Space may produce new worlds; whereof so rife,
There went a fame in Heaven that he ere long,
Intended to create, and therein plant,
A generation, whom his choice regard,
Should favor equal to the sons of Heaven:
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I suppose, after talking about Earth and earth yesterday, there’s a certain logic to today having a look at the word space. Like earth, it’s got two very different levels of meaning, which are still quite similar.
You’ve got the simple, everyday synonym for room. There’s some space at the back, I think we can fit. And of course there’s space: the final frontier. The cold infinite void in which this little planet hangs. When you think about it, the vast cosmos and the space in your car’s boot share the same basic concept: a lack of solid substance getting in the way. Only, outer space is much bigger (very useful to be able to use outer to distinguish the two meanings).
Like earth, space began within its more mundane meaning, and only began to be used to refer to the great emptiness in the cosmos in the early 18th century. Though, looking at the quotation I began with, it’s possible that John Milton had this sense of space in mind when he was writing Paradise Lost (yes it’s a poem, but it’s an epic poem, so it gets to be italicised), which was published in 1667. Like using Earth as the name of our planet, I can understand why it took some time to catch on. At first, we couldn’t really have known just how vast the space beyond us was, or even if there was space out there at all. One of the oldest words to refer to the sky, firmament, could also be used to refer to a solid structure. We had various different beliefs about the sky: it was a flat surface not far from us on which the stars were hung, it was a dome surrounding us, or it was the home of the gods, from where they meddled in our earthly affairs. It took a lot of time and scientific research for us to realise that we’re a tiny speck in a practically empty, infinite void. And I sometimes still find it hard to get my head round that.
I’ve always been intrigued by space. I think what most fascinated me was the sense of possibility, that there could be literally anything out there. Science fiction helped me to imagine how thrilling it might be to encounter the unknown. And it still does. Though sometimes, when I cast my mind away from the page or screen, I get a little melancholy. Because I know that I’ll probably never make it out there among the stars. Sure, I can comfort myself with the thought that future generations might get to enjoy interstellar travel, but the selfish part of me wants it for myself. I know though that I won’t get to explore strange new worlds, and seek out new lifeforms and new civilizations. At least though, I can stay here and look up, at light that’s millions of years old, that might have been shed on planets whose inhabitants have long since come and gone again. That’s good enough.