By Jim O'Leary
An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.
Sept. 22, 2003
A starry night deep in the heart of Texas
I saw Mars! First I saw it out from out my back door and then Jeanne and I drove out to the beach the other night and saw it from the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. Don't miss it. It's sensational. You will know why they call it the Red Planet.
I got wind of this from Dr. Merton and Patsy Johnson (who have Willmar connections.) They wrote:
"Never again in your lifetime will the Red Planet be so spectacular. In the month of September, Earth is catching up with Mars, an encounter that will culminate in the closest approach between the two planets in recorded history. The next time Mars will come this close is in 2287.
"Due to the way Jupiter's gravity tugs on Mars and perturbs its orbits, astronomers can only be certain that Mars has not come this close to Earth in the last 5,000 years, but it may be as long as 60,000 years.
"Mars will be easy to spot. In August, Mars will rise in the east at 10 p.m. and reach its azimuth at about 3 a.m..
"By the end of August, Mars will rise at nightfall and reach its highest point in the sky at 12:30 a.m. That's pretty convenient when it comes to seeing something that no human has seen in recorded history.
"Share this with your children and grandchildren. No one alive today will ever see this again.
"When Mars comes to within 34,649,589 miles and will be (next to the moon) the brightest object in the night sky, it will attain a magnitude of 22.9 and will appear 25.11 arc-seconds wide. At a modest 75 power magnification, Mars will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye."
My introduction to astronomy occurred on the roof of St. Mary's High School in Waverly when Sister Augusta set up the telescope Father Marion Casey had donated to the school. I was immediately hooked.
Later on, in class, Sister Augusta showed us a slide show of a trip to the moon with the moon becoming closer and closer with each slide as the rocket approached. That was in 1949.
Twenty years later, in 1969, it was no surprise to me when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, saying "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." We had grown up on Buck Rogers after all.
I know many astrophysicists are not religious, but nothing turns my own mind to God like a bright and starry night such as the one I saw with Jeanne one time at Big Bend National Park.
A feeling of belonging to an infinite universe was almost overwhelming when I looked up and saw what Abraham had seen in his desert sky when God told him his descendants would become as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sands on the seashore.
It's good now that astrophysicists and theologians are talking again, after their long and stubborn silence from the Galileo fiasco. What they are mostly talking about these days is the "I.D." movement, the "Intelligent Design" possibilities.
In a current book called "BY DESIGN: Science and the Search for God" by Larry Witham, there is a strong argument that what we see in the sky is not merely "in the eye of the beholder."
I know that scientists aren't falling down on their knees all over the world now, but I'm sorry if it all looks pretty obvious to me.
I think we should all get down on our knees when we look through the telescope.
What really blows me away, though, is the idea that some astrophysicists are pondering these days as they look for the beginnings and the boundaries of the universe, and that is that there are no boundaries to our Universe and that there are no beginnings, either, and there will be no endings. Huh? Yes, that's what I said. When God said "I am Who am" to Moses, God was saying there was no past or present or future. God is. "God is" now in a sense we never thought of before so that not only did God not have a beginning, middle nor end but neither, maybe, does the universe.
What, then, of Creation? If it's the case, that the Universe is both infinite and eternal, then I believe we have to take a new look at Creation. Maybe Creation has happened, is happening and will happen over and over. I am no physicist and I am no theologian, but I think I can believe not only that God is, in an eternal now, but so is the Universe in an eternal now, God's Universe as it so happens. And ours as well.
"Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
"Where can I go then from your Spirit?
"Where can I flee from your presence?
"If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
"Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast." (Psalm 139)
My mind is too small for all this. Let me just enjoy the stars, quit worrying about the Universe, and let God take care of it.
That seemed to have been the attitude of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who pondered the night skies of Ireland. A little-known fact about Ireland is that Ireland is the best place on planet earth to look at the stars.
It is partly because of its longitude, partly because of the clear skies in the winter, and partly because of rural Ireland's lack of light pollution and air pollution. Hopkins wrote:
"Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies.
"O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
"The bright boroughs, the circle-citadel there." (Gerard Manley Hopkins "The Starry Night.")
I have a good friend who believes in astrology despite the scoffing of his theological and scientific friends, myself included.
Some day in the future, though, given the rapid advance of our knowledge of the Universe now going on, our scientists and theologians may look back at us and shake their heads in pity, the way I do now at my astrologer friend.
I know I won't be around for it any more than I will be around for the next visit from Mars 60,000 years from now but I think it's going to happen.
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