Leading Article: A fire in the heavens, a moment of truth

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The Independent Online
Tear yourself away from the election. It's hard, we know, but go on. Just for a moment. Walk outside on one of these delightfully clear spring evenings, and look up at the sky. Maybe you have already done it: stepped into the garden, taken a midnight walk up the hill at the end of the road, and seen Hale-Bopp ride high in the heavens.

The chances are that you felt a range of emotions on witnessing that faintly eerie sight of a hugely inflated "star" apparently trailing its light across the sky. Obviously our feelings vary, from a kind of childlike amazement, to reflections on the timespan between now and the last time this phenomenon was seen (and the next time, indeed).

It is a fair guess that these sights continue to dazzle the minds even of members of the National Astronomical Society, meeting in Southampton yesterday. Somewhere inside, our response is primal. Like ancient civilisations before us, we suspect that an understanding of the movements of the heavens might lead to a better understanding of ourselves. Perhaps we might even answer all those great questions (life, the universe, and everything) that Douglas Adams concluded all come down to the figure 42.

Popular interest in and enthusiasm for astronomical revelation is booming. In Britain, a fascination with astral bodies has long been the rage, probably because our maritime demands forced us into tracking space like few other nations. More recently, our interest has been stimulated by having one of our leading mathematicians, Stephen Hawking, write a book that sat at the top of the bestseller lists for terrestrial aeons - a book that started to explain to lay people how the universe might have begun, and what time and space might really be. That, however, is by no means all. For the Hawking revival of interest in the origins of the universe could not have taken root without a general worldwide acceleration in understanding and knowledge of the remote cosmos.

Once, arguably, there was only one great question: how to understand the mind of God. Since the middle of the 19th century, the dominant role of religion has been steadily eroded, so that the old question is now framed in different ways. How did life come to be at all, and what is it for? That is the evolutionary question. Then there is the question about the human mind. Freud and his followers kicked it off, but were more wrong in detail than right: it is now clear that we have only very lightly scratched the surface of answers to the mysteries of our own brains. And then there is the question of how and why the universe exists.

The old, sad view of science used to be that it stole wonder from the world; by answering those questions, so people thought, we diminished the mysteries of the universe. But it turns out that the reverse is true. The more we learn, the greater our wonder; the greater our wonder, the greater our appetite to learn more.

Two of the biggest "events" last year were not conventional events at all. The first was the publication by Nasa of pictures from the Hubble telescope of the farthest reaches of the universe (in effect, light that left its source shortly after the "big bang"). The second was the proclamation that evidence had been found in a meteorite that rudimentary life might have existed on Mars.

Of these, the greatest revelation was the first. If there were life on Mars, it would be astonishing and marvellous. But it is also exciting because it stimulates fantasies about extraterrestrial life.

Wonder is not the same as fantasy. Wonder is best engendered by trascendent truths, not fantastical speculations. So when we see the truth of what the universe looked like 15 billion years go, we truly wonder, in the sense that we are awestruck. The feeling is closer to reverence than to fascination. Is it any surprise, in that context, that so many prominent scientists also succeed in maintaining religious faith?

Keats knew the intimate equation of truth and beauty. As a medical student, he would have been well aware that reality is far more wonderful than dreams. The enormously abstruse calculations disclosed in Southampton yesterday - calculations that enable us to begin measuring the location of dark matter - have a kind of beauty that even those without mathematical skills ought to be able to comprehend. So, too, those observations that enabled astronomers yesterday to discuss the origins of galaxies. Why?

Because they lead us to a new way of seeing the world. Put another way, they enable us to marvel.

None of this can be measured in terms of consumption: how much astronomy do we need, what should we spend on it, what is its "value". These are not entirely sensible questions (though someone, in another place and another time, is obliged to answer them). The real point is this. To the extent that our searches in the heavens are about stimulating fantasy (which is merely a way of peering into our own insecurities), then they are relatively meaningless, although entertaining. To the extent that they seek out another layer of that thing we are pleased to call truth, they will resonate deeply in all of us.

The more popular and better understood this science of astronomy becomes, the better we can feel about ourselves. For the stars are a fine place to find a proper sense of awe.