From Searching for the Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman
“It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sounds I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off the running lights, and it got even darker, Then I turned off my engine. I law down in the boat and looked up.
A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity.
A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before. . . . I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and them into the far distant future long after I will die – seemed compressed to a dot.
I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something for larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity. . . . After a time I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been looking up.
Summers are made for star-gazing expeditions like the one that Alan Lightman takes us on. Funny, isn’t it? It seems to take trips away from home – to the sea shore or camping in the mountains – to lure us outside to look up at the skies. Soft, sultry nights tug at us, and we wander outside and turn our eyes skyward.
Apparently, this is a thing these days, a practice some call “skying”: peering at the night sky with no particular end in mind, just receiving, taking it all in. And there is so much to take in.
It doesn’t take long looking over the spray of stars that greets us on a clear summer night for the oceanic feeling that Lightman describes to come over us. It is like opening a window on the universe, as if for the first time we really take in everything around us.
Before long, though, we start noticing patterns and someone will start calling out constellations. “There’s the big dipper. Find the side opposite the handle, follow it up. and, yep, there’s Polaris, the north star,” the point around which the whole sky seems to revolve. This goes on for a while and a few knowledgeable ones will start naming other stars. There’s Vega, one of our nearest neighbors, and Deneb. And so on. Before long, though, the talking stops, and we are left with the immensity before us.
Years ago when I was working in newspapers I was given the opportunity to cover science. I came to this assignment not as an expert but as an amateur, in the literal sense, one who was endlessly fascinated with science, who loved delving into almost every dimension of it.
Astronomy, though, was one field that was fairly new to me. As it happened, the institution that was the source of most of my reporting, the University of Wisconsin, was a leader in the field. So, I needed to orient myself quickly.
I quickly learned that the primary focus of astronomers’ work these days are phenomena we star-gazers cannot see: stars or galaxies too distant to be see with the naked eye or in wavelengths – infrared, radio waves, x-rays, gamma rays – that are invisible to us.
And what a chaotic, tumultuous universe they reveal! Stars exploding or spinning at inconceivable speeds, galaxies crashing into each other with ravenous black holes at their centers.
Serendipitously my time in science writing coincided with the heyday of the Hubble Space telescope. Also, lucky for me, the government was anxious to publicize the telescope’s findings. And so periodically I would receive fat packets of prints and slides of the Hubble’s latest discoveries.
The images were breath-taking: lacy nebulae – remainders of exploded stars – in stunning colors, swirling galaxies, clouds of bright gas that were stellar nurseries, and perhaps most astonishing of all, the image dubbed the Hubble Deep Field. We have a large reproduction of this image in this building in the light well just behind Sandburg Hall. It was created by focusing the Hubble camera for 10 days on a tiny spot of the night sky right near the Big Dipper that appeared to be totally empty of stars. How tiny a spot? Essentially, the size of a tennis ball seen at 100 meters.
In that apparently starless speck of sky, the Hubble captured an image of around 3,000 galaxies, equivalent to the number stars we see on a clear night. They have since repeated the exercise, just in case there was something extraordinary about that spot. But there wasn’t. They found essentially the same thing.
Imagine that! In every speck of dark sky between the stars that we see we could expect to find around 3,000 galaxies, another night sky full of nothing but galaxies, each of them home to hundreds of billions of stars. To this, add the fact that the light captured in that image had been traveling millions, perhaps billions of years before it entered Hubble’s lens.
So, the Hubble Telescope gives us a feeling for not just the astonishing plenitude of the universe – there is so much! – but also a greater feeling for time. In that image we are looking back to a moment some three-quarters of the way back to the Big Bang. Indeed, even in the visible night sky the stars that seem to twinkle and glow for us, represent ancient history.
The light we see is hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of years old. And so it’s likely that some stars we see today winked out of existence thousands, or even millions of years ago, but it will not be us, but our descendants who discover this.
The more we learn about the stars, I can’t help but wonder if the image that best communicates the truth about the night sky might be not a static picture of the night sky but one of the last paintings that Vincent Van Gogh completed just before he ended his life. He called it “The Starry Night.” Do you remember it? Amid shimmering centers of light the sky is swirling with color, giving us an image of a universe that is not static and distant but dynamic, active and in tumult.
Van Gogh, who rejected organized religion, once wrote to his brother, Theo, that nonetheless he had a need for religion. So, he said, “I go outside at night to paint the stars.”
