"I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space ..."
I love this line of Hamlet's. I always think he should say this while indicating his own head, the "nutshell". I do the same when I look up at the night sky and consider the awesome wonder of it.
But looking out into the infinite void filled with stars too numerous to count has a certain jeopardy about it. It brings an unnerving perspective to things. Suddenly humans become insignificant. We realise that we are simply a tiny part of what is really going on. In the past, armed with very little actual information, we placed gods and supernatural beings at the head of things. Now we see infinity stretching out from us in both time and space and gods have become redundant. We are no longer at the centre of everything.
No matter the celebrations – Matariki, the solstices, New Year, Halloween (all related to seasons and the postions of the stars) – the fact is that the universe existed before us and will continue to exist long after we have gone. We are a blip in the continuum. Like children, we made things up to explain it all, and now, all grown up, we face reality.
Galileo had no idea about Matariki as a concept. He knew the Pleiades as The Seven Sisters, the daughters of the Titan Atlas, saved by their father from rape by the hunter Orion and transformed into stars. A far cry from the Māori concept of Matariki and her daughters.
And, pointing his telescope to the sky, Galileo realised for the first time that it was all much, much bigger than we thought. He could see that the Earth and all the planets revolve around the sun. He came to understand that the language of the universe is written in mathematics. This was a destablising and dangerous discovery. The Church had enormous problems with it because it seemed to remove God from their carefully constructed Aristotelian universe of crystal spheres. More importantly, it threatened their hold over followers, since the Church relied on the concept of a strict order to things emanating from the extreme deity in order to promote and enforce poverty. Suffering and obedience were the prerequisites to virtue. We can't have the peasants thinking for themselves!
I look up at the stars and feel exhilarated. My mind is free to soar through space, as it were, to realise that even though what I'm seeing is millions, nay, billions, of years old (light travels at about 300,000 km/sec), there is something actually happening out there right now in real time. Stars and galaxies are colliding, new stars that I won't ever be able to see are being born, and stars and galaxies have already died, even though I can still see them. This is the awesomeness I am talking about.
Death, while obviously being significant to me on a personal level (no one else will do my dying for me), becomes insignificant when placed in this context. To paraphrase Mark Twain, death didn't bother me before I was born and it won't bother me after I'm gone. It thrills me to come to understand more of this universe of ours, both above and below. And the inward gaze is also infinite. Back to Hamlet again.
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Ignoring the evidence of their own eyes, ignoring science and relying on the "evidence" of the Bible, the Church condemned the teachings of Copernicus (that Earth and all the planets revolved around the sun) as heresy, forcing Galileo, who knew from direct observation the truth of these teachings, to publicly deny them under threat of torture. Ugh. Even after the Enlightenment and the huge steps taken in astronomy and cosmology since those benighted days, they did not let Galileo off the hook until 1992. Go figure.
There are still millions of people who deny science. They see the evidence, shake their heads and pretend it's not happening, or not real, or refer to religion and the so-called truth of revelation. As Galileo says in Brecht's brilliant play, "Once there was belief. Now we have doubt. We know what it says in the books, yes, but now we want to see for ourselves."
Michael Hurst stars as Galileo Galilei in Auckland Theatre Company's season of Brecht's masterpiece The Life of Galileo at ASB Waterfront Theatre, June 22- July 10. atc.co.nz