Warwick McFadyen June 13, 2012
On a clear day,
Rise and look around you,
And you'll see who you are.
On a clear day,
How it will astound you,
That the glow of your being,
Outshines every star.
You feel part of every mountain sea and shore,
You can hear, from far and near,
A world you never heard before.
And on a clear day,
On that clear day,
You can see forever and ever more.
Alan Jay Lerner
And on a clear night? Well, here's what this columnist does. He walks a few paces away from the house, pauses and looks up into the sky. He may even rotate slowly to take in the panorama.
He lives far enough out of the city that when he casts his eyes skywards, he sees the stars, undimmed and unsurpassed. The bright lights of the city, away on the horizon, do not compare.
For those few silent minutes, he drinks in the stream of light twinkling above him and his world. Those stars upon their canvas of darkness are infinite possibilities. They are all time at once, past, present and future. They are, in their promise, the what ifs of existence. On those clear nights, he can see, and dream, forever and ever more.
For all humankind's achievements in astronomy, astrophysics and space travel, we have but dipped our toe into the ocean. Infinity exploration takes an eternity, and carbon-based species do not have that long. We may be stardust, but we are also ashes and bone in too short a time.
But we do have, if we explore it, a universe within. It is our imagination.
The great science fiction-fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, who died last week, aged 91, said once: ''All my life I've been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn it over and say, 'Hey, there's a story.'''
Those bright objects revealed more than two dozen novels and more than 500 short stories, resulting in sales of about 8 million copies. Several of his works, including It Came from Outer Space, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Illustrated Man, became films. He also wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick, which was directed by John Huston.
In an essay in The New Yorker, Bradbury recalled his wonder years of youthful awakening: ''I memorised all of John Carter and Tarzan, and sat on my grandparents' front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, 'Take me home!' I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.
''While I remained earthbound, I would time-travel, listening to the grown-ups, who on warm nights gathered outside on the lawns and porches to talk and reminisce.
''At the end of the Fourth of July, after the uncles had their cigars and philosophical discussions, and the aunts, nephews, and cousins had their ice-cream cones or lemonade, and we'd exhausted all the fireworks, it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty."
It's that small wonder — whether it be to travel through time, to leave Earth — childlike in its simplicity and enthusiasm, that is the motor to progress. Curiosity is the propulsion unit.
The pity is that it is latent in many, active in far fewer. But it is to those few that the worlds of the imagination are unmoored.
Many writers — Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, for example — have looked to the heavens, as have such filmmakers as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Andrei Tarkovsky, Gene Roddenberry and James Cameron.
Both in film and on the page, writers and directors create mythologies.
It's an endeavour that goes hurtling back through the centuries. As does giving name and form to the constellations — Canis Minor and Major, Centaurus, Ursa Minor and Major.
In its way, too, ancient mythology can be seen as science fiction. The gods, after all, can be seen as extraterrestrials. They lived beyond and over men and women, yet they also touched the Earth. They were creators while being a creation of man.
One such creature was Prometheus, a Titan, who created man from mud and stole fire and food for his creation to use. But, as was the case then and as will ever be, another group of gods thought they were the better; these were the Olympians.
The head of the Olympians, Zeus, took a poor view of the actions of Prometheus, condemning him to end his days bound to a rock, where an eagle would eat his liver each day, for the organ then to be replenished each day to start anew the torture. It fell to Herakles to release him by slaying the eagle. Herakles was good at slaying.
Mythologies old and new, astral and earthbound (and slaying), have morphed in Ridley Scott's new film Prometheus. It's a little bit Chariots of the Gods meets Alien.
Ancient drawings are found in desolate places on Earth that point to aliens having been here eons ago. A star map is extrapolated from the drawings, a spaceship is dispatched at interstellar overdrive to the planetary origin of the scratchings in search of humanity's birth. Then things go wrong.
Still, who wouldn't want to know if life on Earth was a distant stellar cousin to a point of light in deep space?
This week, Japanese scientists claimed they had found the oldest galaxy, formed 12.91 billion light years ago, although other claims have put different galaxies at slightly older.
Will humans ever go further than landing on the moon — a mere 350,000 kilometres away? Mars beckons, but what next if and when that happens? Nothing, if political and financial reality is taken into account. At least for many generations.
Until then, for mine, the canopy of trembling light on a clear night will do. And I can let my imagination set sail in the cosmos.
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