Monday, February 20, 2012

We'll Meet Again In The Milky Way


I had not spent all my life in the big city, where only the moon, a couple planets, and the brightest stars can be seen regularly. I had enjoyed a fair amount of time camping in the Mojave Desert, where the Milky Way stretches across the night sky, but I was not prepared for this. The number of stars I could see was two orders of magnitude higher than what I had ever seen in the desert. The Milky Way, instead of being a wash of white, was composed of many individual points of different colors. Clusters of stars took on a fractal quality with clusters embedded within clusters within clusters. I was awestruck. So many stars! How many had planetary systems? Which ones no longer existed? How insignificant was I in the grand scheme of things? It was profoundly humbling and simultaneously liberating. As awesome as the snorkeling on Maui was, that night of staring at the sky is likely one of the experiences that I will take to the grave.

...Friendship, love, betrayal, death, infidelity, gossip, etc. This stuff does matter and we share stories for a reason. There we were, together under the stars, swapping stories and reflecting on their meaning, a pastime that connected us to all the generations that have proceeded us in an unbroken chain going back to the origin of our species.

Stargazing is one of those activities that seems to evoke contemplation and humility. I wonder what we will lose as our population becomes increasingly urbanized around the globe and the lights and pollution of megacities make access to the heavens less likely and limit our vision to just our own reflected light.

I have yet to experience the view of the night sky from a remote location like that. But I have enjoyed that feeling of humble contemplation while looking through my mom's telescope (which I really haven't done often enough, come to think of it). I remember the first time I looked at Saturn one autumn night -- even though it resembled a slightly fuzzy, misshapen grain of yellow rice, the knowledge that I was really looking directly at the planet itself, surrounded by the void, was a tremendously powerful feeling that no amount of exquisite photography had prepared me for.

1 comment:

noel said...

A scientist I was reading (Sagen? Asimov?) said that the first time he saw the night sky in the desert, with the star field and darkness going down to the horizon, was the first time he realized that we are in space - the earth is in space.