No one knows how many stars there are in the entire universe; it is a very big place. The ‘observable universe,’ whose radius is anywhere between 13.7 and 48 billion light-years, contains more than 100 billion galaxies, of which just one of these, the Milky Way, includes about 300 billion stars.
Of course, one does not see any stars when one lives in a big city. It isn’t just that we lead busy lives and the buildings are too tall. We are surrounded by so much artificial light that even if we did find the time and a patch of clear sky, we would probably only see a few timid dots scattered in a large black canvas. In the home where I grew up, long before I decided to try my hand at being an adult, I used to climb out the window from my brothers’ bedroom onto the building’s red tiled roof. I would lie down on my back and the sky would be absolutely packed with little lights. The universe and the stars in it seemed limitless. So did all the things I believed I could do.
The boundless universe theory was developed by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who incidentally was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s death. It seems appropriate that a man who would dedicate his life to the study of stars and the universe would thus associate himself with the father of modern astronomy. But these two men share more than an anniversary and an obsession with stars:
In 1610, Galileo came into conflict with the Catholic Church over his support of Copernican astronomy. The discoveries he made, proving that the earth and planets revolved around the sun, were declared heretical, and he was imprisoned until his death in 1642. Hawking was not imprisoned by humans, but by his own body: he was diagnosed at age twenty-one with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease that attacks the motor neurons. ALS eventually leads to Locked-In Syndrome, ‘a condition in which the patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes.’
It is strange, almost intentionally cruel, that these two men were both denied the one thing they devoted their lives to: staring at the stars.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the sentence: ‘All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ But freedom is an elusive term, and there are as many forms of captivity as there are people: the prisoners, the incarcerated, the hostages, the oppressed, the censored, the scared, the paralyzed, the handicapped, the locked-in, the neglected.
It is only when you cannot see the stars that you miss them. Only when your freedom is taken away from you that you realize you cannot survive without it.
Much research has been conducted on the survival strategies of individuals who endured kidnap, concentration camps, or solitary confinement. Two parallel patterns emerge: the physical battle for survival, and the more important inner battle of the mind: Guerilla leader Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo spent twenty-two years in solitary confinement in Cuba playing chess in his head. French-Columbian politician Ingrid Betancourt relied on spiritual discipline and faith when she was held captive for six years by the FARC. 'The only thing I could control was my state of mind,’ says Alan Johnston, a BBC journalist who was kidnapped in Gaza in 2007.
Imagination is the ability to conceive what is not there. To defy physical captivity and the limits of one’s own body by escaping into the boundless worlds of the mind.
[Freedom of imagination] means the freedom to see the world feelingly, to conceive as far as one is able how the world might be, or might have been, or could never be. It means the freedom to explore the entire universe of feeling-mediated-by-ideas, […] any thought, any image, any emotion, any melody, as far as the imagining mind may take it.
Jean-Dominique Bauby was a famous French journalist and writer who suffered a massive stroke that severed his brain stem and left him ‘locked-in’ a completely paralyzed body. He could only move his left eyelid, but with that he dictated his memoir: ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.’ The book received international acclaim and inspired a movie, but more importantly, it kept him alive:
"My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly."
It was while he was imprisoned that Galileo wrote ‘Two New Sciences,’ one of the greatest works of his lifetime. And Hawking, who turned seventy-two this year to the bafflement of the medical community, has made groundbreaking discoveries in physics and cosmology, such as the development of a mathematical proof for black holes. Sometimes it takes captivity for the mind to realize how limitless it really is.
Imagination is the only freedom that persists when all others have been taken away. ‘What a person can imagine, he may imagine.’ And as Richard Lovelace once wrote from prison:
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.