The crimson disk of the Sun has plunged beneath the Ocean. The sea has decked itself with the burning colors of the orb, reflected from the Heavens in a mirror of turquoise and emerald. The rolling waves are gold and silver, and break noisily on a shore already darkened by the disappearance of the celestial luminary.
We gaze regretfully after the star of day, that poured its cheerful rays anon so generously over many who were intoxicated with gaiety and happiness. We
The most indifferent spectator of the setting Sun as it descends beneath the waves at the far horizon, could hardly be unmoved by the pageant of Nature at such an impressive moment.
The light of the Crescent Moon, like some fairy boat suspended in the sky, is bright enough to cast changing and dancing sparkles of silver upon the ocean. The Evening Star declines slowly in its turn toward the western horizon. Our gaze is held by a shining world that dominates the whole of the occidental heavens. This is the "Shepherd's Star," Venus of rays translucent.
Little by little, one by one, the more brilliant stars shine out. Here are the white Vega of the Lyre, the burning Arcturus, the seven stars of the Great Bear, a whole sidereal population catching fire, like innumerable eyes that open on the Infinite. It is a new life that is revealed to our imagination, inviting us to soar into these mysterious regions.
O Night, diapered with fires innumerable! hast thou not written in flaming letters on these Constellations the syllables of the great enigma of Eternity? The contemplation of thee is a wonder and a charm. How rapidly canst thou efface the regrets we suffered on the departure of our beloved Sun! What wealth, what beauty hast thou not reserved for our enraptured souls! Where is the man that can remain blind to such a pageant and deaf to its language!
To whatever quarter of the Heavens we look, the splendors of the night are revealed to our astonished gaze. These celestial eyes seem in their turn to gaze at, and to question us. Thus indeed have they questioned every thinking soul, so long as Humanity has existed on our Earth. Homer saw and sung these self-same stars. They shone upon the slow succession of civilizations that have disappeared, from Egypt of the period of the Pyramids, Greece at the time of the Trojan War, Rome and Carthage, Constantine and Charlemagne, down to the Twentieth Century. The generations are buried with the dust of their ancient temples. The Stars are still there, symbols of Eternity.
The silence of the vast and starry Heavens may terrify us; its immensity may seem to overwhelm us. But our inquiring thought flies curiously on the wings of dream, toward the remotest regions of the visible. It rests on one star and another, like the butterfly on the flower. It seeks what will best respond to its aspirations: and thus a kind of communication is established, and, as it were, protected by all Nature in these silent appeals. Our sense of solitude has disappeared. We feel that, if only as infinitesimal atoms, we form part of that immense universe, and this dumb language of the starry night is more eloquent than any speech. Each star becomes a friend, a discreet confidant, often indeed a precious counsellor, for all the thoughts it suggests to us are pure and holy.
Is any poem finer than the book written in letters of fire upon the tablets of the firmament? Nothing could be more ideal. And yet, the poetic sentiment that the beauty of Heaven awakens in our soul ought not to veil its reality from us. That is no less marvelous than the mystery by which we were enchanted.
And here we may ask ourselves how many there are, even among thinking human beings, who ever raise their eyes to the starry heavens? How many men and women are sincerely, and with unfeigned curiosity, interested in these shining specks, and inaccessible luminaries, and really desirous of a better acquaintance with them?
Seek, talk, ask in the intercourse of daily life. You, who read these pages, who already love the Heavens, and comprehend them, who desire to account for our existence in this world, who seek to know what the Earth is, and what Heaven—you shall witness that the number of those inquiring after truth is so limited that no one dares to speak of it, so disgraceful is it to the so-called intelligence of our race. And yet! the great Book of the Heavens is open to all eyes. What pleasures await us in the study of the Universe! Nothing could speak more eloquently to our heart and intellect!
Astronomy is the science par excellence. It is the most beautiful and most ancient of all, inasmuch as it dates back to the indeterminate times of highest antiquity. Its mission is not only to make us acquainted with the innumerable orbs by which our nights are illuminated, but it is, moreover, thanks to it that we know where and what we are. Without it we should live as the blind, in eternal ignorance of the very conditions of our terrestrial existence. Without it we should still be penetrated with the naïve error that reduced the entire Universe to our minute globule, making our Humanity the goal of the Creation, and should have no exact notion of the immense reality.
