The Milky Way
July 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Why the hell is it called that? And where the hell is it, anyway? I invite you to just pop outside for a brief moment tonight, and look up. What do you see?
This, I wager:
If not, you can count yourself very lucky, and it probably looks something like this:
When I was thirteen, we went with my family to Crete for the entire summer. It was a working holiday for my parents, who were part of an international team involved in a large-scale archaeological/historical survey. We were staying in a small village in southern Crete, but drove around quite a lot. One night, I don’t even remember why, or where we were returning from, we found ourselves up a remote mountain. My father stopped the car somewhere and killed the lights., and we stepped outside. The reason none of the other details of the mountain, where it was, why we found ourselves there, or where we were heading have stayed with me, was this (click on image):
I had never before seen this, and have not seen it since, either. But I remember it. I remember it so clearly. It literally took my breath away. It wasn’t just up. It curved round, embracing you in every direction from where you stood. You stood in the inside of a vast dome. It was also the time of year of the Perseid meteor showers, so the effect was even more impressive, not entirely unlike this:
I will be going to Crete again in a few weeks, and I will try very hard to find a location up a mountain where I can see this again. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Milky Way. You don’t need a telescope to see it, you don’t even need binoculars to see it. If there’s no light pollution, it’s just there. It’s called the Milky Way because it’s kind of milky white. It’s the galaxy we live in. By the way, the word galaxy comes from the Greek word for ‘milk’. But you probably knew all this already. You see all those stars? Those are just a very few of the stars in our galaxy.
There used to be a time when, every night, whenever people looked up, this is what they would have seen. The moon would obscure some of this when it was in the sky, but there would always be some days every month where this would be what you would see when you looked up. What we have managed to do with our immoderate use of artificial light – aside from the waste of energy, the effects on animal and human health and psychology, and the disruption of ecosystems – has been to create the illusion that we live inside a small yellowy-black bubble, beyond which there is nothing.
Oh, we might know, in theory, that there is a whole universe out there, but if you don’t ever see it, that knowledge is entirely theoretical. Something entirely theoretical very quickly becomes completely irrelevant, and from completely irrelevant it is not long before you start forgetting it is actually there. All you remember exists are those things within your little yellowy-black fish bowl. All we remember exists are things within our little yellow-black fish bowl; I include myself in this. It struck me very recently that that’s what I’ve been doing for a very long time. For years.
What this does, I submit to you, is to distort our relationship with reality. With the world. And with each other. We have nothing to remind us of the vastness of the world, and our place in it. To remind us how significant we are, just by virtue of being able to contemplate this vastness, and at the same time how utterly insignificant. (It is possible to be both!) We don’t have this sense of awe any more. And when we don’t have that it’s very easy to look at our few achievements and grow even more arrogant, to develop absolute certainties and illusions of being in possession of the one single Truth, as well as an exaggerated sense of our own importance – and even worse, the importance of our opinions. Look at that, ladies and gents! In fact, don’t just look at that image. Go and try to find a moor, a hilltop, a mountain, the middle of the sea … One of the few places left where you can experience this. And then, the next time someone attempts to convince you that either science or any one religion has sorted out all there is to know about the true nature of the universe and reality – (or at least ‘all the really important bits, and we’re sure we’ll have the rest any day now’) – think of this and go, ‘Hmm …’
And the next time you feel overwhelmed by everyday problems, the next time you find yourself caught up in an internet argument, with your blood pressure spiralling out of control, the next time you read a news item that makes you fume with rage and think about getting violent, take a deep breath, pop outside if it’s possible, look up and try and imagine what is there beyond the isolation of our self-created fish bowl, and remember: