Strolling with man’s best friend


By Tom Burns - Stargazing



My watch blinks 5:30 a.m., and I begin to walk my dog, Mocha.

The hours spent in front of a computer screen have left me stooped with a nagging pain that creeps from joint to joint like a thief of courage and determination.

I become intensely aware of phenomena around me and within me as I immerse myself in the mechanics of motion. Muscles flex. Bones slip against cartilage. Through my feet, I feel every imperfection — every crack and crevasse — in the sidewalk below.

I listen to the world awaken. At first, I hear only my feet hitting the ground and the quiet footpads of my dog as she trots beside me.

The predawn morning is so quiet that the occasional chirping of a bird startles rather than delights. Was that rustling a skunk slipping into the bushes? Was that faint grunt a deer? I can almost hear the worms tunneling up to the grassy surface.

And then, as if on cue, bright Jupiter rises above the trees in front of me. The planet’s brightness beckons me forward into the darkness. The dim glow of deep morning twilight invites me to begin a new day.

I think about distance and its effect on our perception of events. What I see is not Jupiter itself but its simulacrum, an image of Jupiter created by photons of light as they bounce off Jupiter’s cloud tops. Because the light from Jupiter spreads out as it travels, we receive only a fraction of its reflective power. I see not Jupiter but its distant ghost.

As the moments pass, I think about the way time is effected by cosmic laws.

We move through space and time, but it is never quite the same space nor is it the same time.

The sound of my dog’s feet reaches my ears in the tiniest fraction of a second. Thus, that sound reflects an event in the immediate past. The birdsong takes a tiny bit longer to reach me, so I experience its song a bit farther in its past. If I hear them “at the same time,” I am experiencing events that really happened at different times.

The deeper we go into space, the farther into the past we see. Even though light zips along at 186, 282 miles per second, Jupiter is 450 million of those miles away. Even at the greatest velocity that nature can muster, the photons my eyes collect from Jupiter record an event that happened 40 minutes ago.

Over to the left, I see the setting star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. At 216 trillion miles away, I am seeing it the way it was 36.7 or so years ago. My “now” consists of two experiences separated in time by half a human lifetime.

The implication is clear enough but startling nonetheless. As far as our experience of the world is concerned, there is no now. All experiences are like memory. We see only fading photons delivered from afar. We drift through layers of time the way older folks like me drift through the disconnected memories of our lives.

I think about the space between Jupiter and me. Except for a layer of atmosphere as thin as an onion skin around an onion, the 450-million-mile distance is mostly “empty” space, in other words, nothing at all.

We imagine that space, which astronomers call spacetime, as an unchanging, empty void. But that is hardly the case. The space between Jupiter and me constantly expands at a rate my senses cannot experience. New subatomic particles erupt and die from spacetime in a weird, undetectable frenzy. Other particles like photons and mysterious neutrinos erupt from the sun and pass through that space. I experience those photons as the slowly appearing dawn.

I think about the sun’s neutrinos. Massive numbers of neutrinos are created in the sun’s thermonuclear center. They pass unimpeded at the speed of light through the sun and through space and through planet Earth. Trillions of them pass through my body every instant with no effect on me whatsoever.

I think about gravity as my feet rise and fall from the ground. The enormous gravitational force under my feet bends space, and I feel that effect as the gravity that pulls me ever toward my planet.

I think about our atmosphere. Around me is Earth’s mostly invisible blanket of air. I see its presence from the rising mist of fog that blurs the view of Jupiter. I feel its presence as the gentle wind that caresses my face.

Suspended in that atmosphere, infused in the ground beneath my feet, and ever-present within me is a seething invisible world of microorganisms, most of which are benign. However, as recent events suggest, some of them might use my body as a host to replicate themselves. I am their temporary home before they use me up and move on to new hosts and new homes.

Even without the presence of the coronavirus, my body is a miniature world teeming with life. If microorganisms could think, would they imagine us as gods immanent and transcendent around and above them?

Some of us reject our government-imposed isolation as a violation of our freedom to act, and I am sympathetic to those attitudes. Rent must be paid. Families must be fed.

How lucky I am to be free of the need to work and support my family. How fortunate I am to revel in this period of enforced solitude.

The growing morning twilight reminds me that I am free to be grateful for another day of life. I will use that day and the days to come to reflect on the preciousness of life and the difficult decisions, wise or unwise, of the politicians who will in the coming months inescapably alter my life’s course.

I will reflect on the scientists and health care workers who work frantically and at risk of their own lives to help my life to continue.

I also know that even if I were imprisoned in the smallest cell, I would fix my attention on its small, barred window. And I would calculate when I could see Jupiter or Venus rising through that cell window, and it would be enough.

And even if I were imprisoned in the darkest, windowless dungeon, I could still close my eyes and remember past risings and settings. I have seen the stars spread like diamond dust against the uncorrupted blackness of the night, and it is more than enough.

Even locked up in that dark dungeon, I am free.

And then a sudden realization washes over me like the light from the rising sun. I experience it not just in my head but also in my heart, where it counts.

Life is short. Time passes more quickly with each inexorably advancing day. I could slacken my running pace but I do not. A true appreciation of life’s value comes only when we face challenges. The life-giving atmosphere is all around me, but I never feel it unless strong winds buffet my exposed face. Or if I run.

And so I erupt into a run, and Mocha runs joyously beside me.

The world is silent around me save for the sound of my feet against the ground. But it grows even more silent as I go faster still — at the speed of sound, at the speed of light, at the speed of imagination.

My feet seem to lift from the ground, and I am flying upward toward the planets, upward toward the disappearing stars, upward into the cosmos, upward and away from the microscopic threat that haunts our lives.

For a moment at least, I do not fear my impending demise. In the end, we all must go the way of oblivion. My time will come sooner from COVID-19 or later from something else when my body finally betrays my spirit.

For now, I run. I feel the sting of the cold atmosphere against my face. I feel the gentle photons of the sunrise gently touching my skin. I feel the sun’s invisible neutrinos course unaltered through me, but I am forever altered.

I am awash in the invisible world teeming around me. I am awash in the splendor of the rising sun, rising Jupiter, all things that rise. I am awash in revelation.

I run toward bright Jupiter at the speed my body will allow, and Jupiter rushes at the speed of life toward me.

Get up at around 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 12, and you will see a fine close conjunction of two bright planets and the waning gibbous moon.

First, look low in the southeast for the 70-percent-illuminated moon. Above the moon is bright Jupiter. Off to the left of Jupiter is dimmer Saturn.

Use binoculars to see craters on the moon and some of Jupiter’s brighter moons huddled close to the planet. You’ll require at least a small telescope to see Saturn’s famous rings.

The trio should be visible after 4:30 a.m. for about an hour or so before predawn twilight spoils the view.

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By Tom Burns

Stargazing

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.