Astronomers travel to the high plateau of the Atacama Desert in Chile to get above the moisture, air-borne particulates, and ambient light that distort the night sky at lower and more populated altitudes. Many of us need to get above pollution and distortion today, and I’m not talking about the environment. In a political climate gone chaotic, ordinary experience can be awash in fear, anger, disorientation, and a pervasive sense of helplessness before forces beyond control or reason. The world can seem lost to white noise and alternative facts, lurid emotions and garish displays of moral ugliness, miasmas of insinuation and threat that make even the brightest lights glow hazy in the gassy, swampy air.
Which may be why I find these images from the Observatory in Chile to be so comforting.
The Milky Way arcs across the sky above four of the telescopes at the Cero Paranal observatory. (Yes, those large buildings are telescopes, which have come a long way from what used to be seen in hobby shops.) Or we could say that the high-tech structures on the ground appear as stations on the way to a cosmic plateau, as if for pilgrims or astronauts ready to journey to the heavens. Or perhaps that one type of intelligence is arrayed for contact with another, far larger and largely unknown, of which it is but a small part.
Or perhaps something else. As Kaja Silverman has suggested, the genius of photography is that it schools us in learning through analogies: to see not what is but how each is like something else. The photograph above is not showing us how our galaxy actually looks in some objective sense, or marking the proportions between that reality and our own, or doing much of anything except giving us a beautiful image: an image that prompts us to marvel, to wonder, to imagine something far grander and more ordered than the mess we make of our own world.
One of those analogies is between the beauty of the photograph and the beauty of the natural world. Another is between science and beauty. What might have seemed strange in the official dispensation in the mid-twentieth century now is becoming evident and ever more important. When chaos has been unleashed by those who fully intend to benefit from its destructiveness, perhaps a commitment to the good life for all can draw strength from the idea that reason, beauty, and careful attention to natural order can be life-sustaining.
These photos and the telescopes they show are the work of the European Southern Observatory. That’s right: European, but in Chile. Obviously, someone forgot to build a wall. The ESO is a consortium of fifteen nations, and it is a fitting example of what international cooperation can do. The investments are huge, and for what? It may be a job creator, but that’s not the point. The advancement of knowledge, and with that of civilization, will come not from a reactionary nationalism, but from working together across borders.
If the result is a wormhole to another universe, that may be a good thing, but I don’t need to see it. The better lesson is to take our cue from the streak of white light on the left, cutting across the grain. Like an Afghan carpet that has been given a flaw to avoid vanity before God, the image can remind us that even our best efforts at order and understanding can lead to disaster. The universe exceeds our images and our imaginations. Where we want to see symmetry, there will be imbalance; where we want to see determinism, there will be contingency.
And yet we can see, and imagine, that our habitat glows with reflected light, and that we can live together in harmony.
Photographs by Miguel Claro/ESO and G. Lambert/ ESO. Additional photographs can be seen at the slide show at The Atlantic’s In Focus website.