Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dark night

Is the night sky black?

Have you seen the wonderful Hubble photograph of the deep sky? What they did was find the darkest spot in the sky, just a pinhead of a spot, away out to the “north” of our galaxy, and as far as possible from every familiar star and every familiar galaxy, and hold the Hubble camera on that blackness for 10 days.

Here it is: and if you click on the image, you can get a larger version.

The image looks like bright confetti. Distant galaxies dot it all over. It is far from black, and has much to teach us about the universe of long ago, for when we look many light years “away”, we are looking at what existed many years “ago”. This is because light has to travel to get to our cameras, and that takes time. Light that comes from 9 billion light years away tells us what happened nine billion years ago, not what is happening now.

(Indeed, it came so far!)

What an immense amount of color! Our eyes never see this.

Or do they?

Think about it. Of course your eyes cannot resolve the distant galaxies, but those photons are always coming. It is for this reason that the night sky, however black, is never flat black. It is always rich black. I remember family discussions about this richness from my childhood, and now we have the truth of it. The sky is rich with colored light, in every direction, even the darkest, and all that black is like a deep silence around mysteriously hidden worlds.

There is more:

There is an ultra-deep field (HUDF) image, which took three months of exposure, and which goes back 13 billion years, when the universe was quite new. What a strange thought – that we can, right now, take a photograph of the young universe! From this, we can learn things we could learn no other way.

But these things can only be learned by looking into the deepest blackness we can find.

Let me say it again: the deepest mysteries of the cosmos can be studied only by looking into the darkest skies.

And that brings us to an even deeper mystery.

Spiritual writers talk about the Dark Night of the Soul, when everything we know about God is hidden from view, and everything we have felt about the Eternal Beloved is numb, and the emptiness is almost unbearable. What they say is that this night is essential for piercing the deepest mysteries of God.

Can this be true – that the deepest mysteries are hidden in the darkest nights? What kind of mumbo-jumbo is that? Everyone knows that you if you want to learn something, you turn on the light.

Yet, not everything is learned where “more light is better”. And if this is true in astronomy, why not in spirituality, which comes from the same God? And if the Hubble astronomers could focus on the deepest darkness for three months, believing this was the way to learn the deep mysteries of the universe, we ought eagerly to outdo them, for the riches we long to penetrate are very much deeper.