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A closer look at the stars

The more we learn about the universe, the more the mystery deepens

By David Wilson

If it’s summertime and the night is warm and clear, there’s a good chance you’ll find me lying flat on a dock, staring up at the great beyond. Checking out the stars is a nightly ritual at the family cottage, along with cutthroat Scrabble and mosquito swatting.

Most nights, the dog is my only companion as I make my way down the path that winds toward the waterfront. With a sigh, she flops down beside me on the dock as I stretch out along its weathered planking. Sometimes she rests her chin on my arm. Other times she just stares out into the dark void, lost in dog thoughts.

On the clearest nights — those in late August when there is a whisper of autumn in the air — the sky is heavy with bright trembling stars, and the Milky Way draws a smudge that seems to stretch from one side of eternity to the other.

I take in as much as I can, but it is bigger than my capacity to comprehend it. So I focus on one place, usually a piece of sky directly above the small island in front of our place. It’s like looking at the universe through a porthole. Stars that weren’t visible at first glance seem to materialize out of nowhere. Meteorites — fleeting glimpses of worlds beyond our own — streak in and out of view, and satellites flung into space from our own planet silently go about the tedious business of orbiting.

Stargazing on the dock, with water lapping gently on the rocks and bullfrogs croaking in the distance, is sacred time for me. I feel connected to the infinite wonder of creation and a kinship with the past and the future — people marvelled at this same sky long before I came along, and they’ll continue to marvel at it long after I’m gone. I am also humbled by my insignificance in the grand scheme of things and by the limitations of my imagination.

I have been fascinated by efforts to understand the cosmos ever since the night in 1962 when a friend and I stood on the sidewalk with our dads and watched Canada’s first Alouette satellite pass overhead. Staff writer Kevin Spurgaitis had a pretty easy time selling me his idea for a story about recent advances in cosmology and what it all means for people of faith. As Kevin discovered, scientists are unlocking extraordinary new secrets of the universe almost weekly. Yet it seems the more we learn, the more the mystery deepens. The future may find science and religion on closer speaking terms than ever.

They already coexist happily on our dock. I am thrilled that new discoveries will help to explain more and more of what I see when I look up into the night sky. But I am also convinced that we can never know everything about our universe. There will always be a time and a place for contemplating the infinite and surrendering oneself to wonder.

• We are unveiling a new department this month (print edition only). Spirit Story will feature different writers describing spiritual experiences that inform and deepen their faith, but which take place outside the traditional bounds of church — in the garden, for example, or the woodworking shop or the kitchen. Hans Tammemagi of Pender Island, B.C., kicks things off with a story about how a golf holiday became a time of spiritual renewal when he accepted an invitation to share a sweat lodge with total strangers.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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