Friday, 22 June 2012
Tuesday, 19 June 2012
When I was asked to do a caricature illustration of Robin Ince for the latest cover of The Skeptic Magazine, I knew I was going to have to come up with something different and challenging, as I've drawn Robin a couple of times before and didn't want to feel like I was just retreading old ground. Andreas Beck for helping me out with some valuable photo reference. The initial idea was in part based on this famous pic:
This is something I wrote on an old forum somewhere when prompted to comment on the question of 'spirituality' - I post it now as I was reminded of it by a great column in the new issue of The Skeptic Mag (more on that to follow) by Mark Duwe about the trade-off between dark skies and advancing knowledge of the stars. Subscribe here! On the day I got married I had a very profound (for me at least) moment that might apply here. At the end of the night I walked along a short 'country lane' I suppose, between the hotel and adjoinging buildings, it was utterly black with no lights, no visible civilisation apart from the two buildings nearby. Luckily it was a completely cloudless night. Looking up I will never forget seeing more stars in the sky than I had ever seen before by an order of magnitude, the Milky Way itself was clearly visible which was something I'd never been lucky enough to really see in that way. It was a view that was nothing less than awe inspiring, and I would recommend everyone to try to experience it. The beauty of this sight was very moving, but it was all the more staggering for me because I actually had some concept of what I was looking at. This is what I saw: Each and every one of those points of light in the sky is a star, equivalent to our own Sun - an enormous nuclear furnace that has been burning fuel for billions of years and will continue to burn for billions more. Some appeared quite blue in colour, some red. The blue ones are far hotter than our Sun and will use up their fuel far faster, the red ones are probably far older than the Sun and may well soon die. Some will die in the most violent way possible - a supernova, probably the most violent explosions ever seen by human eyes. The Milky Way is the galaxy our Sun is part of. Because we are inside this immense collection of stars that looks like a spinning disk of light we see it as a band milky light across the sky - because the density of stars is so much greater as we look through the disk. There are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, many of them with planets orbiting them, as is being discovered today. Who knows, maybe life exists on one of them and some other life form is gazing up at their night sky - full of completely different constellations as viewed from their planet - thinking something similar to me. But what I could make out with my eyes that night was nowhere near the end of it - some of those points of light were not stars - at least not individual ones - some were other galaxies alogether. You can't make out the shapes of them with the naked eye, but to me they are some of the most stunning objects in the cosmos. Each one is also a collection of hundreds of billions of stars. Beyond the reach of my eyesight are billions and billions more galaxies. Each one is hundreds of thousands of light-years wide but may only appear as a tiny speck of light to the most powerful telescopes. this means they must be staggeringly far away - literally billions of light-years distant. As a consequence of this mind boggling distance, not only are my eyes seeing something inconceivably far away, they are also looking back in time. The light from the nearest stars may have left them only a few years ago and so we see them not as they are now, but as they were then. Transfer this thought to far distant galaxies and you could be looking upon an object as it was before life even existed on Earth. Next I think about how amazingly lucky I am to be able to appreciate the view before me in this way - just think how many people on the planet know this stuff? I'd bet it's a small minority. But what about over history? A few hundred years ago no-one would be able to have the feeling I have looking up at the night sky in such a way. The discoveries had yet to be made, the technology yet to be invented to allow people to make the discoveries. How lucky am I to have benefited from hundreds of years of other people's hard work and effort to find out what I can now read about in any decent astronomy book. Would I call this experience 'spiritual'? In a way, yes. In a similar way to the feeling I got some moments after looking at my new wife. Intense emotions, a feeling of calm yet powerful happiness. Are these feelings more real than someone having some 'spiritual' experience in a religious way? No. Feelings can be provoked in all sorts of ways. But in my opinion they are more honest because they are based in the real world, in the here and now, will the full benefit of knowledge. To look up at the sky and think 'Wow - isn't God great!' is not to look at all. To think that all that I can see with my eyes when I look up at the sky was created for us, with humans as the planned result, is as arrogant a though as I can imagine. To think that is to abandon all hope of finding out the real answers, to give up. I don't want us to give up. I want someone two hundred years in the future to look up at the same sky with even more knowledge, even more awe and even more appreciation for all those who helped them understand what they can see in a way that I never will.