Reality - but just not for long.)
Do get out there on the next clear, sunny day and try to look through all that blue up there. It can be exhilarating (as long as you can get back down).