Tripped up by the light fantastic

Yesterday I went to Mars. I stood on the surface and gazed at the dusty red ground, illuminated as far as the pink horizon by sunlight weakened from a journey that is a 100 million kilometres longer than the distance to planet Earth.

Surface of Mars

The surface of Mars as seen by NASA’s Spirit rover

I didn’t really go to Mars of course but the panoramic vistas on show as part of the Visions of the Universe exhibition at London’s National Maritime Museum give a powerful sense of how it might feel to stand on the surface of the planet. The high-resolution photographs, taken variously by NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are a centre piece of the exhibition. Displayed on a projection screen that is high and wide, they give an immersive experience that cannot be reproduced in a book or on a computer monitor. You have to be there.

Nothing else in the exhibition can compare with the Martian images in terms of sheer scale but there are plenty of other riches of variety and wonder: the moon, the sun, the planets and their satellites, galaxies galore, nebulae and clusters, and star-fields without end. The presentation, mostly as high-resolution photographs with annotation kept to a well-judged minimum, is standard museum fare but the cumulative effect impresses.

Spirial Galaxy M101

It is clear that humankind’s ability to scan the heavens has made huge leaps since telescopes enabled Thomas Harriot and Galileo Galilei to sketch the moon and sunspots in the early 1600s and John Draper to take the first black-and-white photograph of the moon in the mid-nineteenth century.

The latest and most astonishing images of the solar system and deep space come from the Hubble Space Telescope. Some will be familiar — the Horse Head Nebula or the Pillars of Creation — but there is a surfeit of variety and detail on show here. After a while it is almost too much to take in. I began to feel gorged on astronomical achievement and the many splendours it has served up.

But I got over that feeling and a kind of humility settled in. However far we have advanced since those earliest sketches and photographs, and however much detail we can now see of the fibrous clouds of swirling matter spread through the universe or of the scarred and sometimes scorched surfaces of our neighbouring planets, we still have such a long way to travel. The visions on display are but a taste of what is out there.

It was good to spend time just looking. To pull out of the daily rush for a few moments and gaze beyond the normal confines of life on Earth. As I sat watching the languorous big-screen slideshow toward the end of the exhibition, soaking in the light and colour and strangeness of the universe in which we find ourselves, I felt again that vertiginous, heart-skipping shudder as my mind turned to wonder where all this stuff comes from, to ponder the frightening mystery of why there is not nothing.


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