James A. Michener was a very popular author who wrote massive historical fiction books. Several of these were turned into successful movies including “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and “Hawaii”. Others were made into TV miniseries like “Centennial.” His stories were the basis for the classic musical “South Pacific.” Obviously, Michener had a talent for reaching the popular culture in his day.
A very good author of fiction can highlight human emotions and motivations in ways that strict historians cannot. Really good fiction can help us understand the truths that underlie human life and its interactions. Michener was always interested in what makes people tick.
For the last week, a short section of his novel “Space” has been on my mind. This part of the written work didn’t make the Hollywood film version; a pity that it didn’t.
I’ve been wrestling on how to interpret this snippet in a blog; so far I have imagined at least 5 different ways to apply it as analogy to America’s space program in these days. These applications are good for various positions in the current debate on space. Picking one would probably give too much aid and comfort to one group and arouse the ire of the others. So I won’t give you my interpretation. I’ll offer the section for your consideration and wait for your comments to see how you think it applies today.
Near the end of the book, one of the fictional characters recounts an actual historical event as part of a planetarium show.
“When the lights go down we shall see the heavens as they are outside this planetarium. Now, I’m going to turn the sky-clock back 922 years. It is again June 22 in A.D. 1054. The sky look almost the same as it does tonight, a few planets in different positions, but that’s about all.
‘I’m going to speed through eighteen days, and here we have the heavens as they appeared at sunset on the night of 10 July 1054. Let’s go to midnight in Baghdad, where Arabic astronomers are looking at the sky, as they always did. Nothing unusual. Now its 11 July 1054, toward three in the morning. Still nothing exceptional. But look! There in the constellation Taurus!”
In the silence of the planetarium the audience watched in awe as an extremely brilliant light began to emerge from the far tip of the Bull’s horn. It exceeded anything else in the heavens, infinitely brighter even than Venus, and increasing in brilliance each moment.
‘It was a supernova, in the constellation Taurus, and we know the exact date because Arabic astronomers in many countries saw it and made notes which confirmed the sightings in China. Indians in Arizona saw it and marveled. In the South Pacific, natives marked the miracle. And watch as the daylight comes in 1054! The new star is so bright it can be seen even against the rays of the Sun, which was not far off in Cancer.
‘For twenty-three days, the astronomers of Cathay and Araby tell us, this supernova dominated the sky, almost as bright as the sun, the most incandescent event in recorded history. No other nova ever came close to this one. . . . .
‘This great star, which must have been the most extraordinary sight in the history of the heavens during mankind’s observation, was noted in China, in Arabia, in Alaska, in Arizona, and in the South Pacific, for we have their records to prove it. But in Europe nobody saw it. From Italy to Moscow, from the Urals to Ireland, nobody saw it. At least, they made no mention of it. they lived through one of the Earth’s most magnificent spectacles and nobody bothered even to note the fact in any parchment, or speculate upon it in any manuscript.
‘We know the event took place, for with a telescope tonight we can see the remnants of the supernova hiding in Taurus, but we have searched every library in the western world without finding a single shred of evidence that the learned people of Europe even bothered to notice what was happening about them.
‘An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.'”
Godspeed Endeavour and your crew.