The View From Andromeda
I have been thinking about the universe lately. The whole thing. After reading some of astronomer Chet Raymo's elegiac prose (Starry Nights, The Soul of the Night), I have been craning my neck upward at odd angles when I encounter a rare pool of darkness between Chicago streetlights. Mostly, though, I see the moon, Venus, and the jets' flight path into O'Hare Field, and must take Raymo's word for what lies beyond.
Learning about the universe does little for earthly self-esteem. Our sun, powerful enough to turn white skin bronze and to coax oxygen from every plant on earth, ranks fairly low by galactic standards. If the giant star Antares were positioned where our sun is--93 million miles away--Earth would be inside it! And our sun and Antares represent just 2 of 500 billion stars that swim around in the vast, forlorn space of the Milky Way. A dime held out at arm's length would block 15 million stars from view, if our eyes could see with that power.
Only one other galaxy, Andromeda, lies close enough (a mere 2 million light-years away) to see with the naked eye. It showed up on star charts long before the invention of the telescope, and until recently no one could know that the little blob of light marked the presence of another galaxy, one twice the size of the Milky Way and home to a trillion stars. Or that these next-door neighbors were but two of a hundred billion galaxies likewise swarming with stars.
One reason the night sky stays dark despite the presence of so many luminous bodies is that all the galaxies are hurtling away from each other with astonishing speed. Tomorrow, some galaxies will be 30 million miles farther away. In the time it takes to type this sentence, they'll have receded another 5,100 miles.
The diamond dust highway
I saw the Milky Way in full glory once, while visiting a refugee camp in Somalia, Africa, just below the equator. Our galaxy stretched across the canopy of darkness like a highway paved with diamond dust. Since that night, when I lay with warm sand at my back far from the nearest streetlight, the sky has never seemed as empty and the earth never as large.
I had spent all day interviewing relief workers about the megadisaster of the moment. Bangladesh, Kurdistan, Armenia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda--place names change, but the spectacle of suffering has a dreary sameness: mothers with shriveled, milkless breasts, babies crying and dying, fathers foraging for firewood in a treeless terrain.
After three days hearing tales of human misery, I could not lift my sights beyond that refugee camp situated in an obscure corner of an obscure country on the Horn of Africa.
Until I saw the Milky Way. It abruptly reminded me that the present moment was not the whole of life. History would go on. Tribes, governments, whole civilizations may rise and fall, trailing disaster in their wake, but I did not dare confine my field of vision to the scenes of suffering around me. I needed to look up, to the stars.
"Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in the seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God's dominion over the earth?" These questions God asked a man named Job who, obsessed with his own great pain, had confined his vision to the borders of his itchy skin.
Remarkably, God's reminder seemed to help Job. His skin still itched, but Job got a glimpse of other matters God must attend to in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies.
To me, God's speech in the book of Job conveys a tone of gruffness. But perhaps that is its most important message: the Lord of the Universe has a right to gruffness when assailed by one tiny human being, notwithstanding the merits of his complaint. We--ministers of the gospel, relief workers in Somalia, descendants of Job--dare not lose sight of The Big Picture, a sight best glimpsed on dark and starry nights.
You can almost mark the advancement of a people by noting their interest in stargazing. Each great civilization of the past--Inca, Mogul, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Renaissance European--made major breakthroughs in astronomy. There is an irony at work in human history: One by one, civilizations gain the capacity to fathom their own insignificance, then fail to recognize that fact and fade away.
What about us, we launchers of the Viking and Apollo spacecrafts, we makers of the orbiting Hubble observatory and the Very Large Array radio telescopes strewn over 39 miles of New Mexico desert? Do our achievements make us more, or less, humble? More, or less, worshipful?
About the same time I read Chet Raymo, I went to see a film taken by a space-shuttle crew with a special format Omnimax camera. The lightning storms impressed me most. Viewed from space, lightning flashes on and off in a random pattern of beauty, illuminating cloud cover several hundred miles wide at a burst. It flares, spreads across an expanse, glows, then pales. Most eerily, it makes no sound.
I was struck by the huge difference perspective makes. On Earth, families huddled indoors, cars hid under highway overpasses, animals cowered in the forest, children cried out in the night. Transformers sparked, creeks flooded, dogs howled. But from space we saw only a soft, pleasant glow, enlarging then retreating, an ocean tide of light.
I don't know the precise scenario for how Armageddon will unfold. But the lightning storm filmed through a porthole of the space shuttle gave me a glimpse of how the end of the world might look from two perspectives. From Earth (as depicted in the Book of Revelation): 100-pound hailstones, earthquakes, a plague like no other, a star named Wormwood falling from the sky. From Andromeda: a tiny flare like a struck match, silence, and then darkness. That is something similar to what Chet Raymo sees through his telescope when a star explodes in space, lightyears away.
As Job learned, it takes great effort, and considerable faith, to keep The Big Picture in mind. Maybe I'll wander away from the streetlights more often, and look up.
Philip Yancey is a free-lance writer in Chicago, Illinois.