I was, right until twenty minutes ago, watching Part 2 of the lovely BBC Series, The Wonders of the Solar System, presented by the excellent and rather gorgeous particle physicist Professor Brian Cox. Professor Cox, in said episode, is perched on a rock, sitting beside a campfire set up on a hillock, somewhere in Central Asia when he looks up at the night sky and the camera zooms out of the scene till we can see only Cox's silhouette against the awesome, almost theatrical looking sky as it looms over him.
Cox then declares in his gently intoned voice-over that it is on nights like these, looking at a sky like this that he can understand how ancient men must have been so astonished by the dramatically majestic night sky that they must have declared that gods lurked in those heavens.
He then talks about how you almost never see more than a few stars through the cloud of dust and smoke that is the upper atmosphere of most modern cities. "Light pollution" he says, "has robbed us of one of nature's most grandiose displays."
At this declaration, I cud do nothing more than wait for the episode to end. Don't get me wrong, it was like every other episode of this remarkable series, very delightful, very informative and above all, breathtakingly beautiful in all its high-def glory.
I only wanted to look out my bedroom window, from where I've lain on my bed, upside down, staring at the stars ever since I was big enuff to get the window open on my own. I realised I didnt do that so much anymore, once I used to do it out of habit every night.
I was more than a little stunned by what the sky looks like from that window now. It looks strangely light, and even more mystifyingly, it looks orange!
I cud not see a single star in that weird, not-normal night sky. I asked mum if she cud see any. She looked up, shrugged and said, it must be the clouds.
But I know its not the clouds, the day was perfectly clear. It is light. Light from all the streetlamps and the tall buildings that've sprung up in the area in the last six or seven years.
Isn't it strange that even light can pollute the sky?
I must've known it all along, but I just dont look up at night anymore. There's a million other things to do, journals to write in, television programmes to watch, music that needs listening to.
And maybe it isnt just me, it must be a lot of city kids out there. They look up, see a starless sky and maybe never bother to look up again. Simply becoz there's no dramatic beauty there. Only a limpid shade of orange.
Perhaps, one wonders, perhaps we are a species so afraid of the dark, or so needy for the light, that we have invented means of lighting up our houses, our roads, even our night. And this man-made light is everywhere, every night. Its like they say, "You can never have enuff of something you dont really want."
I am filled with this sense of unease and sadness at losing something that constantly enthralled and inspired our ancestors.
It all brings to mind this story I once read, by Arthur C. Clarke, I think. I dont remember what it was called. "Nightfall" perhaps. In it, he imagines a civilization that springs up on a planet orbiting a solar system with three suns. This planet is placed so that it experiences total darkness after all the three suns "set" in the sky almost simultaneously, and this only happens every six thousand years or so.
The people who are part of this civilization have never, therefore, experienced night-time. They have never seen stars other than their three suns. And all they know of the night sky is strange stories that their ancestors passed on from the dawn of their civilization.
Astronomy is not far advanced in this civilization and perhaps we can understand why. Their bright sky holds no mysteries that these people might seek to solve.
And one day, one day after six thousand years of daylight, there is nightfall. Can you imagine what these people feel? There are doom-sayers in the streets, hysterical men and women go mad and lock themselves up in their homes, some poison themselves thinking the world has ended. And so an entire civilization turns away from this dangerously scary darkness. Not one pair of eyes looks up in the dark to see the light of millions of stars in the night sky. There, the story ends, and years ago, when I read it, I did not understand why Clarke wud write such a queer tale. I understand now.
He knew even then, that those who live in the sprawling smoky cities of the world have already snapped the umbilical cord tying them to the earth in their bid to reach heavenward in their skyscrapers. But maybe they dont realise yet that the heavens that they are reaching for, are empty. Empty of not only gods but also of stars.
And that is a real tragedy.
"By night, even an atheist half-believes in God." - Edward Young