Sunday, July 6, 2014

Van Gogh’s Starry Night Comes to Life

The Hubble Space Telescope captured an incredible image recently, “the most comprehensive picture ever assembled of the evolving Universe — and one of the most colorful,” as the Hubble website puts it. Curiously, the clearer a view science gives us of the night sky, the clearer it seems that our universe resembles a vision in Vincent Van Gogh’s disturbed but visionary head; the Hubble photo is startlingly similar to the painter’s famed “Starry Night,” in which the moon and stars blaze and swirl in colorful energy above a sleepy town. It’s a case of reality imitating art.

The Wide Field Camera of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field project, as it is called, employing a range of colors stretching all the way from ultraviolet to near-infrared light, enabled astronomers to observe and photograph which galaxies are forming stars and where those stars are. “The resulting image, made from 841 orbits of telescope viewing time, contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, extending back to within a few hundred million years of the Big Bang.” This is a photo that takes us out of our microcosm of obsessive selfies and toward infinity. If that doesn’t give one some humble perspective, I’m not sure what will.

I personally find it impossible to look at the photo and not be overwhelmed with awe by this vision of unfathomable beauty and mystery. Some commenters at the Huffington Post article about the photo, however, were disappointingly unappreciative; they simply could see no further than their own negative biases. “Wow, 10,000 galaxies and not one sign of a god anywhere,” wrote one. Seriously? I think it takes a sad and narrow mind to look at this photo of 10,000 galaxies, “apparelled in celestial light,” as Wordsworth put it, and not see God everywhere in it.

Other commenters sneered that the photo only proves that the universe is so vast that no god could possibly manage it all: “He can't micromanage and macromanage the vastness,” said one. This attitude is echoed in pop science icon Carl Sagan’s view that the God of Western theology is “too small,” “a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.” With all due respect to Sagan’s infectious, passionate curiosity, I think that such an attitude says much more about our finite human perspective than about any limitations of divinity.

“Starry, starry night/Flaming flowers that brightly blaze/Swirling clouds in violet haze,” sang Don McLean in “Vincent,” his melancholy 1976 ode to Van Gogh and his most famous work. The painting always reminds me of a mescaline-induced insight recorded in Brave New World writer Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, the title taken from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake, another visionary: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Believing that the drug might expand that narrow chink, Huxley undertook an eight-hour, carefully monitored experiment in which he witnessed “the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” Among his other observations, it occurred to Huxley that “precious stones are precious because they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary.”

Glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary – what a perfect description of “Starry Night.” Now, those same glowing marvels are seen through the far-reaching eye of the scientist. Two doors of perception, one glimpse of the infinite.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/1/14)