The astronomer who went to the stars

 

There was once an astronomer who would stare at the sky. He would stare at the sky at night and also by day, and he would marvel at its vastness.

During the day, as he lived in a rather rainy part of the world. The sky was often overcast, and, as he had a day-job like all the rest of us, he did not pay much attention to the greyscape, although, on occasion, he did sometimes feel a kind of melancholy in the blankness. The norm of overcast, however, increased the brilliance of the rare open sky, the blue sky, sun-brightened, which if drifting with white mountains of clouds, or stroked by whispy stream-cloud, glorified by revelation, and intensified the lands of the physical world. Clouds were wonderful in their infinite shapes and movements and they were particularly delightful at dusk and dawn when painted by the salutations of the departing and arising sun. The astronomer especially liked days in which the sky was not blue, but where every cloud could be clearly seen for miles along the atmospheric highways, rolling and trailing and giving shape to the globe itself.

Of course, it was dark that the astronomer loved best, as one by one night’s candles were lit. On a clear evening, the planet Venus, the fallen angel, Lucifer, the conductor, the evening and morning star, would start the show, and in unison, as in the overture to a quiet symphony, the stellar lights would open like a chord of many harmonies, and crescendo into the celestial brilliance of the revealed cosmos. How dastardly of the boorish sun to hide all in his presence; that bully sun who forbids you to stare, who blinds all trespassers, who blankets blue the true heavens. But when he is elsewhere, and the clouds are too cold to brave the night, the stars come out. Only frumpy moon dares accompany them; she, ever restless, ever changing, pale from want of company, can still cast a strange spell on all who shun her. But she knows she is an imposter.

Yes, the astronomer loved the night sky, and he pondered it and studied it whenever he was free. He loved stars. He loved their permanence, their predictability, they were almost comforting, and yet cold and indifferent.

He deliberately had chosen to live outside the city, in spite of the commute, specifically so that the sky might not be polluted with artificial light, that relentlessly glowing foe.

He had an excellent telescope, up to date with all the recent technological adaptations, and a modest library of sky maps and astronomical textbooks, alongside history books and biographies of famous scientists such as Huygens and Kepler. Grand prints of photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope decorated the walls of his study; photographs that look back through the history of time. Once, he had saved money for a trip to Iceland in winter to see the Aurora Borealis - on one cold night the sky glowed wavery green and the astronomer smiled. But, to him, there was something too terrestrial about solar winds on the atmosphere. He preferred the incomprehensible wonders of deep space, the red giants, the supernovae, the black holes. Out there, there was so much more. So huge the fields of endless space, so bright and colossal the alien matter of burning gases; not like cluttered Earth, not fuddled like the society of mankind, but empty and simple, and yet impossible to comprehend.

 

With meticulous care, the astronomer would note down all he observed with every degree change of the scope. The sky at night was like a map which he could dive into with his eyes, a map which became ever more vast and complex the closer he looked. He imagined himself alongside the countless others throughout human history who had looked at space: the nomads, the mystics, shepherds, sailors, explorers, the great kings, Hellenist philosophers, the scientists of Alexandria, the lonely, the travellers, the holy, the drunk, the astronomers of the Enlightenment, the astrologers of the obscure. Apart from the petty astrologers, he admired them all and felt akin to any who had ever strained their neck with wonder with thought so base or profound.

The astronomer gazed at the beauty of the cosmos and thought how small he was below and how, even in the smallest of things, there also lies a kind of cosmos and that every part of everything on our planet was once an atom in space; we were all cooked up in boiling stars and all matter was once condensed in the smallest of pinpricks… though it is all now exploding and expanding. We are all made of starstuff, as his favourite astronomer, Carl Sagan, had once said. The astronomer loved looking at the sky and marvelling, but somehow it was not enough… Everything was mediated through a lens, everything was at least one move away from immediate perception, everything was, indeed, too far away.

