I grew up in a place like many places, where the sky was never dark and night was tinted a dull orange by sodium vapor street lamps. Sometimes pollution colored the moon blood-red. On ‘clear’ nights the Big Dipper or Orion might show through. We were supposed to be living in the space age, but most of space was hidden away. We hated and feared the dark, and turned on every light we could, porch and street and yard. It was ugly out there.
When you ask astronomers why they observe the night sky, they may say that they enjoy looking back through time, seeing objects light-years away, or that they like finding their way around the sky, watching seasonal changes, or want to make observations that add to scientific knowledge. But if you keep them talking, they may bring up the effects of the astronomical view. Plato says “Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another,” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee agrees: “the beauty of [a white star] smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
The night sky provokes awe, but also comfort. It’s no surprise we place gods there and call it heaven. Even when our world goes awry, the stars still swing round, rising and falling in patterns that we can steer by, plant by, marvel at, and wrap stories around.
Sure, and very high-falutin’. But who needs it, now that we have GPS, calendars, TV and the World Wide Web? Runaway slaves may have “followed the drinking gourd,” but we have Google maps.
That is, we have constructs and virtual realities innumerable. Kinda like the medieval Christian church. And, as Copernicus or anyone who has made use of online maps knows, there’s a difference between human constructs and reality.
So raise your eyes to the sky and marvel. And if your sky is opaque and dirty, then go to a dark-sky site, such as Escalante, Utah, or Death Valley, California and see the Milky Way shine from horizon to horizon. This glory used to be visible everywhere. On your return, go to www.darksky.org and see what you can do about bringing it back, because we will always need the astronomical view.