For us, too, the stars stir thoughts that turn us to religion. In the presence of such impossible vastness, what meaning can we find for our lives, our brief three score and 10?
The biologist Ursula Goodenough wrote of going on a camping trip in college shortly after sitting through a physics class. In the class she learned many of the details of our Solar System: the sun forming 4.5 billion years ago out on one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, the Milky Way, while a disc of rocks, water and dust spinning around it collected into planets, including ours, the Earth.
Then, how the Earth itself evolved wit life emerging and covering the planet And how the Earth will continue spinning and evolving until in about 5 billion years the Sun will expand and turn the Earth into a cinder.
“I found myself a sleeping bag looking up at the sky,” she said. “Before I could look around for Orion or the Big Dipper, I was overwhelmed with terror. The panic became so acute that I had to roll over and bury my face in my pillow.” The starkness of the picture was too much and created for her a kind of “Is that all there is?” moment. Maybe you’ve had one of those, too.
After all, we remember that all those constellations we have fun searching out we’re grounded in stories, stories that oriented people to a narrative of how the universe came to be and our place in it. And those stories were good at reassuring us that, as daunting as the world, the universe may appear there were forces greater than us seeing to things, forces that could somehow be appealed to and persuaded to work in our interest.
If that isn’t so, if we’re on our own down here, then where does that leave us?
Goodenough said she spent many years simply avoiding the subject, finding it too depressing to think about. In time, though, she came to the conclusion that she was satisfied simply to regard the world, in her words, as “a strange but wondrous given,” something that she was satisfied to accept and regard as “a locus of mystery.”
Alan Lightman said he finds it a comfort wandering about the small island of Maine where he kept his cottage reflecting that, as he put it, “the material of the doomed stars and my doomed body are actually the same material. Literally the same atoms.”
The universe, after all, began in a sea of hydrogen and helium, clumps of which later collapsed into stars. It was in those stars that those early gases were fused Into all the larger atoms that make up the universe. And as those early stars exploded and spewed those elements all throughout the universe they later coalesced Into planets, then organisms, then us.
“It is astonishing but true,” he said, “that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find that these atoms originated In particular stars in the sky. These very atoms.”
So then, the words of Robert Terry Weston’s meditation are literally true: “Out of the stars in their flight, Out of the dust of eternity, here have we come.” We are not adrift in a cold meaningless world: we are home in the place of our origin, connected via the atoms in our very bones to all things.
Once we get done imagining ourselves as somehow special, creatures given a unique destiny from some supernatural hand, we can tune into a truth that is far more profound: that we are a manifestation of an amazingly creative, endlessly evolving universe, creatures of inherent worth whose being, whose destiny is tied up with that of all things.
And so, looking out on the night sky we get a ring-side seat on all of this, knowing that the fires we see burning in distant stars are of a kind with the fires driving the cellular machinery of our bodies. And that’s not all. The fires that drive us impel us to survive, and not just survive but to continue beyond our three score and ten, not us as individuals, but us as carriers of life, creating and nurturing future generations.
For, we see that along with all the gases and such of the Big Bang there was born a tendency toward connectedness. It didn’t have to be there but somehow it emerged, and having emerged it made possible the universe we know. Quarks combined into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules of increasing complexity into life, life in its latest manifestation into humans.
And humans – we curious, fragile, inventive creatures – turn out to possess one trait that offers us hope for the future, a trait the embodies once again that tendency toward for connectedness that was born with the Big Bang – the capacity to love. “This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the Earth; life upon Earth rose to love.”
And so, I do not despair on looking at the night sky. True, it is astonishing in its vastness and complexity. Like Ursula Goodenough I do not seek to take it all in or understand it fully. In its whys and wherefores it is a mystery. And still, it fills me with awe, with gratitude and joy. To be alive, to simply be is a grace. What a wonder that out of all that is, this being that is me emerged and is present now to be part of the stream of life, capable of building on the human heritage of love.
I do not begrudge that in time my life will end – though I do hope that that time is a ways in the future. Instead, I am content to know that, as the poet David Ignatow wrote,
“I am of the family of the universe,” and so “in no way shall death part us.” For me, there is peace in that understanding.
“This is the marvel of life,” Robert T. Weston declares, “rising to see and to know; Out of your heart, cry wonder: Sing that we live.”