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Dark Forces

06 December 2013

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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 week).

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 work.

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 classic?

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