From An Observatory

It will be some time yet before the rising of the moon. Looking down
from the observatory one can see the pathways across the park dotted out
in yellow lamps, each with a fringe of dim green; and further off, hot
and bright, is the tracery of the illuminated streets, through which the
people go to and fro. Save for an occasional stirring, or a passing
voice speaking out of the dimness beneath me, the night is very still.
Not a cloud is to be seen in the dark midwinter sky to hide one speck of
its broad smears of star dust and its shining constellations.

As the moon rises, heaven will be flooded with blue light, and one after
another the stars will be submerged and lost, until only a solitary
shining pinnacle of brightness will here and there remain out of the
whole host of them. It is curious to think that, were the moon but a
little brighter and truly the ruler of the night, rising to its empire
with the setting of the sun, we should never dream of the great stellar
universe in which our little solar system swims--or know it only as a
traveller's tale, a strange thing to be seen at times in the Arctic
Circle. Nay, if the earth's atmosphere were some few score miles higher,
a night-long twilight would be drawn like an impenetrable veil across
the stars. By a mere accident of our existence we see their multitude
ever and again, when the curtains of the daylight and moonlight, and of
our own narrow pressing necessities, are for a little while drawn back.
Then, for an interval, we look, as if out of a window, into the great
deep of heaven. So far as physical science goes, there is nothing in the
essential conditions of our existence to necessitate that we should have
these transitory glimpses of infinite space. We can imagine men just
like ourselves without such an outlook. But it happens that we have it.

If we had not this vision, if we had always so much light in the sky
that we could not perceive the stars, our lives, so far as we can infer,
would be very much as they are now; there would still be the same needs
and desires, the same appliances for our safety and satisfaction; this
little gaslit world below would scarcely miss the stars now, if they
were blotted out for ever. But our science would be different in some
respects had we never seen them. We should still have good reason, in
Foucault's pendulum experiment, for supposing that the world rotated
upon its axis, and that the sun was so far relatively fixed; but we
should have no suspicion of the orbital revolution of the world. Instead
we should ascribe the seasonal differences to a meridional movement of
the sun. Our spectroscopic astronomy--so far as it refers to the
composition of the sun and moon--would stand precisely where it does,
but the bulk of our mathematical astronomy would not exist. Our calendar
would still be in all essential respects as it is now; our year with the
solstices and equinoxes as its cardinal points. The texture of our
poetry might conceivably be the poorer without its star spangles; our
philosophy, for the want of a nebular hypothesis. These would be the
main differences. Yet, to those who indulge in speculative dreaming, how
much smaller life would be with a sun and a moon and a blue beyond for
the only visible, the only thinkable universe. And it is, we repeat,
from the scientific standpoint a mere accident that the present--the
daylight--world periodically opens, as it were, and gives us this
inspiring glimpse of the remoteness of space.

One may imagine countless meteors and comets streaming through the solar
system, unobserved by those who dwelt under such conditions as have just
been suggested, or some huge dark body from the outer depths sweeping
straight at that little visible universe, and all unsuspected by the
inhabitants. One may imagine the scientific people of such a world, calm
in their assurance of the permanence of things, incapable almost of
conceiving any disturbing cause. One may imagine how an imaginative
writer who doubted that permanence would be pooh-poohed. "Cannot we see
to the uttermost limits of space?" they might argue, "and is it not
altogether blue and void?" Then, as the unseen visitor draws near, begin
the most extraordinary perturbations. The two known heavenly bodies
suddenly fail from their accustomed routine. The moon, hitherto
invariably full, changes towards its last quarter--and then, behold! for
the first time the rays of the greater stars visibly pierce the blue
canopy of the sky. How suddenly--painfully almost--the minds of thinking
men would be enlarged when this rash of the stars appeared.

And what then if _our_ heavens were to open? Very thin indeed is the
curtain between us and the unknown. There is a fear of the night that is
begotten of ignorance and superstition, a nightmare fear, the fear of
the impossible; and there is another fear of the night--of the starlit
night--that comes with knowledge, when we see in its true proportion
this little life of ours with all its phantasmal environment of cities
and stores and arsenals, and the habits, prejudices, and promises of
men. Down there in the gaslit street such things are real and solid
enough, the only real things, perhaps; but not up here, not under the
midnight sky. Here for a space, standing silently upon the dim, grey
tower of the old observatory, we may clear our minds of instincts and
illusions, and look out upon the real.

And now to the eastward the stars are no longer innumerable, and the sky
grows wan. Then a faint silvery mist appears above the housetops, and at
last in the midst of this there comes a brilliantly shining line--the
upper edge of the rising moon.

Please join our telegram group for more such stories and updates.telegram channel