It was one of those night skies that I will never forget. The Milky Way galaxy was spread across the sky in all of its awesome glory. Never before had I seen such splendor as this. I felt its pulse, the same as I can feel my own. The night sky felt alive!
I remember the moment well. I was on maneuver in Hohenfels, Germany, and the night was calm and clear. We were staging to go out into “the box,” as the training area was called, so there was little for us to do that evening but wait. Given the remoteness of our location, there was virtually no light pollution in the sky, which set the evening’s mood perfectly for a star-filled sky the likes of which I had never seen. I walked away from the buildings we were living in to find a secluded spot, away from the bustle of my comrades, and laid down upon a bed of grass to watch the night sky. Many of my friends were busy playing spades or doing their laundry at the automat, but I wanted my peace away from it all. I wanted to take in this rare moment, and I did. I spent hours that evening just lying on the ground, watching the stars as they worked their way across the sky. Shooting stars cascaded across the night sky like mystical rain, and in that moment, I realized that the Earth was moving; the moon was more than a luminescent sphere in the sky, rather it was an instrument of perfect symmetry with the Earth, both dancing their waltz around the orbit of our sun. I envisioned the sun casting its rays of light upon the surface of the moon, and how other planets took their rotational turn around the sun at that same moment. The universe was moving, and I could feel its movement in my very soul. I did nothing but watch on in wonder. I had never taken a moment like this to myself, alone and self absorbed as I was to ponder and contemplate my place on this planet, an intricate system of life that is able to thrive because of oxygen and various other elements contained within its gravitational influence. The only thing separating me from the vast openness of the universe was our atmosphere, a component to life on this planet that we often take for granted; for without it, we would be nothing but a lump of rock floating through space. I stared out into the cosmos, enthralled by its complexity. Yet, lying there on the ground like that, observing the universe around me, made everything feel so simple, regardless of the complexity of the universe’s mechanics, if such a paradox could exist. I was having an Olaf Stapledon moment. To put it simply — I was awestruck.
One video found on TED by philosopher John Silva suggests that I am not the only one to have had a moment like this. In fact, he claims that feelings of awestruck lend themselves to our biological advantage as a species for survival. These moments of awe are what fuel our passion, imagination and will to learn about the universe we live in; they motivate and compel us to live not just in our present moment, but in the future. While scientists seek to rationalize and explain the universe at large, others seek to explore the universe in their own way. Their imaginations guide them into the cosmos, allowing those of us willing to listen along for the ride. One such author is Arthur C. Clarke. A Science Fiction (SF) writer of legendary status, his works explore the concepts of life beyond our planet and the full spectrum of the universe with such vivid imagery, it is inspiring to read his works. SF writers who embrace the genre often use the compelling evidence of the scientific community and its discoveries to extend new questions derived from their findings to a new level, one where the imagination is only limited by the capacity of the writer. Clarke was one of those writers who seemingly transcended what the genre was capable of, taking SF to new levels of the scientific imagination. One of his short stories only affirms this, “The Star,” written in 1955 and published in The Nine Billion Names of God, an anthology of short stories signifying the best of his works. While questions of faith and our place in the universe are central to the theme of this short narrative, anyone who picks up this story to read it will be left wondering about more than their relationship with a higher power, but about time and its influence over our lives.
When I finished reading it, I could not help but think back to that moment in Hohenfels, laying there in the dead of the night contemplating my existence. All sense of time was lost, except for what the perpetual motion of the night sky afforded me. The moon idly swept across the sky, and it felt as if I could feel the movement of the Earth below me. Actually, it made me feel small and puny, like an insect under a boot. I was not depressed by feeling infinitesimal, but rather I felt like a part of it. My time and place on this planet are important to me; I am here now, living my life, and I feel I have a sense of self-worth in my daily affairs. I live as others have lived before me. I am learning about the world around from the voices of the past, as others have done before. Reading this story made me realize that watching the night sky as I did that evening is looking upon the infinity of time, no different than any astronomer would do looking upon images through a telescope, such as the deep field image taken from the Hubble. Astronomers and physicists are uncovering the past of the universe in the same way historians and archaeologists are unearthing our cultural identities. I feel compelled to ask whether I am indeed a mortal being, or something much more than this, an immortal who will live on through the life that continues beyond me. My role on this Earth may be a small fragment when compared to the grand scheme of the universe, but I have a role to play in it none-the-less, whatever that role may be. Only by living will I be able to tell.
