Tuesday, September 27, 2011

To See the Light

The light comes in, sometimes harsh and direct, sometimes soft and diffused, often from sources distant and mysterious, with names mere abstractions, lacking a more concrete analogy to our humble, private lives. Light is simultaneously both intimately familiar and mysteriously foreign; otherworldly, even.

Light, it's a mysterious thing. We can feel its impact on our skin (in the case of sunlight, or from a heatlamp), yet it has no mass, no physical substance to resemble our own bodies. It touches you, but you can't touch it back. The more one dissects its nature, the more mysterious it seems to become. Is it a wave, or a particle? Yes. And no.

Light seems to travel, in our immediate surroundings, at near instantaneous speeds. Lightning fast, we'd say. And yet, we are told, distances are so vast in our universe that to see the light from some distant star or galaxy of stars is to see far, far backward in time. Light enables us to see, not only our present, but the past from unimaginably vast distances afar, reminding us that our world can be measured, not just in miles or kilometers but, using increments of time interchangeable with those of distance, like the way in which people once spoke of a journey to a distant town being two weeks by horse-drawn wagon. This little outpost of ours, like some lonely backwater settlement, is years from the nearest town -- Alpha Centauri -- as the crow flies.

Sometimes light gets in our eyes, blinding us from some more distant, primal source. There's a street light, mounted to a pole across our street and down one house. It casts a bright shadow of our trees along the driveway at night, providing needed illumination for the weary of foot, yet also casts a glare into the sky around our house that drowns out those feeble rays from long ago, impinging upon our world from afar.

Last week, I set up my binoculars on the back port, shielded a bit from that blaring street light out front, and pointed them upward -- and also outward and backward, I must remind myself-- at those feeble glimmers from long ago. There it was, the Great Nebula in Andromeda, number 101 on Charles Messier's several hundred years old list of faint, fuzzy objects to disregard during comet-hunting searches, a wide oval fuzziness situated in the northeast part of the sky, late in the evening, between the power lines strung over the back wall (the same power lines upon which doves perch like notes on a musical scale, as in that PBS commercial), a fuzziness that appeared, through the lenses of these giant binoculars, to almost fill the field of view, a neighboring galaxy like our very own Milky Way, comprised of hundreds of billions of suns like our own sun, the furthest object in the universe to be seen by the unaided eye, this M101; yet whose more delicate features were obscured by the background light from a half-moon and those incessant city lights that cast a pall overhead, like some burial shroud, obscuring our view of those far away mysteries from long ago.

To see the light -- the primal, essential light -- we need less of that which distracts and obscures our focus. We need the kind of light that pierces the absolute darkness, the kind of sky that's dark enough so as to be brilliantly lit from the edge-on-view of our own galaxy, stretching horizon to horizon like a band of storm clouds overhead. The fuzzy, lukewarm, medium gray mucky soup of a city-lit fogginess lacks the absolute black and white, hard-edged drama of a truly dark night's sky, where dark is dark and light is light, and both are distinct from one another, like the clear contrast between truth and fiction, good and evil. There's some sense of moral certitude provided by standing out at night under the brightly lit, intensely dark sky, as if to remind us, by means of direct contrast with the unfathomable murkiness of present-day politics and the distractions of popular culture, that out here reside the firmament above, staring down upon us with a purity of gaze from a source eternal and true, neither choosing sides or taking favorites, an immutably harsh mistress of objective truth, this universe that gazes back at us in the wee hours of the dark night before dawn.

It is ironic that Charles Messier's list of things to avoid when on the search for new comets in the night's sky has become, in the intervening centuries since its creation, a thing not to be avoided, a virtual roll-call of the most prominent objects of interest easily observable with either small instruments or the unaided eye. Messier's list is a showcase of prominent wonders, a series of stepping stones for the amateur observer to hone one's observing skills, offering a teasing glimpse into new mysteries yet to be revealed, yet satisfying enough in themselves to offer a lifetime's worth of observing pleasure.

I swung the heavy binoculars around on my barely adequate tripod and searched amongst fields of stars, aided by map and chart as a mariner would be bequeathed the priceless gift of navigation from those whom have come before (we prefer old-fashioned paper sky charts to computerized telescope mounts, like navigating by sextant in the age of GPS, here at the Van Cleave Observatory of Celestial Wonders), searching for the small, faint, sphere-like shell of expanding gas from a once exploded star, number 57 on old Messier's list, the Ring Nebula, when there it was, smack in the middle between two bright guide stars: a small, perfectly round ball of gray light, about the same size in appearance as the planet Jupiter, set amidst the velvet background of night. Were there planets orbiting that once bright star? Planets with people like us, perhaps gazing upward and outward at the night sky, in wonder, before it blew itself to dust and gas? I went inside that night after observing a few more such mysterious objects from afar, hit the old sack, my head swimming with visions of nebulae and cluster.

Light can enact change amongst that which it shines upon. Bugs, they scatter for the shadows when a lone bulb suddenly illuminates a dark, infested domicile; or one's skin reddens and blisters from prolonged exposure to the sun's intense rays; or the verdant leaves of one's shrubbery thrive by that same light, converting sunlight's energy into food, and exhaling life-giving oxygen to those round about.

And then there's this other thing that light can do, dislodging minuscule electrons from their bound orbits within the lattice of certain metal salt crystals, rendering them sensitive to oxidation, causing an image to be formed within a thin, transparent layer of such crystals coated onto some photographic film or paper. It is no mere coincidence that the first recorded discovery of this photographic phenomenon (cyanotype, using iron salts) was by a man (William Herschel), in the late 18th century, who himself was an accomplished astronomer, who had fashioned telescope mirrors from speculum metal so enormous that they would not be superseded in size by silver-on-glass mirrors until early in the 20th century. This forming of an image, being the vestigial remnants of light's transit from source to destination, photography is quite literally "writing with light."

I set up my fragile apparatus to capture the diffuse rays from the north-facing window of my kitchen upon some tableau of my own choosing, a handful of little glass bottles perhaps, or a decorative gourd placed inside a metal bowl. Situated in the right orientation, those distant rays reflect off, and through, and onto; a journey from sun through intervening space to earth, through diffused sky, through glass window upon humble setting, then off again, refracted through camera's glass lens or pinhole's minute aperture onto thin film of photographic emulsion, writing with the light of a fusion furnace, eight minutes distant, upon silver emulsions whose elements were once mined from inside some lonely hill, the print's paper comprised of the pulp from some tree itself made up of the minerals in the soil round about that were formed within the crucible of stars exploded long ago, all of it, standing here now in the darkroom watching the image come up in the developer, or standing out under the stars on some stark, clear night, the universe gazing back at itself.

(Via AlphaSmart Neo)


Blogger Rob Bowker said...

There's a journey and back! Thanks Joe.

12:12 PM  

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