To-day, thanks to the intellectual labor of so many centuries, thanks also to the immortal genius of the men of science who have devoted their lives to searching after Truth—men such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton—the veil of ignorance has been rent, and glimpses of the marvels of creation are perceptible in their splendid truth to the dazzled eye of the thinker.
The study of Astronomy is not, as many suppose, the sacrifice of oneself in a cerebral torture that obliterates all the beauty, the fascination, and the grandeur of the pageant of Nature. Figures, and naught but figures, would not be entertaining, even to those most desirous of instruction. Let the reader take courage! We do not propose that he shall decipher the hieroglyphics of algebra and geometry. Perish the thought! For the rest, figures are but the scaffolding, the method, and do not exist in Nature.
We simply beg of you to open your eyes, to see where you are, so that you may not stray from the path of truth, which is also the path of happiness. Once you have entered upon it, no persuasion will be needed to make you persevere. And you will have the profound satisfaction of knowing that you are thinking correctly, and that it is infinitely better to be educated than to be ignorant. The reality is far beyond all dreams, beyond the most fantastic imagination. The most fairy-like transformations of our theaters, the most resplendent pageants of our military reviews, the most sumptuous marvels on which the human race can pride itself—all that we admire, all that we envy on the Earth—is as nothing compared with the unheard-of wonders scattered through Infinitude. There are so many that one does not know how to see them. The fascinated eye would fain grasp all at once.
If you will yield yourselves to the pleasure of gazing upon the sparkling fires of Space, you will never regret the moments passed all too rapidly in the contemplation of the Heavens.
Diamonds, turquoises, rubies, emeralds, all the precious stones with which women love to deck themselves, are to be found in greater perfection, more beautiful, and more splendid, set in the immensity of Heaven! In the telescopic field, we may watch the progress of armies of majestic and powerful suns, from whose attacks there is naught to fear. And these vagabond comets and shooting stars and stellar nebulæ, do they not make up a prodigious panorama? What are our romances in comparison with the History of Nature? Soaring toward the Infinite, we purify our souls from all the baseness of this world, we strive to become better and more intelligent.
But in the first place, you ask, what are the Heavens? This vault oppresses us. We can not venture to investigate it.
Heaven, we reply, is no vault, it is a limitless immensity, inconceivable, unfathomable, that surrounds us on all sides, and in the midst of which our globe is floating. The Heavens are all that exists, all that we see, and all that we do not see: the Earth on which we are, that bears us onward in her rapid flight; the Moon that accompanies us, and sheds her soft beams upon our silent nights; the good Sun to which we owe our existence; the Stars, suns of Infinitude; in a word—the whole of Creation.
Yes, our Earth is an orb of the Heavens: the sky is her domain, and our Sun, shining above our heads, and fertilizing our seasons, is as much a star as the pretty sparkling points that scintillate up there, in the far distance, and embellish the calm of our nights with their brilliancy. All are in the Heavens, you as well as I, for the Earth, in her course through Space, bears us with herself into the depths of Infinitude.
In the Heavens there is neither "above" nor "below." These words do not exist in celestial speech, because their significance is relative to the surface of this planet only. In reality, for the inhabitants of the Earth, "low" is the inside, the center of the globe, and "high" is what is above our heads, all round the Earth. The Heavens are what surround us on all sides, to Infinity.
The Earth is, like her fellows, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, one of the planets of the great solar family.
The Sun, her father, protects her, and directs all her actions. She, as the grateful daughter, obeys him blindly. All float in perfect harmony over the celestial ocean.
But, you may say, on what does the Earth rest in her ethereal navigation?
On nothing. The Earth turns round the colossal Sun, a little globe of relatively light weight, isolated on all sides in Space, like a soap-bubble blown by some careless child.
Above, below, on all sides, millions of similar globes are grouped into families, and form other systems of worlds revolving round the numerous and distant stars that people Infinitude; suns more or less analogous to that by which we are illuminated, and generally speaking of larger bulk, although our Sun is a million times larger than our planet.