The Short Story
In Clarke’s “The Star,” humankind has a similar fascination with the stars, our exploration of them conflicting with our sense of self within the divine order of God’s will. In fact, this is the central conflict within the story, played out by a protagonist who is a man of the cloth, ordained in the ways of the church, an institution in Clarke’s vision that has learned to embrace science as a means of justifying itself. This father is not one you would find governing any parish on Earth, rather he is returning from an epic journey to the “Phoenix Nebula,” a cloud of dust born out of the cataclysmic ending of a star, a supernova. Their original mission was to learn as much as possible about the process a star goes through to become a white dwarf, a body of mass incomparable to anything found on our Earth, and to analyze the aftermath of a supernova. What they discover as they enter the dusty nebula is something quite unexpected. By this point in the story, dated around 2500 A.D., we know that humanity has been trekking through the stars using a technology Clarke calls a “Transfinite drive.” This engine allows us to move throughout the Cosmos in measurements of light years, quite necessary considering the distance to the Phoenix Nebula, which we learn to be over 100 light years away from our solar system. What they find when they arrive, though, is quite extraordinary: a planetary system that survived the destructive force of the supernova. The narrator describes their initial reactions to the planet and what they found there: “The passing fires had seared its rocks and burned away the mantle of frozen gas that must have covered it in the days before the disaster. We landed, and we found the Vault… Our original purpose was forgotten: this lonely monument, reared with such labor at the greatest possible distance from the doomed sun, could have only one meaning. A civilization that knew it was about to die had made its last bid for immortality” (Clarke 306). We learn from this expedition that everything this civilization sought to protect, the “fruits of their genius” were placed in this Vault on the most distant planet away from their unstable sun in the hopes that it would survive and someone would find it. And, we did.
The weight of this discovery plays heavily on the crew of the ship, as it makes its return voyage back to Earth. The father on board struggles with his faith in God and His will, having gained knowledge of their demise from interpreting their cultural records stored within the Vault. Our narrator questions His motives, “This tragedy was unique. It is one thing for a race to fail and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth. But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors — how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?” (307). While it is an important question to ask in terms of our own race and how many of us see God’s influence over our lives, what I find more significant to this is the manner in which they rekindle their existence. Granted, this terrestrial planet and its life forms cease to exist in a biological sense; however, they live on in spirit and in mind through the discovery of their Vault. It is only fitting that the nebula this crew discovers this extinct civilization in is called the “Phoenix Nebula.” Like the mythical bird of legend, this culture raises out of the ashes of its planet’s ruin at the hands of its rogue star, having preserved remnants of their culture for another exploratory race to uncover. Like archaeologists, the astronauts unearth the Vault and collect their secrets, secrets that were otherwise meant for immortalizing a race that was faced with its extinction. This Vault is no different from a time capsule one would bury in the backyard.
I once buried a time capsule with my friends in the backyard. My friends and I collected our things, action figurines and baseball cards mostly, and buried them in a lunchbox, in the hopes that one day someone from the future would find it. Ironically, we have long since forgotten where we buried this relic; nevertheless, the concept of the time capsule remains the same in Clarke’s story. This got me thinking — what would humanity place into its Vault if we learned that our sun was unstable and would nova in the near future? How would we preserve our race for future beings to discover? Would we place the National Archives in this Vault, preserving documents of significant importance to our civilization? Would patents and manuscripts of our technologies be placed therein? What about the blueprint of our own biological code, the Human Genome Project? Would this be placed in the Vault, as well? Or would we loss sight of ourselves, being taken over by the emotional burden of realizing the inevitable demise of our race? (I recall the Lars Van Trier film Melancholia to prove my point here) I like to think we would keep our “cool” in the face of such peril, for the sake of continuity, just like this race of beings did when their star exploded. After all, is that not the point of science and our ambition to chronicle our environment and to learn about the universe we live in? To see to it that future generations are able to expand on this knowledge base, and to learn what it means to exist in the time-space continuum on this little planet we call Earth; one of eight (nine, if you’re still a believer) planets we inhabit in our solar system around the sun; one star that resides within the Milky Way Galaxy; one of many galaxies that make up the overwhelming vastness of the universe, and my description here really does it no justice.
I’m curious to know of my readers: have you ever buried a time capsule? What did you place in it?
Clarke, Arthur C. “The Star” (1955). eFictions. Eds. Joseph Trimmer, Wade Jennings, and Annette Patterson. Boston: Heinle Thomson Learning, Inc., 2002. 303-307. Print.
Image source: Inaglory, Brocken. “Perseid and the Milky Way.” 12 Aug. 2007. Image. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 06 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.