I saw a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Coma Berenices, an unremarkable part of the sky that had been named after a pharaoh’s wife by the Greek astronomer Conon of Samos in the third century BCE. Berenice had sworn to sacrifice her shimmering golden hair if her husband came back unscathed from his war against the Assyrians. The pharaoh returned triumphant, and Berenice laid her severed skeins of hair at the feet of a statue of the goddess of love. When her offering disappeared overnight, the Greek court astronomer showed the furious pharaoh, who believed the hair had been stolen, three stars in the following night’s sky and said that the goddess Aphrodite had turned his queen’s offering of golden hair into those stars.
The weak glow of the spiral galaxy in Coma Berenices consists of the light of many billions of suns and, according to the latest, still controversial astronomical measurements, took 44 million years to travel from outer space to the glass of my telescope. Through the eyepiece, its ellipses resembled a radiant eye covered with a dark lid either just opening or closing. This eyelid alone, a sickle-shaped band of dark matter, gaseous nebula and stardust, was said to measure over 5,000 light years. But that measurement too was disputed. I swore. On this summer solstice night, I sat at my telescopes in a large clearing, surrounded by tall trees on the edge of the Hell Mountains in Upper Austria, beneath a moonless, star-studded sky, and swore so loudly that the curses echoed back off a wall of black mountain spruce. The cows lying chewing the cud or sleeping like black islands on the barely lighter expanses of the alpine meadows let out only the occasional, deep sigh in the silence of the night.
Due to atmospheric turbulence and the failure of a navigation system in my astronomical equipment, it had taken me a while to glide my finderscope from one guiding star to the next, and align the lenses and mirrors of my two telescopes with the coordinates of this distant galaxy which various star catalogues listed under such vivid names as Black Eye Galaxy, Evil Eye Galaxy and Sleeping Beauty.
Three late-eighteenth-century astronomers — the Englishman Edward Pigott, the German Johann Elert Bode and the Frenchman Charles Messier — had observed this beauty in the depths of virtually empty space independently and within a year of one another, but only Messier had baptized it with the first letter of his surname and a consecutive number from the long series of heavenly nebulae and galaxies he had discovered — M64.
At the beginning of astronomical twilight on the shortest night of the year, I had set up my telescopes — a weighty Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescope and a barely lighter apochromatic refractor — on a vibration-free, masonry platform beside an Alpine hut, and protected it from the cattle’s curiosity with a wire fence. I wanted to survey the summer solstice sky until the moon rose, before visiting the Sea of Cold in its far north and the Atlas and Hercules craters on its eastern shore.
On this mild summer’s night, I had already headed for the areas of the sky containing Scorpio and Ophiuchus and, within them, binary stars, globular clusters and planetary nebulae, and gradually become enraged, again, that a cable-car station on a mountain ridge opposite was lit up by the blinding glare from a row of floodlights. The stray light from these floodlights caused dim celestial objects and giant suns hundreds of millions of light years away, which would otherwise glitter like brilliants in the velvet blackness of space, to look blunted and faded.
When I decided to leave the light-polluted areas behind and divert my gaze to regions of stars high to the southwest, I realized that there too M64, one of the 12 brightest galaxies in the firmament, lost most — indeed virtually all — its lustre in the stray light of the summit station. On an impeccably black night, using one of the highest-powered astronomical telescopes, one might spy in the Berenices one of the most incredible conglomerations of stellar systems in the visible universe — over a thousand galaxies up to 450 million light years away — but the floodlights of a single deserted cable car terminus could overpower it. I swore in the hope that a landslide, a rockfall or the impact of a comet might extinguish it.
But I almost jumped when all at once the source of light did indeed go out. Nobody really wants his imprecations and curses to be immediately fulfilled. Some nights, after power cuts and lightning strikes, the sudden darkness was an unexpected gift. Yet there was not a breath of wind that mild and starlit night — and it was now flawlessly dark.
Although my eyes only slowly became accustomed to the changed light conditions, the number of stars clearly grew in the first few minutes after the light pollution ended. And as I adapted to the improved conditions by switching from the reflecting telescope to the apochromatic lens telescope, I was presented with a dramatically altered picture in the Berenices area.
Galaxy M64’s eyelid seemed to have opened, ist core now no longer shining but ablaze. Having measured the redshift in this light’s spectrum, astronomers had debated whether Sleeping Beauty might not have been created by a cosmic collision of at least two galaxies, since its inner and outer reaches were rotating at high speed in different directions. It was said that hundreds of thousands of new superhot suns could develop at the point where the two opposing rotations came into contact with each other in a swirling chaos, and with them — as the cosmic debris of the birth of such stars — swarms of asteroids, planetary systems and cooler places liable to kindle fantasies about life in outer space.
But almost as soon as it had opened, the eye disappeared again. I saw the Black Eye Galaxy, which had only just revealed itself in its full splendour, go out in my eyepiece. The whole galaxy vanished in an abrupt surge of darkness. Only on the margins of my vision was there still the odd dimly blinking spark, creating the impression that this blackness — a fluttering, all-consuming night — was racing towards me. However, when I loosened my gaze from the eyepiece and looked up at the sky, Virgo, Bo.tes, Leo and Canes Venatici — constellations close to Coma Berenices — stood calmly in a peaceful sky; there was no wind whatsoever in the spruces, and the sleeping cows were no longer sighing.
The cosmic catastrophe was raging only in my refractor’s eyepiece, gobbling up light year after light year of star-filled space … And all of a sudden I heard what Armageddon sounded like. It was the scream of a bird. A brown owl. It had been stalking or following its prey on the wing exactly in line with my telescope whose lenses had transformed it into a fuzzy, star-eating monster, as indiscernible to the naked eye as a distant galaxy.
Was it relief I felt? I was cold. The moon began to rise over the south-eastern ridges of the Hell Mountains — the good moon, the greatest star-eater of all which was to put an end to my intergalactic foray. After a swift ascent, its crescent hung over the mountain crests like the bedside lamp of a child who has had a bad dream — a familiar nightlight, in whose calming, consoling glow all the terrors and all the ghosts, but also all the beauties of the dark, faded away.
Seagull Books, 2016, The Beauty of Darkness, originally published as Christoph Ransmayr, Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes, S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2012
English translation: Simon Pare, 2015