 

One day, while contemplating the incredible immensity of the universe, the astronomer decided that he had enough of looking at the sky from this lonely outpost, Earth, and that the time had come for him to dive into space, and witness, with unmagnified eye, the galaxy in all its splendour. Although this was, of course, an incredibly difficult undertaking, the astronomer, luckily, had the necessary tools at his disposal to build his own spacecraft. In another stroke of good fortune, he had recently acquired some friends who had enough expertise in rocket science to design a launch and propulsion through the galaxy. That was the easy part. Of course, as with all voyages, it is returning home safely that is complicated. More people leave than come back. The astronomer had considered this. He concluded that there would be absolutely no way of getting back, and if he decided to launch, that would be it, he’d be gone, into the cosmos, forever. This did not faze the astronomer. He had decided: it must be done.

 

A few of his friends were engineers and, on weekends, between tea breaks, they worked passionately on the craft, financed by the astronomer’s life-savings and some money he had inherited from a loving aunt. After a year or so of terrific endeavour, the spacecraft was built and it stood proudly in his back garden, looking remarkably incongruous with the surrounding suburbia.

He and his friend, Lawrence, were sitting on deck chairs admiring their work. They were eating custard cream biscuits when Lawrence said: “Are you sure you are going to go through with it?”

“Yes. I must.”

 

There was a pause and then the astronomer added, “We are all at the centre of the universe. I want to move my centre while remaining at the centre. I want to move through the infinite centres of the expanding universe.”

 

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Lawrence.

 

“I guess not,” the astronomer said.

 

He calculated the amount of tinned food he would need, and the volume of water. With the help of a local farmer, he arranged for some special plants, which recycle carbon dioxide, to be grown in a soil-less tank, so that floating soil might not cause a mess in zero gravity. He had calculated enough food, water, and air for a year, and, after the enormous expense of the spacecraft, with its boosters and rockets and fuel, et cetera, this was all he had money left for anyway. He was happy. This would give him enough time to visit at least one galaxy further away than the Milky Way, and it would surely be a long enough period to make the whole trip worthwhile. He liked the idea of being on the plane of the galaxy and knowing there was still so much more, millions more galaxies never to see, so much out there still.

 

How the neighbours mocked him though! Well, they mocked him at first for spending his life savings on such an apparently silly project, but after time, when it became clear that he was really going to launch himself into deep space, and it was not some mid-life crisis or cry for help, the neighbours began to become genuinely worried for him. They all knew it would be a one way trip. They didn’t like to see one who they knew give away his life so willingly. The astronomer did not mind and he laughed it off whenever anyone brought it up in conversation.

 

He knew that men had been in space before, he knew they had even stood on the moon. But for him, this was almost trivial, as though man’s ventures beyond our atmosphere were mere paddlings, ankle-deep on the shores of the greatest ocean. The astronomer wanted to be a deep sea diver.

 

He imagined himself floating next to colossal burning stars, feeling their thermal nuclear energy on his face; he imagined watching comets soar by his window on their wandering course; he imagined the colours of the planets he would pass and the marvellous patterns of their moons and storms; but most of all, he imagined being alone, as alone as anyone ever could possibly be, a tiny speck of impossible life floating through an unfathomably infinite universe. He imagined being further away from anyone than anyone had ever been, and further away from cradle Earth than any living thing could reach. He imagined his tale, ‘the astronomer who took to the skies’, becoming myth and children searching for the wink of his lost spaceship amongst the stars on quiet nights. He thought fondly of his homemade craft floating enigmatically in empty space after his death, and no one ever seeing it again.

 

Having said his farewells to his friends and family some time ago, the astronomer walked out into his back garden on a serene winter night. He took a quick glance at the stars, but dared not look longer. Before embarking the craft, he inhaled deeply through his nostrils the cold winter breeze and sighed heavily as he exhaled. He picked a mound of earth from the soil around the entry ladder and examined it closely; it felt gritty in his hand, it smelled of rain. There was soft music as his garden trees rustled an earthly farewell. The astronomer let a tear fall from his closed eyes; it landed softly on the ground and sunk into the soil. As he ascended the ladder into his craft, crying gently, he hummed a formless tune.

 

With a woosh of air, the door closed calmly behind him.