Gospel & Universe

If Only 1: Bruno & Yeats

This page focuses on shifting beliefs following Hubble's discovery of other galaxies in the 1920s. It also touches on the high price Giordano Bruno paid in 1600 for challenging the Church's views on astronomy. 

Hubble & Yeats - Giordano Bruno   

Hubble & Yeats

The moon was once a friendly thing, full of mystery and seduction. The Chinese poet Li Bai hoped that one day he would meet it, deep in the Milky Way.

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And the sun was once a god.

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Then the fine glass of Venice made its way into the telescope of Galileo. While some ignored it back then, today we still feel it: the ground moved. The sun god became a statue. Andromeda became NGC 224.

563px-Frederic,_Lord_Leighton_-_Perseus_and_Andromeda_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Perseus and Andromeda , by Frederic, Lord Leighton (in the Walker Art Gallery, from Google Art Project); The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation Andromeda. By Adam Evens. Both images from Wikimedia Commons.

Perseus and Andromeda, by Frederic, Lord Leighton (in the Walker Art Gallery, from Google Art Project); The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation Andromeda. By Adam Evens. Both images from Wikimedia Commons.

The Son of God became a tale. Or did he?

The official story was that sometime around the turn of the Century, the widening gyre of our knowledge got dangerously wide, and the blood-dimmed tide was loosed upon the world:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919)

The crazy countryside up near Yeats’ Sligo sprouted leprechauns the size of planets, and in the giant whirling of this startling après-guerre — the crazy 1920s, when so many new horizons swam into our ken — unexpectedly, the old Infinity reappeared. Or did it?

The far-off circling worlds were lost at the end of Galileo’s telescope, when Hubble looked upward in 1922 to the uncharted skies. The scientist lost his grip just when he was sure about Darwin and Modernism. Spinning, the dervish saw the atoms spin. The falconer couldn’t see the falcon, lost in a purple sky deep as galaxy UGC 12158

“An HST image of galaxy UGC 12158, which is thought to resemble the Milky Way in appearance” (cropped and coloured by RYC), from ESA/Hubble & NASA, http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1035a/ (Wikimedia Commons)

“An HST image of galaxy UGC 12158, which is thought to resemble the Milky Way in appearance” (cropped and coloured by RYC), from ESA/Hubble & NASA, http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1035a/ (Wikimedia Commons)

 With spectrographic eyes and red-shift ears science scanned poetry, and with heels brighter than Mercury when he circles closest to the sun, poetry leapt into science.

Like Keats’ Cortes in a distant land, what we once couldn't see now swam into our ken:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes
    He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.  

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The Location of Earth, by  Andrew Z. Colvin , Wikimedia Commons.

The Location of Earth, by Andrew Z. Colvin, Wikimedia Commons.

The scientist was astounded, agog to see the contours of this galaxy and the next

to see God wheeling infinity from quadrant to quadrant


The astronomer just sat there with his friend, the physicist

mouth open

ready to believe now in anything

even that within the clouds of knowing were winds unknown

and that winds unknown were blown by currents unseen;

that unknown poles were turning our galaxy

and that deep within substructures of matter were spirits circling

and dancing like the atoms of Eliot and Rumi

defying astronomers like Al-Biruni

who worked so hard to separate the ancient fantasies of astrology

from the mathematics of astronomy;

all that fine distinction was now in peril

now that atoms danced an unpredictable dance

out of this world and into the next

now that God reasserted Himself in gamma rays and ways we’d never seen

and ways that physicists could see were totally unpredictable

like Heisenberg on steroids

the mystic atoms ran into the void and back again

while further afield each star was an electron unknown

each galaxy a nimble thread

in a tapestry as tall as the Empire State Building

and seventy billion times as wide

 

All woven by what?

 

What natural laws could now be passed?

What instincts obeyed

but those that made a deeper sense

beyond the logic that could no longer be followed to predictable ends

now that we could no longer call back the falcon

or call the mystic’s logic illogical

logic itself having slipped the noose like Yeats’ desert birds?

 

The deepest truth could now be anything

even the very thing we need

even the faintest glimmer of soul

would be better than Sartre's nothing

would be as likely as that nothing

that stumbling dance of chaos

that godless Fall

into broken dreams 

and the emptiness of it all

 

Better spinning worlds unseen and Sufi atoms

than grounded dreams

 

Better light and serial questions leading only to Mystery

than this blood-dimmed tide

this grim darkness of eternal night

 

 

Giordano Bruno

 

So, sometime in the 1920s the old dream factories opened their doors again

and the Church was quick to advertise a miraculous giravolta

reversing the damage done by condemning Copernicus and Galileo

and by disparaging the infinite worlds of Giordano Bruno

last seen in 1600 in the Field of the Flowers

hanging upside down and naked and burning at the stake

for daring to dream of worlds beyond the Vatican’s setting sun

As his flesh burnt, did Bruno see the pole star to his wandering bark?*

Was he pulled upward by some unseen structure as of yet undreamed

by mystic physicists in a bubble, beyond Hubble's bubble dream?


Was his spirit lifted upward, away from the flames that tore muscle from bone

toward some home amid the stars that shone in the night ten billion years before

someone in an old book wrote "Let there be Light"?

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——————

* wandering bark - in “Sonnet 116,” Shakespeare sees Love as a fixed star (like Polaris, the pole-star) that leads the sailor in a storm back to safety. Love is “the ever-fixéd mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken. / It is the star to every wandering bark / Whose worth’s unknown although his [its] height be taken.”

——-

Next: If Only 2: San Francesco d'Assisi 

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