Friday, October 10, 2008

Seeing the numinous


Before modern light pollution became a problem the average person who went out on a dark night (no full Moon) could expect to see several thousand stars with the naked eye. These days, even in a suburb away from the center of a big city, you'd be lucky to see one hundred.

If you're lucky enough to live in or visit a place with low light pollution, for example the American South west or away from towns in Africa or Australia, you'll know just how spectacular and awe-inspiring a sky full of stars is. You're looking out at thousands of stars... half of the entire Universe, of everything, is hanging over your head, its an aesthetic experience equal or superior to the highest fruits of human art.

But most of the population of the US, or other western countries, live in urbanized areas where you're lucky to see Sirius or the brightest stars in Orion, let alone thousands of stars.

Which brings me back to this Planetarium thing. Yes, I'm still annoyed at McCain's idiotic comments about the Adler Planetarium. Thinking about it some more I see that its more than his faux populism and anti-intellectualism that bugs me about it, its his poverty of vision.

Where is an inner city kid going to see the sky full of stars? In a planetarium, spread over the entire dome of the sky, the stars are almost as spectacular and impressive as a real life dark sky view.

You simply can't get that full authentic feeling from even a great photo (such as the one shown above, from Dan & Cindy Duriscoe, FDSC, Lowell Obs., USNO, taken from the 2008 April 16 APOD), or even an excellent computer planetarium program such as Kstars. The real thing is better, of course, but a good planetarium show comes close. You still get that "wow" feeling, the hugeness and majesty of it all, a sense of the numinous that religions struggle to achieve but which is best, or only truly, transmitted in the face of nature.

Its McCain's rejection of that, that he'd so casually ignore it and wish to deny it to others, that disturbs me.

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In case you're interested in the numbers, read about the Bortle light pollution scale.

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