Religion and Science in Nightfall

Nightfall is a complex thought provoking story where elements of science fiction, spiritual myth, mystery and fantasy are all interwoven. The story does not set up a binary between science and religion; instead tries to amalgamate scientific principles to the myths and prophecies made in the religious texts. Aton accepts the truth of the prophecy/ prediction in the Book of Revelation, and his entire mission is to find scientific explanation for the end of the world prediction. To this end he is able to offer the theory of universal gravitation and the eclipse caused by the moon, replacing the dark cave explanation in the Book of Revelation.

The eclipse however is only for half a day. Lagash would be enveloped in complete darkness only for that duration. It is somehow inconceivable for the reader how darkness for such a short period of time would make people mad enough to self-destruct the entire planet, even if one allows for the fact that darkness as a concept and as an experience is unknown to people of Lagash. Sheerin tells us that darkness even for duration of fifteen minutes as in the tunnel ride, would bring on madness due to lack of light and claustrophobia. But we also know that the people know how to light fires which can dispel darkness. Perhaps what Sheerin is referring to is the way in which the human mind works, when it has to contend with something which is inconceivable; the shock and the fear of the unknown, will rob it of all rationality and make it irrational and mad. “First the eclipse …which will start in three quarters of an hour …then universal Darkness, and maybe, these mysterious Stars — then madness, and end of the cycle.” (p.7) More than the darkness it is the Stars that the scientists fear, probably because they know what causes the darkness but have no clue about the Stars. The cultists also believe that the divine Stars will cause madness and subsequent destruction. The narrative itself does not lead us to believe one way or the other. That the world will come to an end in a huge fire is certain, but how this huge fire will happen and what causes it – divine wrath or human madness – is ambiguous. This ambiguity is further reinforced by the ending.

The ending of the narrative is inconclusive and is deliberately so; we simply do not know how events unfold once darkness takes over. The enigma regarding the cause of madness which will ultimately destroy Lagash remains unresolved. Is it the mysterious Stars or the limits of the human mind? The only conclusion that one can draw is that myths, which have survived over thousands of years, and science ,both aim towards an understanding of the universe we live in, but do it in different ways; myths are symbolic and poetic in nature whereas science deals with facts and empirical evidence. For instance, the myth describes Lagash as entering a giant cave. All of us who have at one time or another watched an eclipse would wholeheartedly agree with this description, but we also know that science explains the same thing differently. Both descriptions are valid, one poetic the other scientific.

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