By: A Ramachandran
In 1941, Isaac Asimov, widely regarded as one of the top two science fiction writers of his time, wrote a short story titled ‘Nightfall.’ The story itself was inspired by a poem written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I quote the relevant line below.
‘If the stars should appear one night in
a thousand years, how would men believe
and adore, and preserve for many generations
the remembrance of the city of God?’
In his story Isaac Asimov describes a society on a planet that moves in a cluster of six suns. At any instant at least one sun is visible from any place on the planet. So there is constant daylight and no one has experienced total darkness in the outdoors. As a consequence no other stars are visible. There is a mystical cult among the folk which believes in a ‘Book of Revelations.’ This tome asserts that there are limitless number of suns/stars in the universe. But viewing these would bring about general chaos and may even destroy their civilisation. Most people reject this idea as absurd. However, there is another group, a group of astronomers who feel that there may be truth in this. Some of their observations and calculations seem to indicate that their planet would experience total darkness very soon due to the intervention of a hitherto undiscovered moon, and fear that it may lead to widespread insanity and the collapse of society.
I do not want to relate the story further. I am wondering whether we are moving towards a similar situation. With rampant urbanisation there is so much artificial lighting that future generations may be able to observe stars and planets only in planetaria.
Most of us seem to spend evening hours indoors – at home, in cinemas, restaurants, malls, etc. Even when outdoors, we are flooded with lights from street lights, ad signs, vehicles, etc. In built up areas we may get to see only a small patch of sky – we hardly see any horizon. The air also carries a lot of dust and smoke.
Early peoples lived in a world where total darkness was commonplace, as rural folk may do now. They probably spent their nights under open skies. Watching the stars and constellations, the phases of the moon, planets, comets, nebulas, the milky way, etc., put them in tune with the rhythms and cycles of nature. They did not probably know the real nature and scale of these heavenly objects but associated them with Gods and spirits. But with the growth of science people realised the vastness of the universe and the immensity of time. In whichever way one looks at it, the sight of the sky on a clear night is awe-inspiring, and humbling. In the face of such a timeless scene one cannot but turn away from our trivial and transient preoccupations and seek something beyond.
Psychologists and educators speak of ‘Nature deficit syndrome.’ Nature surely includes what is beyond the earth too. Exposure to this at growing stages of a child would give a sense of proportion and connectedness. The author vividly remembers his first view of the milky way while on holiday in a village. Being a resident of South India, a region just north of the equator, one is privileged to see most of the prominent constellations from the Great Bear in the north to the Southern cross (which features in the flags of many nations in the southern hemisphere) as well as the majority of the 20 brightest stars. Following their daily and seasonal movements across the sky, watching constellations such as Orion, Scorpio and Centaurus, and watching Venus as Morning and Evening star, can be rewarding experiences.