01.06.2010

Beyond Galileo and Sister Moon

Both Galileo and St Francis of Assisi bring us closer to understanding the Sun and Moon
One cold November night in 1609, Galileo pointed his newly made perspicillum - what we now call a telescope - to the disc of the moon. Through magnifying lenses, he saw our moon much closer than anyone had hitherto observed. It was impossible. The view defied everything known as certain. The ancients such as Aristotle had promised the moon was a perfect sphere. But Galileo saw shadows, and what seemed to be shiny ridges, valleys and mountains. There was imperfection everywhere.

He did not jump to conclusions. Galileo merely sketched what he saw, night after night, as cold November turned to chill December, gathering the evidence of his eyes. Galileo's vision was now 30 times closer to the moon than any human observation had ever been able before, the shadows of the moon shifting across. Through this time, Galileo's heart and mind were astonished and delighted to observe what Creation had sculpted beyond our own earth. And running through him the awareness that the great Aristotle had been wrong. The ancients did not encompass all wisdom; there were new things to learn.

The evidence of Galileo's eyes was challenged from the pulpit. Priests who did not want to view for themselves grasped easily there was a choice between experiential Science, and the dogma of the Church. Knowledge could not, must not, be individually obtained. It was a question of authority. People needed to be told what to think, for their own safety, the safety of their soul, for the sacred order established below, as well as above.

But Galileo did not stop at the moon. He pointed his spyglass at Jupiter, and found four orbiting moons! He pointed the telescope at Saturn, and what he saw caught his breath. He saw that Venus had phases, and came to the incredible conclusion: Copernicus was right. The Earth revolved around the Sun. We stand on our planet, one among many. We are not the centre of our solar system.

The Inquisition ordered him to Rome. Galileo was charged with heresy, cleared but told for his own protection he must not state publicly the Earth circled the Sun. Galileo could not help himself. A passion for truth, for what his heart knew from what his eyes saw, led him to publish a work confirming Copernicus was correct. We do not stand at the centre of the solar system. This time Galileo was found "vehemently suspect of heresy" and placed under house arrest. Legend has it, after being forced to recant and return to the notion that Earth was at the centre of all things, Galileo whispered, "And yet it moves."

Galileo's admiration for the imperfection of Sun and Moon had a spiritual parallel, as the Inquisition well understood. Neat and bound belief systems that make theological abstract models are no match for the rugged give and take and spiritual strangeness of the real world. Many modern Galileos today do not like to call themselves religious, but they are quite comfortable to see themselves as spiritual - seekers and pilgrims on a journey finding out for themselves on an individuated journey. Galileo's telescope, and his courage to face a discoverable world, paved the way.

Some 400 years before Galileo, a Francis of Assisi, went further than the astronomer by daring to bring the Moon and Sun closer. Francis did not care so much about how the Sun and Moon moved around the sky; he just knew that Brother Sun and Sister Moon were to be praised and sung as if they were real beings with whom he could be in real relationship. It's an extraordinary thought: to imagine that the inanimate objects we commonly see in the sky might be something we have a felt relationship with, and a familial one at that.

The scientific dogmatists can refuse Saint Francis' romantic notions of a personal relationship with the forces of nature. We can think that the Earth stops at the outer layer of the atmosphere, and a heavenly body has no sway, but we know we would be wrong, at least in several ways. The sun and the moon affect the tides on earth. Intertidal life interacts with the wider ecology. Perhaps the waters in our body have king and neap tides in sympathy!

But there are other wonders: photons from the sun reach our atmosphere and then something blue happens, our sky. Or those photons travel further, to droplets, to become rainbows. Or the solar wind, the stream of atoms from the sun, otherwise deflected by the Earth's magnetic field, manages to find a way into our near-world, at the poles, colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms to give us the extraordinary Aurora, green and red curtains of light. And we have the seasons marked out in the temperate zones, by the passage of the Earth around the sun. By creating day, and in its absence beneath the horizon, by also framing night, the sun has shown its profound effect on life on earth, and our planetary ecology. Brother Sun is the giver of life.

It also has a major role to play at a number of wavelengths. Sunspots vary, but there is an irregular 11 year cycle that impacts not only on radio communications, but cosmic rays have been identified as involved in triggering lightning, and even regularly causing "soft errors" in computers. Sunspots, first noticed by Galileo, may also impact on our climate and weather in complex ways.

Whatever impact the longer solar cycles have on us, we celebrate the return of Brother Sun to the same place it was when we were born, and call it our birthday. It is a day like no other.

Meanwhile, Sister Moon speaks to us. A cycle of the moon defined the month; the change of the moon's phases mark out the feminine cycle. When the full moon rises, freely walk out into the bush, and see it alive with animals and birds. Moonlight is a nighttime concert of its own.

So Saint Francis may not have been only romantic, but pragmatic as well: Sister Moon and Brother Sun may have always been in relationship with us - it is just we tend not to notice this as much as a saint would.

In ancient times, the Sun and Moon were given archetypes, the names of gods and goddesses. In the last millennia, we have two new ecological pictures, two different invitations to life. Be like Galileo: spend a month scientifically observing the Moon as it rises and sets over your life. And be like Francis: playfully appreciate the Sun as if it were worthy of a Canticle. For the dance of science and song, of spirit and faith, is a lifetime study, of cool observation, and warm delight.

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