People often ask me why I love the stars so much, and I must confess the answer does not come easily. I love to show people the grandeur of the universe, as my thousands of public stargazing programs will, I hope, attest.
There is, of course, the pleasure of science. Looking at a particular astronomical object and knowing something about it deepens the experience. Also, the technical knowledge of knowing how the sky works, where to look, and when to do it makes the sky a familiar, friendly place — an enormous backyard.
As a kid, I reveled in knowing where every tree and building was in my neighborhood and where I could go to snag crawdads out of the stream or turn over a rock to discover what mysteries lay hidden underneath.
Over the decades since then, my neighborhood got bigger and bigger. Now, it encompasses the visible universe.
However, the main joy of stargazing for me has always been aesthetic. The starry sky is beautiful beyond measure if you have eyes to see and a mind bent on appreciating the splendor of the night.
No single star illustrates the simple but profound pleasure of astronomy than Sirius, the “Scorching One,” which sits directly above the southern horizon at about 11 pm right now. It is the “Star of Stars” to anyone who has stared longingly into the darkness of space.
Sirius is the brightest of the stars that illuminate the firmament of night. On an absolute scale, it is not a particularly large star, nor is it particularly brilliant in its own right. Sirius has about twice the stellar material as our sun and about 1.7 times its radius.
Some might claim it is just average as stars go. But it shines 25 times more brightly than old Sol, which sounds like a lot but compares less favorably to the far more luminous stars of nearby Orion. Sirius has the beauty of the girl next door, born in our small-town region of the Milky Way galaxy.
Despite all that, from our perspective it outshines all the others. At only 8.6 light years away, it is one of the closest stars to Earth. It gains its brilliance and its beauty not so much from size or power but proximity. We can look from a distance as close as breath and see the majesty and depth in its steady, blue-white eyes.
And in those eyes is hidden wisdom that transports the observer back to the dawn of human civilization.
The ancient Egyptians called Sirius “The Nile Star” because the Nile River flooded about the time that Sirius rose just before dawn at the end of June. With the subsequent flood came the rich Nile soil, upon which the Egyptians depended for their crops. The Nile flooding meant life to the people of Egypt, and the star heralded their good fortune.
Sirius served as a kind of rough weather forecaster for the ancients. During the coldest time of the year, it has always risen at sunset.
During the sweltering heat of late summer, Sirius rises with the sun. The ancients believed that its brilliance added to the heat of the sun, producing what we still call the “dog days” of summer. Thus, the name Sirius means the “Scorching One.”
As a result, the ancient Greeks and Romans feared the daytime rising of its parent constellation, Canis Major. It meant for them the drought and possible famine that came with the scorching heat of the late summer. As Virgil writes in the Aeneid, it was believed to be the “burning constellation” that “brings drought and diseases on sickly mortals, rises and saddens the sky with inauspicious light.”
I beg to differ. Even on the coldest and darkest of night, Sirius reminds me of the warmth of summer. I have seen many an August sunrise, and I invariably think of the rising of Sirius with it. I cannot see it because of the blinding glare of the sun, but as with the rest of the world around me at those moments, I realize that there is much we cannot see in the world around us. There is much that remains hidden unless we have the inner eye, the imaginative force, to see it.
Sirius is young as stars go. The sun has reached a respectable middle age of five billion years. Sirius has reached young adulthood after only 240 million years. Its power comes in part from its recent birth from the great clouds of hydrogen that are the great stellar nurseries. It burns with a hot blue flame because of the energy of that youth. Eventually, over billions of years, that fire will fade, but during the short time I have — we all have — remaining on the planet, Sirius will remain forever young.
Because of its southerly position in the starry vault, Sirius never climbs very high in the sky. It is visible from our latitude only in the winter. Thus, some may feel that the light from the Star of Stars is cold — a brief glimpse, a pleasant conversation before we go back inside to the concerns of hearth, home, and work.
However, hidden in that light are explosive treasures. Like all stars, the Star of Stars is a hydrogen bomb burning hot in its center at millions of degrees. We must look not just with our eyes but also with our hearts and minds to see those hidden depths.
And as the hour grows late and my rational mind recedes and my spirit soars, I find myself glad to be alive to see the beauty of the Earth below and the heavens above.
Don’t get me wrong. I love to show people the majesty and wonder of the universe. But truly, the best experience of the night comes when you are totally alone at some remote place far from humanity’s stare and the city’s glare.
You stand on some wintry hilltop, totally alone, with the bleak winter wind in your face. You turn the telescope down, put your binoculars at your feet, and stare upward at the winter Milky Way or the Scorching One, the brightest star in the heavens, shining with its cold, illumining light. And revelation comes.
I have had a few such moments, and as is my wont, I start talking. With no audience present, I address myself directly to my beloved stars. One night long ago, this is what I said to Sirius:
Why do I feel such great affection for thee, oh Star of Stars? Is it because you shine so brightly? Is it because I can stare so intimately into your soft, glorious face? Is it because in this cold, cold world of winter, you shine with the warmth of summer?
Yes, all of these things — and one more.
I have gazed into the infinity of space. I have felt the darkness of the great void that surrounds our tiny planet. I have known the fear that comes from our loneliness and isolation in a cosmos vast and empty without measure.
Against the great dark, oh Star of Stars, you shine most brightly. You bring the light. You are the light.
A long time ago, Stephen Crane must have been thinking of you when he wrote,
Should the wide world roll away
Leaving black terror
Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand
Would be to me essential
If thou and thy white arms were there
And the fall to doom a long way.
In the end, as I stare deeply into your shimmering eyes, the sorrows of the universe disappear. The world melts away.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.