“… For I Never Have Seen an Infidel Astronomer”
Feb. 17, 2012 — I’d intended to write more about Newt Gingrich’s plans to reshape the face of the moon. Things change. When I wrote my last post, for example, people and pundits alike had largely written off Rick Santorum’s candidacy and were focusing on Gingrich as the primary threat to Mitt Romney’s inexorable but seemingly unwelcome march toward Tampa. No more, of course (unless things change again by the time you read this). As any of these men would likely tell you in private, unguarded moments: There are no guarantees in life.
Instead, I’d like to talk about what makes the idea of colonizing the moon — of exploring the stars, generally — so compelling.
Several years ago I wandered into the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a curious little place in the Culver City section of Los Angeles, and found there an exhibit with letters sent to Mount Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1935. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit (among my favorite of the items on display: a scribbled note dismissing the laws of gravitation as “a contemptible lie”) and on my way out of the museum picked up a book collecting the letters: No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again.
I recently came across the book in a box I’d hauled out of storage and have carried it with me everywhere these past few days, poring over correspondence from one Alice May Williams of Auckland, N.Z., for example, who in a series of letters describes other worlds accessible through holes in the sky, opening and closing and revealing “certain countries of heaven,” even as she lets slip glimpses of a sad, tormented life here on Earth — of the woman with whom she shares a house, who “thinks I am mad, & makes all sorts of fun of me to people,” of a husband who “does carry on & he wont stop” about whatever it is inside of her that often talks through her, aloud and in public.
Or the letter from an anonymous writer who details an argument he had with a preacher — who comes across like a character out of a Flannery O’Conner novel — about the likelihood of there being other suns and other worlds. He goes on to say that astronomy is God’s creation and worthy of study by all God-loving people. “For I never have seen an Infidel astronomer,” he writes, “I think they are all true believers those that have viewed through the scope.”
The book includes letters from less colorful writers as well, from amateur astronomers and others who are simply curious about the latest discoveries to come out of the observatory.
Our fascination with the heavens neither begins nor ends with Mount Wilson Observatory, of course, but this collection offers a nicely representative sample of the many reasons we look to the stars and speculate as to what we might encounter there. Whether a lonely soul imagining dear friendships with the inhabitants of another world or a country philosopher looking through a telescope and finding all the profundity of his own religious convictions. Whether a boy of 18 who says he would gladly die on Mars if only he could be a part of the team that finally confirms the existence of life there or a prolific letter writer who sees in the Orion Nebula the source of all creation and the “dwelling place of the Gods.” We, each of us, hopes to find something in the stars.
More or less since we first crawled from the swamps and craned our heads to look toward the sky, we have wanted to believe there is more out there — each of us projecting our own desires and needs onto the blank canvas of space. We may never find most of what we’re searching for, but still, we can’t help but to look … whether we’re peering through a 100-in telescope somewhere in the Sierras of Southern California or devising wildly impractical plans to settle the moon when we become president. In many ways, it’s what makes us human.
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