Among the ancients, before the isolation of our globe in Space and the motions that incessantly alter its position were recognized, the Earth was supposed to be the immobile lower half of the Universe. The sky was regarded as the upper half. The ancients supplied our world with fantastic supports that penetrated to the Infernal Regions. They could not admit the notion of the Earth's isolation, because they had a false idea of its weight. To-day, however, we know positively that the Earth is based on nothing. The innumerable journeys accomplished round it in all directions give definite proof of this. It is attached to nothing. As we said before, there is neither "above" nor "below" in the Universe. What we call "below" is the center of the Earth. For the rest the Earth turns upon its own axis in twenty-four hours. Night is only a partial phenomenon, due to the rotary motion of the planet, a motion that could not exist under conditions other than that of the absolute isolation of our globe in space.
Since the Sun can only illuminate one side of our globe at one moment, that is to say one hemisphere, it follows that Night is nothing but the state of the part that is not illuminated. As the Earth revolves upon itself, all the parts successively exposed to the Sun are in the day, while the parts situated opposite to the Sun, in the cone of shadow produced by the Earth itself, are in night. But whether it be noon or midnight, the stars always occupy the same position in the Heavens, even when, dazzled by the ardent light of the orb of day, we can no longer see them; and when we are plunged into the darkness of the night, the god Phœbus still continues to pour his beneficent rays upon the countries turned toward him.
The sequence of day and night is a phenomenon belonging, properly speaking, to the Earth, in which the rest of the Universe does not participate. The same occurs for every world that is illuminated by a sun, and endowed with a rotary movement. In absolute space, there is no succession of nights and days.
Upheld in space by forces that will be explained at a later point, our planet glides in the open heavens round our Sun.
Imagine a magnificent aerostat, lightly and rapidly cleaving space. Surround it with eight little balloons of different sizes, the smallest like those sold on the streets for children to play with, the larger, such as are distributed for a bonus in large stores. Imagine this group sailing through the air, and you have the system of our worlds in miniature.
Still, this is only an image, a comparison. The balloons are held up by the atmosphere, in which they float at equilibrium. The Earth is sustained by nothing material. What maintains her in equilibrium is the ethereal void; an immaterial force; gravitation. The Sun attracts her, and if she did not revolve, she would drop into him; but rotating round him, at a speed of 107,000 kilometers (about 66,000 miles) per hour, she produces a centrifugal force, like that of a stone in a sling, that is precisely equivalent, and of contrary sign, to its gravitation toward the central orb, and these two equilibrated forces keep her at the same medium distance.
This solar and planetary group does not exist solitary in the immense void that extends indefinitely around us. As we said above, each star that we admire in the depths of the sky, and to which we lift up our eyes and thoughts during the charmed hours of the night, is another sun burning with its own light, the chief of a more or less numerous family, such as are multiplied through all space to infinity. Notwithstanding the immense distances between the sun-stars, Space is so vast, and the number of these so great, that by an effect of perspective due solely to the distance, appearances would lead us to believe that the stars were touching. And under certain telescopic aspects, and in some of the astral photographs, they really do appear to be contiguous.
The Universe is infinite. Space is limitless. If our love for the Heavens should incite in us the impulse, and provide us with the means of undertaking a journey directed to the ends of Heaven as its goal, we should be astonished, on arriving at the confines of the Milky Way, to see the grandiose and phenomenal spectacle of a new Universe unfold before our dazzled eyes; and if in our mad career we crossed this new archipelago of worlds to seek the barriers of Heaven beyond them, we should still find universe eternally succeeding to universe before us. Millions of suns roll on in the immensities of Space. Everywhere, on all sides, Creation renews itself in an infinite variety.
According to all the probabilities, universal life is distributed there as well as here, and has sown the germ of intelligence upon those distant worlds that we divine in the vicinity of the innumerable suns that plow the ether, for everything upon the Earth tends to show that Life is the goal of Nature. Burning foci, inextinguishable sources of warmth and light, these various, multi-colored suns shed their rays upon the worlds that belong to them and which they fertilize.
Our globe is no exception in the Universe. As we have seen, it is one of the celestial orbs, nourished, warmed, lighted, quickened by the Sun, which in its turn again is but a star.
