This week, I’m continuing a discussion of my peak experiences during my lifelong obsession with stargazing. Last week, I discussed my experiences of objects that are part of our solar system. This week, we’ll move farther outward into the cosmos.
As I intimated last week, my experience of the suburban sky was limited by the glow of nearby city streetlights. Increasingly, they cast their ugly yellow-orange stain across the sky and shield us from its beauty.
I had to go to the College of Wooster to experience the mind-altering splendor of the real sky. COW, as its denizens ironically call it, is placed in “Ohio’s foremost agricultural district,” or so the signs at the border said. I shamefully admit that at first I mocked such rural pride. But COW offered me the best financial support, so off I went to COW.
I remember the first-year orientation week as one of the best times of my life. Partly, I reveled in the freedom of being away from my parents for the first time. Partly, I embraced the opportunity to meet people from all over the country and experience their sometimes strange but always eye-opening lifestyles and attitudes.
And then there was the nighttime sky.
A few days into orientation, a companion and I walked out to some private, gated land near the college. We ignored the “No Trespassing” signs, found a break in the fence, and settled down on a slight hill.
I must confess that I had other matters on my mind as she and I settled down on our backs in the damp grass to “do a little stargazing.” But I was soon distracted from my original intentions.
As twilight gloom settled into utter darkness, I saw the Milky Way, an undulant stream of unresolved stars, emerge. I saw for the first time the Great Rift in the constellation Cygnus. There, a dark streak of dust and gas splits the Milky Way in half along part of its length.
Oddly, my first thoughts were of the rural residents of the county. “How lucky they are to live here,” I thought. “How lucky I am that fate brought me to this place to share what they have seen.”
Since that moment, I have sought out dark skies the way that King Arthur and his minions sought the Holy Grail.
And so it was that a few years later, as I looked up at the sky from Anderson Mesa in Arizona, I saw the Milky Way stretched across the sky like the backbone of God. I was looking at our neighborhood, our galaxy, 300 billion stars so far away that they looked like a silvery band cascading across the night. At that moment I knew, quite startlingly at three in the morning, the complexity of the universe we live in.
The next night, I was startled back to our local reality when a small herd of cattle wandered through our campsite in the wee hours of the morning.
Now, my quest was to search out other galaxies beyond our Milky-Way neighborhood.
Soon after I arrived at Wooster, I made a visit to the college golf course. There, I saw the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest galaxy to the Milky Way, for the first time with just the binoculars I was born with, my own two eyes.
I had seen it previously many times in my father’s $3 opera glasses. When I saw it “naked eye,” I realized with a sudden burst of emotion that the light I was seeing took over two million years to get from that distant place down to my eyeballs.
After I went to graduate school at Ohio State, I longed for a telescope of my own, but the cost was prohibitive to a poor graduate student. As a result, I built a series of larger and larger telescopes and used the proceeds from selling one telescope to build the next one.
With its 17.5-inch-diameter mirror, my biggest telescope was finally big enough to venture farther into the universe. I named it Prometheus after the Titan who stole fire from the sky to give to humanity.
I have written previously of my trip down to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters camp to see the Coma-Virgo Cluster of galaxies with Prometheus. Yes, even galaxies tend to clump together into clusters. The Coma-Virgo cluster is among the closest one to our Local Group cluster, which includes the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy.
Thus, even the Andromeda Galaxy is still in our cosmic backyard. At about 60 million light-years distant, the thousands of galaxies of Coma-Virgo are 25 times more distant than the Andromeda Galaxy. As their light began its long journey to my telescope, dinosaurs were disappearing from the Earth.
As I worked my way through the scores of galaxies in the Coma-Virgo cluster, I felt like a kid venturing out of his own backyard for the first time.
After I had begun to work at Perkins a few years later, I stood alone at the eyepiece of the Schottland telescope at Perkins Observatory. In the field of the eyepiece was the Hercules Cluster of galaxies, each one a tiny smudge. I vaguely discerned one galaxy, five, and then a dozen, each one a Milky Way, each one a galaxy of billions of stars.
The Hercules Cluster is one billion light-years away. (One light-year equals about six trillion miles.) That distance is incomprehensible, but it amounts to only 1/12 of the distance to the edge of the visible universe.
I felt small, but I felt powerful. I was in that glorious moment the tiny part of the universe that had come to know its vastness. I had become, however briefly, the mind of the cosmos.
And just a few years back in the Shawnee State Forest, I hiked in darkness to a field cleared by a recent forest fire. I had passed on the way to my eventual campsite, and the crystal clear sky impelled me to return in darkness. I was near the point in Ohio where I was farthest from human habitation and its attendant nighttime lighting.
All I had with me was a small set of binoculars, but I used them to resolve the Milky Way into uncountable stars as I traced our galaxy’s complex path across the sky. After a hard climb uphill back to my campsite and a few hours of sleep, I awoke the next morning and saw the “leaves of grass,” as Walt Whitman put it, waving proudly in a gentle summer breeze.
And I felt that the earth below me was alive and that the azure-blue sky above me was alive. I realized at that moment the oneness, the aliveness, of all things. I realized that I was part of that grand, living unity.
To the more practically minded among you, let me say frankly, I realize all of this sounds a bit fuzzyheaded and mystical.
More than a few of you will consider this emotional outburst silly and embarrassing, and I fully understand why. You are, most of you, caught up in the daily grind of surviving in this crazy, mixed-up world. During a pandemic, even a simple trip to the grocery store requires careful planning. I myself am now caught up in that grind, and I experience these moments only in memory.
For us older folks, the chance to experience or re-experience such moments may be lost forever.
But let’s all hope and act in such ways that things will eventually return to normal. In that way, your children may someday have such experiences and know these things not just in their heads but also in their hearts, where it counts the most.
In that regard, I have saved for next week an experience that was the most life-changing of all — my first observing session with the members of the Columbus Astronomical Society. That glorious night led me to a lifetime of public work showing y’all the majesty of the universe you live in and are a part of.
For almost half a century, I have worked in my own inadequate way to shed a spark of my love of the sky to you and your children. The pandemic has made such public “star parties” impossible, and they may remain so for a long while.
But nothing precludes you from looking up at the universe on your own. When you can, if you can, take your children out to those special places. I don’t mean those RV-invested places. I mean those empty, neglected places in the middle of nowhere.
I mean some fine night when a sliver-crescent moon is setting behind the trees. I mean those places where the stars still shine like diamond dust against the uncorrupted blackness of the night. I mean the places where the lawns are not manicured and the leaves of grass still wave untouched, unshorn, bravely in the wind.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.