I came to know the gods through science.
Tell me, is that a strange thing to say?
Does it run contrary to your expectations?
Walk back with me a little ways, and I will try to explain…,
When I was a very young boy I was hungry to read and watch and learn anything science related. I don’t know exactly where it came from, this desire of mine, but it manifested early and it stuck.
Probably, it started with the dinosaurs. Isn’t every little boy drawn to the image to giant lizards smashing through the jungle? Certainly, the box-office of a certain series of movies would appear to support that idea.
So, like a lot of kids that age, I absorbed everything I could about them. I learned their various names and measurements in excruciating detail. I could tell you the most up to date theories concerning the eras in which they lived, the shape of the land and the environmental changes which directed their movements and shaped their evolution…,
Did I say “evolution”? Oh yeah, I was not very popular in Sunday School.
Big surprise there!
When I asked too many ‘disruptive’ questions, they started sending me to the church library.
“Look for your own answers,” one of my teachers told me, and that may have been the best advice I ever received in a church. And so I read their books and compared what they told me to the books I was reading at home.
It was all about the books in those days, it’s easy to forget. Internet, what’s that?!
So time passed and my interests shifted upward and outward, into the nighttime sky.
My parents had long subscribed to magazines like National Geographic and Popular Science, so I was already a ‘space enthusiast’ by the time Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired in the last months of 1980. By the end of the series I was absolutely hooked. My best friend at school called me ‘space man’ because that’s all I could talk about. I counted Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo among my heroes.
I was outside nightly, over the course of one summer, using a telescope, paper and pencil to chart the orbital positions of Jupiters moons. I wondered, at the time, if anyone else was doing that with me. I wonder if anyone has done it since?
There’s an app for that, I know, but what’s the fun in that?
Those moons, and Saturn’s rings, and the phases of the planet Venus. Those are things that we can look up there and see for ourselves. We don’t need computers or smart-phones or glossy illustrations in a book. It just takes a couple pieces of glass and a clear sky.
So at night I watched, and during the day I read.
And one of the many books I devoured in my quest for space knowledge was called the ‘National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe’. Arranged like others of its kind, the book worked its way outward from the Sun, through the nine planets and into the realm of distant stars and nebulae, providing a basic overview of each body encountered along the way.
One notable difference, however, was that the opening chapter of the book provided an extremely vague overview of some early mythologies relating to the stars and planets. Then, at the beginning of the chapter devoted to each planet, there was a small illustration of the Roman god for whom that planet was named, and a tiny blurb describing these gods.
I chewed through that book as I had all the others, memorizing all the statistics about the planets, moons, and stars presented there. But unlike the books I’d read before it, and the many that came after. I kept going back to it again and again
There was something about those little illustrations that kept pulling me back. Those stories touched something in me that lie deeper than a simple thirst for knowledge. There was a familiarity to them, and they seemed important.
In school (both Sunday School and the regular kind) I was told again and again that these gods had never existed, and that no one alive worshipped them any more, because the ‘one god’ had replaced them, and wasn’t that so much better.
But we still used the names! We called out to them in the days of the week and the months of the year. Seemingly everything spinning above our heads for a billion billion miles was named in their honor, and we told their stories again and again to explain why.
Even those who do not believe in the gods must admit, there’s a kind of immortality there.
And I’ve got to think there’s bad news there for the monotheists in the crowd. Print all the books you want, folks, the entire sky is named in honor of the gods of old. Words on a page fade over time, but those names have revolved above us for thousands of years now, and we’re still adding to the list.
Pluto, named after the Roman god of the Underworld, was discovered and named in 1930, and four of its five moons (Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx) were discovered and named in the last 10 years. Classical mythology does not just live within the antiquities collection of some museum, it lives in the night sky for everyone to see. It lives in a tiny planet that we’ve sent a multimillion dollar space probe to the outermost edges of our solar system to explore.
Brother of Jupiter and Neptune, dark Pluto is the invisible king of a frigid realm where go the dead to sleep. He is husband to Persephone, who waits out the long winter season with him, clothed in darkness, before he opens his hand, and allows her return to this world through the flowering of spring.
See now a body moving through space, one so small that scientists argue it shouldn’t be called a planet at all. It orbits at a distance of over 3 billion miles, in a realm of darkness where the the Sun is only slightly brighter than her neighboring stars. It is invisible to us without the aid of our most powerful telescopes, and in the course of its long orbit, it moves among great tumbling blocks of ice and dust – the long forgotten corpses of worlds that might have been, long ago ejected from the warmer regions of space by the gravitational force of Jupiter, and of Neptune.
It is a world insignificant to the lives of men. And yet, if the theories of many scientists are true, if the building blocks of life were delivered to our world on comets from that distant realm…, like the seeds of Persephone, the very first spring and every one thereafter, may have been born from Pluto’s hand.
This Tuesday, the New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to that far away speck of light. We will pull the veil back a little further on the mysteries of creation, as we are treated with our closest look yet at Pluto’s strange and ruddy surface.
I’ll be on the edge of my seat, waiting to see all the new images.
There was a child I remember, who wanted nothing more than to be an Astronomer when he grew up. I often feel as if I have failed that child, in many respects. But I’ve never forgotten that thirst for knowledge of faraway places. And I’ve never stopped looking for those amazing places where mythology and science converge.
They are not so rare as you might believe.