The Night Sky

Wiping the Windscreen of the Universe

You will have noticed the night sky; that dark vault of void speckled with pinpoints and twinkles, an occasional meteor, the part-time moon and the Milky Way. You may even – perhaps without knowing it – have made out some of the more exotic features, such as the clusters and nebulae where stars are born or the barely-discernible, tiny scuffed smudges of distant galaxies. Unless you are an astronomer, a boffin or a dedicated sky-watcher of some other kind, the chances are that when you last looked, you were having a crafty smoke out the back door or were letting the dog out in the garden in order to do something we needn’t go into here. Or you might have been taking a break on a long journey at a motorway service area or walking a wobbly line back from the pub when you came over all astrally-minded; but, either way, you were looking at a tiny excerpt of the most astonishing thing that has ever happened, the universe.

For all of that, we don’t spend a lot of time looking at it once we are away from our back door or safely back home from our excursions. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that we fear the consequences of doing so. If you see someone out and about showing more than a passing interest in the stars, when all around there are more immediate pleasures and pressing concerns to occupy them, you might be inclined to feel that they were either drunk or, worse, a poet. Hang a pair of binoculars around their neck and place them in the vicinity of housing and you even have a ready-made, cardboard cut-out of a pervert, such is our culture’s fear of anyone caught not doing what everyone else is doing.

If you have seen someone fitting this description, you may well have bumped into me or, at least, someone like me – an enthusiast who believes that a clear night sky is one of the most amazing sights in nature, an exquisite jewel box, an endlessly fascinating panorama. The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that if ‘the stars should appear but one night in a thousand years, how man would marvel and stare’, hinting at the apathy that comes with our passing familiarity with the night sky. Yet our outlook on the universe is far from universal; there is something rather extraordinary and unusual about our view of the stars in that it was an unlikely consequence of a rare event, a benefaction from the universe to our forebears, one which came in the form of an accidental gift from an ancient hero.