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    From An Observatory

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    Chapter 37
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    It will be some time yet before the rising of the moon. Looking down
    from the observatory one can see the pathways across the park dotted out
    in yellow lamps, each with a fringe of dim green; and further off, hot
    and bright, is the tracery of the illuminated streets, through which the
    people go to and fro. Save for an occasional stirring, or a passing
    voice speaking out of the dimness beneath me, the night is very still.
    Not a cloud is to be seen in the dark midwinter sky to hide one speck of
    its broad smears of star dust and its shining constellations.

    As the moon rises, heaven will be flooded with blue light, and one after
    another the stars will be submerged and lost, until only a solitary
    shining pinnacle of brightness will here and there remain out of the
    whole host of them. It is curious to think that, were the moon but a
    little brighter and truly the ruler of the night, rising to its empire
    with the setting of the sun, we should never dream of the great stellar
    universe in which our little solar system swims--or know it only as a
    traveller's tale, a strange thing to be seen at times in the Arctic
    Circle. Nay, if the earth's atmosphere were some few score miles higher,
    a night-long twilight would be drawn like an impenetrable veil across
    the stars. By a mere accident of our existence we see their multitude
    ever and again, when the curtains of the daylight and moonlight, and of
    our own narrow pressing necessities, are for a little while drawn back.
    Then, for an interval, we look, as if out of a window, into the great
    deep of heaven. So far as physical science goes, there is nothing in the
    essential conditions of our existence to necessitate that we should have
    these transitory glimpses of infinite space. We can imagine men just
    like ourselves without such an outlook. But it happens that we have it.

    If we had not this vision, if we had always so much light in the sky
    that we could not perceive the stars, our lives, so far as we can infer,
    would be very much as they are now; there would still be the same needs
    and desires, the same appliances for our safety and satisfaction; this
    little gaslit world below would scarcely miss the stars now, if they
    were blotted out for ever. But our science would be different in some
    respects had we never seen them. We should still have good reason, in
    Foucault's pendulum experiment, for supposing that the world rotated
    upon its axis, and that the sun was so far relatively fixed; but we
    should have no suspicion of the orbital revolution of the world. Instead
    we should ascribe the seasonal differences to a meridional movement of
    the sun. Our spectroscopic astronomy--so far as it refers to the
    composition of the sun and moon--would stand precisely where it does,
    but the bulk of our mathematical astronomy would not exist. Our calendar
    would still be in all essential respects as it is now; our year with the
    solstices and equinoxes as its cardinal points. The texture of our
    poetry might conceivably be the poorer without its star spangles; our
    philosophy, for the want of a nebular hypothesis. These would be the
    main differences. Yet, to those who indulge in speculative dreaming, how
    much smaller life would be with a sun and a moon and a blue beyond for
    the only visible, the only thinkable universe. And it is, we repeat,
    from the scientific standpoint a mere accident that the present--the
    daylight--world periodically opens, as it were, and gives us this
    inspiring glimpse of the remoteness of space.

    One may imagine countless meteors and comets streaming through the solar
    system, unobserved by those who dwelt under such conditions as have just
    been suggested, or some huge dark body from the outer depths sweeping
    straight at that little visible universe, and all unsuspected by the
    inhabitants. One may imagine the scientific people of such a world, calm
    in their assurance of the permanence of things, incapable almost of
    conceiving any disturbing cause. One may imagine how an imaginative
    writer who doubted that permanence would be pooh-poohed. "Cannot we see
    to the uttermost limits of space?" they might argue, "and is it not
    altogether blue and void?" Then, as the unseen visitor draws near, begin
    the most extraordinary perturbations. The two known heavenly bodies
    suddenly fail from their accustomed routine. The moon, hitherto
    invariably full, changes towards its last quarter--and then, behold! for
    the first time the rays of the greater stars visibly pierce the blue
    canopy of the sky. How suddenly--painfully almost--the minds of thinking
    men would be enlarged when this rash of the stars appeared.

    And what then if _our_ heavens were to open? Very thin indeed is the
    curtain between us and the unknown. There is a fear of the night that is
    begotten of ignorance and superstition, a nightmare fear, the fear of
    the impossible; and there is another fear of the night--of the starlit
    night--that comes with knowledge, when we see in its true proportion
    this little life of ours with all its phantasmal environment of cities
    and stores and arsenals, and the habits, prejudices, and promises of
    men. Down there in the gaslit street such things are real and solid
    enough, the only real things, perhaps; but not up here, not under the
    midnight sky. Here for a space, standing silently upon the dim, grey
    tower of the old observatory, we may clear our minds of instincts and
    illusions, and look out upon the real.

    And now to the eastward the stars are no longer innumerable, and the sky
    grows wan. Then a faint silvery mist appears above the housetops, and at
    last in the midst of this there comes a brilliantly shining line--the
    upper edge of the rising moon.
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