Saturday, November 7, 2015
The Night Sky
Not so many years ago, the Significant Other and I made annual trips to rural Maine to visit the younger person at summer camp. Every Saturday, parents were invited for a barbecue dinner and, after dark, a traditional campfire gathering.
The camp was in a remote area and mostly not wired for electricity. The evening events were always pleasant, but what I came to like most about them was the chance to stare up at a clear night sky.
I've posted a picture of such a sky but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the vast night sky and a picture of it is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.*
Clearly man's invention and adoption of electricity have enriched the world. Now we can stay up late, keep warm and then cool in different seasons, travel safely at any hour, participate in evening social activities, and prepare and store food more efficiently. (The self of my childhood would add that electricity allowed me to read books by flashlight after I had been sent to bed earlier than I preferred.)
So electricity has made us healthier and broadened our social connections. But it has not answered the big questions of mankind, and it comes with an odd cost that goes unmentioned and that cannot be quantified.
It is the loss of personal confrontation with the enormity of the universe -- or at least the galaxy -- in which we find ourselves. It is the physical world's assertion of how small a single human is in an enormous, unknowable reality.
Those brief moments in rural Maine filled me with awe and humility.
Until 150 years or so ago, the regular encounter with a star-filled night sky was the common experience of all mankind.
Thousands of years ago, it inspired the ancients to study the patterns of stars' locations, the phases of the moon and the Milky Way. Since then astronomers and cosmologists have added to our store of knowledge about these things, but what they have learned does not puncture the grandeur of the night scene. Instead it has shown us that the vastness we see is but a small part of an unimaginably greater system.
The night sky in Maine shifted my attention from my trivial human reality. It reminded me that, essentially, I am one of seven billion insects scurrying around on a tiny ant farm. It was a humbling experience, but a grounding one. It made me take my daily concerns a little less seriously.
*Twain, an author and humorist, referred to the process of writing -- "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."