Innumerable Worlds! We dream of them. Who can say that their unknown inhabitants do not think of us in their turn, and that Space may not be traversed by waves of thought, as it is by the vibrations of light and universal gravitation? May not an immense solidarity, hardly guessed at by our imperfect senses, exist between the Celestial Humanities, our Earth being only a modest planet.
Let us meditate on this Infinity! Let us lose no opportunity of employing the best of our hours, those of the silence and peace of the bewitching nights, in contemplating, admiring, spelling out the words of the Great Book of the Heavens. Let our freed souls fly swift and rapt toward those marvelous countries where indescribable joys are prepared for us, and let us do homage to the first and most splendid of the sciences, to Astronomy, which diffuses the light of Truth within us.
To poetical souls, the contemplation of the Heavens carries thought away to higher regions than it attains in any other meditation. Who does not remember the beautiful lines of Victor Hugo in the Orientales? Who has not heard or read them? The poem is called "Ecstasy," and it is a fitting title. The words are sometimes set to music, and the melody seems to complete their pure beauty:
J'étais seul près des flots par une nuit d'étoiles.
Pas un nuage aux cieux, sur les mers pas de voiles;
Mes yeux plongeaient plus loin que le monde réel,
Et les bois et les monts et toute la nature
Semblaient interroger, dans un confus murmure,
Les flots des mers, les feux du ciel.
Et les étoiles d'or, légions infinies,
A voix haute, à voix basse, avec mille harmonies
Disaient, en inclinant leurs couronnes de feu;
Et les flots bleus, que rien ne gouverne et n'arrête,
Disaient en recourbant l'écume de leur crête:
... C'est le Seigneur, le Seigneur Dieu!
Note: Free Translation
I was alone on the waves, on a starry night,
Not a cloud in the sky, not a sail in sight,
My eyes pierced beyond the natural world...
And the woods, and the hills, and the voice of Nature
Seemed to question in a confused murmur,
The waves of the Sea, and Heaven's fires.
And the golden stars in infinite legion,
Sang loudly, and softly, in glad recognition,
Inclining their crowns of fire;...
And the waves that naught can check nor arrest
Sang, bowing the foam of their haughty crest...
Behold the Lord God—Jehovah!
The immortal poet of France was an astronomer. The author more than once had the honor of conversing with him on the problems of the starry sky—and reflected that astronomers might well be poets.
It is indeed difficult to resist a sense of profound emotion before the abysses of infinite Space, when we behold the innumerable multitude of worlds suspended above our heads. We feel in this solitary contemplation of the Heavens that there is more in the Universe than tangible and visible matter: that there are forces, laws, destinies. Our ants' brains may know themselves microscopic, and yet recognize that there is something greater than the Earth, the Heavens;—more absolute than the Visible, the Invisible;—beyond the more or less vulgar affairs of life, the sense of the True, the Good, the Beautiful. We feel that an immense mystery broods over Nature,—over Being, over created things. And it is here again that Astronomy surpasses all the other sciences, that it becomes our sovereign teacher, that it is the pharos of modern philosophy.
O Night, mysterious, sublime, and infinite! withdrawing from our eyes the veil spread above us by the light of day, giving back transparency to the Heavens, showing us the prodigious reality, the shining casket of the celestial diamonds, the innumerable stars that succeed each other interminably in immeasurable space! Without Night we should know nothing. Without it our eyes would never have divined the sidereal population, our intellects would never have pierced the harmony of the Heavens, and we should have remained the blind, deaf parasites of a world isolated from the rest of the universe. O Sacred Night! If on the one hand it rests upon the heights of Truth beyond the day's illusions, on the other its invisible urns pour down a silent and tranquil peace, a penetrating calm, upon our souls that weary of Life's fever. It makes us forget the struggles, perfidies, intrigues, the miseries of the hours of toil and noisy activity, all the conventionalities of civilization. Its domain is that of rest and dreams. We love it for its peace and calm tranquillity. We love it because it is true. We love it because it places us in communication with the other worlds, because it gives us the presage of Life, Universal and Eternal, because it brings us Hope, because it proclaims us citizens of Heaven.