IT WAS witty of the BBC to prepare us for Advent by screening
Professor Jim Al-Khalili's two-part documentary Light and
Dark (BBC4, Monday of last week).
The first programme was the more accessible - light is, after
all, pretty basic stuff, and the story is familiar: Euclid proved
that light travels in straight lines; Galileo showed how lenses can
make these lines converge and diverge; Newton demonstrated that all
the colours of the rainbow make up white light; in 1672 it was
proved that light is not an instantaneous phenomenon, but takes
time to travel through space (which means that, in all observation
of distant objects, we are seeing them as they were then, not as
they are now).
But the second half was far more challenging, particularly
because its information is so counter-intuitive. What are we to
make of a cosmos where, just because we cannot see anything, it
does not mean that there is nothing there? Surely darkness ought to
mean that a location is empty; but it seems that more than 99 per
cent of the universe is hidden to us. There are billions of black
holes, from which no light can escape.
Dark Matter is fundamentally unseeable, and yet is probably the
reason why the visible universe exists. But even more important is
Dark Energy: 73 per cent of the stuff that makes up our universe,
and the force that is causing its expansion not to slow down, but
to speed up.
The galaxies are now known to be rushing away faster and faster
from each other, thereby becoming, over time, invisible to us,
their light extinguished as "universal darkness covers all"
(Alexander Pope). This programme was pregnant with theological
implications: God seems to have created a cosmos that, the more we
understand it, the more we realise that it is becoming increasingly
unknowable. It is going to take more than the Advent wreath to
overcome that particular darkness with light.
In the perspective of such immensities, fraught with moral
significance (although exactly what moral significance I have not
yet worked out), turning to works of fiction seems like an
indulgence for which our extinguishing universe can ill afford the
time. Still, there was much to enjoy in Narnia's Lost Poet: The
secret lives and loves of C. S. Lewis (BBC4, Wednesday of last
A. N. Wilson presented a stylish and stylised account that
accorded crucial significance to the successive loss of the three
women central to Lewis's life: his mother, who died of cancer when
he was nine; Jane Moore, with whom, despite their great disparity
of age, he set up home for decades; and Joy Davidman, the divorcee
from the United States whose death inspired his most profound
Wilson seemed to me fair about the quality of Lewis's Christian
apologetic, but focused on the individual, with inadequate
theological framework. Despite Lewis's Oxbridge-centred academic
stature, Wilson considers that he was essentially emotional rather
than intellectual in his approach; while he longed to be a poet, it
is his prose that compels.
Surely Narnia, for all its generous imagination, is too
consciously allegorical to be considered a first-rate children's