Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Goodbye, Milky Way

This post is not so much an examination of facts and issues as it is a lament for the passing of the starry night sky as I wud once see it and then callously forgot only to find it gone when I searched again.

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


T. said...

Remember when we went to Sudhagarh for that trek? remember how beautiful the sky was that night when all of us were laying on our backs on that hilltop looking up??

we should go to an equatorial forest and look up. i have read that the stars look like theyre really close up at the equator and that nightfall is drmatic and sudden.and we should go to the arctic to look at the aurora.

the nightsky isn't gone cookie. you just have to go a little further than ur bedroom window to see it. :-)

Antara said...

When I look up from my rooftop, the night sky is a hazy display of oranges and pale blues.

And just the one northern star shining bravely through it all.

S. Susan Deborah said...

I love the stars and you know that. But this post was not only about stars. It was much more and I felt very sad for those people in Clarke's work, who could not see the stars. What life without stars, by Jove! I love the last quote. I quote it very often. even Einstein said something along those lines.
I love you for this post. I am feeling happy happy after reading this post.

Hope you are well dear Karishma.

Joy always,

Srishti said...

Hey TUIB :)
I really understood the point you are making. In cities, you're just not able to appreciate the beauty of the stars. Few years back when I was younger and the nights were much clearer, I absolutely adored looking at the night sky and had Universe, Earth and Animals books from Discovery of which Universe was my favorite. It was so sad when Kalpana Chawla died.
But this summer, I had been to a camp to Chakrata okay, and its high up in the mountains and in our night out, we went even higher and slept outside and the stars were so bright and vivid and so many, I felt like all I had to do was extend my hand and pluck them out of the sky. I even saw 3 shooting stars! Starry nights :)

And there's also this line from twilight where Bella says that she likes the night, for if it weren't for the night, how would we see the stars? Well, she said something profound related to stars and I can't remember what so I made the above line up.

Anyway, wonderful post as always :)

Mohit said...

I once spent six weeks in this village in the middle of nowhere. We used to sleep outside under the stars. The first day I had trouble going to sleep because the sky was filled with starlight. The next day and the days that followed were those of true wonder. I have never been able to forget that scene. You feel minuscule.

And then there was that other time when we'd looked at Saturn through a telescope we'd built. Its one of the prettiest li'l things I've seen :) ::goes into girly giggly mode::

mgeek said...

Watching documentaries on Space always leave me feeling humble and small. Until the next turf war over the shotgun seat. :-)

Tangled up in blue... said...

T., how cud one forget Sudhagarh? You know what, we shud go on another trek after my exams! :)

And yeah, I'd read that abt the equator, too. But an equatorial forest, thats a bad idea..have you any idea how dense one of those are? We'd look up and see treetops! And the aurorae! Yes! Definitely..lemme know when we're going..:D

Antara, I cudn't even see the Pole Star! :|

Tangled up in blue... said...

Susan, I'm glad it made you happy, dear Susan..the night sky has given me such great moments in the past.. but its very sad to see how one cant see the stars in my part of Bombay any more..

Srishti, you know the skies are beautiful from mountain-top! It really makes me want to go away to the hills for a while! :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

Leo, I am jealous! I've never seen Saturn thru a telescope but I imagine it must be incredibly awesome! Cud you see the rings, too? I've read that Galileo cud see them when he first trained his telescope towards Saturn, he knew immediately that it was a ringed planet..

mgeek, oh yes! The heavens are so do feel very humble in the face of so much magnificence..

Mohit said...

Yep. Those rings were very clearly visible. And they weren't horizontal you know. 110 degrees to the horizontal. Surreal it was I tell you

Unknown said...

Dear TUIB,
I read this post the very day it was published. And then re-read it, again and again. As always, it spoke for the virtuous person that you are. But more importantly, I acutely felt the dismay.

I think it's high-time that we invented a time machine. And then, we shall regress to those times when the stars twinkled with all the sublime elan. Seriously!

But one consolatory thing, as far as I'm concerned, is that the sky over my head still remains chaste, more or less. Hope it remains so forever.

A poignant post from a lovely lady! :) TC.

Deeksha said...

I look at this without augury. Call me nihilistic if you want to, but the world was made to be born, function, deteriorate and die. It is merely coincidental that we are giving anjaam to it.

Yaar phir say shaayrana ho gaye andaaz...

Har shay ko jalna hai,
aur jal ke guzar jaana hai...

Tangled up in blue... said...

Rohith, oh, how I envy you your beautiful walks underneath that chaste sky! :) And yes, a time machine is in order! :D Thank you for that most heartfelt comment..:)

Dee, I dont think it is an augury, mostly, a sign of the times. And that is certainly not nihilism, it is the way of all things, the great universe included. It's just sad that we won't be able to make this wondrous oasis in the mostly lifeless universe last longer..

Nitisha said...

I think you would love this. :)

Pankaj said...

lovely :). life without light must have been so interesting. imagining only the moon and star light, and the odd fire, lighting up peoples lives.

i think i read that tale too as a kid. and now that i think of it, it is such an amazing theme.