This post is not informational so much as it is a personal reflection on what astronomy has meant in my life. Our regularly scheduled programming will resume in the next post.
One of my very earliest memories comes from shortly after my fourth birthday, when my great-grandmother let me stay up late to watch a summer meteor shower. I have vivid images in my head of flaming boulders tumbling through the sky. Of course real meteor showers look nothing like that; my memories were surely shaped by what I was told about what I was seeing. Most people of my age who were interested in space point to the launch of Sputnik as the spark that lit that fire. But I was telling people I wanted to go to the moon two years before Sputnik, and I have always thought it was that night in August watching streaks of fire cross the sky that inspired me.
For many years I was an armchair astronomer, someone who only reads about it, who could tell you the names of the then-known planetary moons (so few compared to now!), could describe interplanetary transfer orbits, and could drone on about galactic classification. Somewhere along the way I let the magic of that August night, of what the wonder of that natural phenomenon felt like—somewhere that got lost. I think that sort of appreciation requires a patience that is not typical of young people in a hurry. At least it was not a prominent feature of my youthful make-up.
But one night in my back yard with a new telescope, I encountered the mystery and the awe, the numinous experience of seeing light that had traveled for 25,000 years just to be focused into my eye. The combination of light pollution, my initial lack of dark adaptation, and the relatively small size of my instrument meant that all I could see at first was a tight ball of stars. Gradually, more and more stars began to appear, as the shape and stellar distribution of M13, the Great Hercules Globular Cluster revealed itself.
Suddenly—and this is a trick of vision and of the mind—it was as though someone had flipped a switch, and the view became three-dimensional. It was as though I was falling head-first into a field of stars. I actually gasped and stepped away from the eyepiece.
I was hooked.
Why stand under a dark night sky, and why look through a telescope of any size, when spectacular images of every sort of astronomical wonder are only a few mouse clicks away? Here is my answer, several of them actually. First, it teaches us that appearances can be deceiving. It’s really not at all obvious that the stars are more than a few miles over our heads. And these points of light that are extinguished by the daytime sun? In reality they are vast nuclear furnaces dimmed only by equally vast distances. Second, it teaches us humility. It is difficult to maintain arrogance in the face of stretches of empty space where the earth is a dust mote, and where objects that are just middle-aged are hundreds of millions of times older than an elderly human. Lastly, it teaches us to truly see instead of just looking. A quick glance at a galaxy will surely show something. But the sweep of spiral arms, the subtle patterns of dust lanes in those arms, the clustering stars in the central hub, the companion galaxy, the streamer of stars bridging the two, the subtle shape distortion caused by their interaction—all these require the patience of the person who sees and does not just look.
Humility in the face of the time and distance scales of the universe is certainly appropriate. It need not, however, lead to despair. In all this emptiness, there is an uncharacteristically rich collection of matter in one little corner of the universe, where matter is sufficiently organized to contemplate questions of origin and place. We have discovered other places where that may be possible, but that is all we can say with any certainty. So far as we know, there may be no other such place than our Earth.
We are small and we have but a few short years in all this vastness. But perhaps we are not so insignificant after all.