In Dante’s time, astronomy was one of the seven liberal arts – with grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, and music – required of every student who aspired to a university degree. Of all the secular sciences, astronomy was deemed most likely to lead one to the contemplation of things divine. Yesterday’s Hubble pic made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, which is about as close to the divine as I ever get. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is based on the medieval astronomical conception of the world – a system of concentric spheres centered on the Earth and bounded just up there by the Empyrean.
In the Hubble photograph of colliding galaxies we see something akin to Dante’s paradisal vision, but it is not a cosmos centered on the Earth. Here are other Suns and other Earths being born, in prodigious numbers, massive stars destined to die soon as supernovas, and other less massive stars that will live long lives, perhaps evolving life or consciousness on their planets. We see in the Hubble photograph a universe of a fullness and dimension that makes Dante’s human-centered cosmos of concentric spheres seem like a dust mote in an immense cathedral.
Astronomy is no longer a required course of study in our universities, and it’s something of a shame. Who can look at the photograph of colliding galaxies and not be moved to rapture? An understanding of the size, age, and prodigality of the universe should be part of every liberal arts graduate’s intellectual furniture.”