As old age creeps up on me, I can’t help but think about what led me here to a laptop computer as I write about my lifelong obsession with space.
“Space” is an odd way to refer to the universe and all its parts, but that’s the way I thought about it when I was 10 years old or so. I suspect every newbie thinks about the cosmos in that way. Astronauts travel into space. Space is the “final frontier,” as the old “Star Trek” series had it.
My introduction to space was in one of those Little Golden Books about the solar system. I was soon outside with my old man’s set of three-buck, plastic opera glasses seeing the moons of Jupiter.
My parents bought me one of those junky, department-store telescopes. One bit of knowledge I gleaned from its use was that someday I wanted a real telescope. The cursed thing was so wobbly that the slightest breeze spun it away from whatever I was trying to observe.
I pointed the telescope at a star. The image was blurry and indistinct, but the star looked only like a star. How could that be? The stars were so huge.
And then came my greatest 10-year-old revelation. The stars must be really, really far away if my telescope showed them only as points of light.
The telescope ended up in our basement mausoleum of dead toys and life’s detritus, but I continued to read about astronomy. I learned that our sun was a star, only one of billions (a really big number I did not even begin to grasp) in a galaxy called the Milky Way.
I learned that our home galaxy was but one of many.
I learned that the cosmos is composed of hundreds of billions of galaxies at the largest scale we know of. Those “island universes” are shaped like eggs in some cases and like flat, spiral pinwheels in others.
They often contain not billions but hundreds of billions of stars. From the standpoint of Earth and its puny inhabitants, any single galaxy, even our own Milky Way, is vast beyond comprehension.
From the standpoint of the whole universe, they are tiny islands of stars lost in an unconquerable ocean of space and time. A single telescope field can show scores of very distant galaxies, each one a tiny fuzzy patch.
We live in one of them, of course. The Milky Way is all around us, both as the stars we see with our unaided eyes and the milky stream of light that stretches from horizon to horizon on a cool September night.
I longed for that cool September night. However, despite all my efforts, the Milky Way eluded me. Little did I know that the lights from nearby Youngstown, Ohio, lit up the night and blocked my view of all but the brightest stars in the Milky Way.
And so I waited until I could leave that light-polluted place and travel to the darker, rural sky of a little town called Wooster and its small, liberal-arts college.
Thus it was that on a starry, moonless night on a lonely knoll in Wooster, Ohio, my life was changed forever.
It was the third or fourth night of orientation week in early September. I had met a nerdishly awkward, 18-year-old woman who was, quite frankly, much like myself.
That night, we sneaked away to a nearby gated community. “Private Property,” the sign said. “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” We trespassed anyway.
In the midst of all the ritzy houses stood a grassy mound mostly surrounded by trees. I must confess that astronomy was not the only thing on my mind, but our professed purpose was to do a little stargazing.
We ascended the mound, sat down on the wet grass, and began to kiss.
Time passed. Darkness fell. Above our heads, the sky began to fill with stars, so many stars!
Making out would have to wait for another night and another time. We lay on our backs and watched the stars appear out of the growing darkness.
Dimly, a faint streak of light began to form above our heads. The streak became an undulant complexity of bright and dark patches so stunningly beautiful that the breath escaped from my lungs, and a tear or two trickled down my face.
“Look,” I managed to choke out. “Look. The Milky Way.”
But, of course, she was already looking. In fact, she knew far more about it than I did. She showed me the “Great Rift,” the dark streak of dust and gas that cuts the Milky Way in half in the constellation Cygnus.
She showed me the bulge of light in the constellation Sagittarius, just visible above the trees. I later learned that we were looking toward the center of our galaxy into its bright central bulge.
I produced from my pocket my old man’s opera glasses. And the bright patches of the Milky Way’s glow exploded into uncountable stars.
Perhaps it was the warmth of my companion lying close to me on that cool September night. Perhaps it was the simple thrill of being in a place where we were not supposed to be. Or perhaps it was the thrill of seeing our true human neighborhood arcing across the sky like the backbone of God. But at that moment, I knew that I would be a stargazer until the last breath flew from my body.
In the decades after my first Milky-Way liaison, I have built many telescopes and gained access to even larger ones. I have trained my heart and eyes on the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest large galaxy to our Milky Way. I have known the pleasure of observing the light from that galaxy and knowing that it is 2.5 million years distant.
The light we see took over two million years to get from the galaxy to our eyeballs. We see it not as it is but as it was 2.5 million years ago. We do not experience the galaxy. We experience its ghost, its dim specter.
The true glory of that spinning pinwheel of hundreds of billions of stars is forever beyond our ken. Its reality is separated from us by an unconquerable expanse of space and time.
And I have experienced the lumpiness of the universe. The distribution of galaxies in the cosmos is not uniform. Galaxies typically are grouped into herds of hundreds or even thousands.
Loose bonds of gravitation tie them together. They travel together like celestial pilgrims.
One night in the Hocking Hills, I saw 150 of the thousands of galaxies bound together in the Coma-Virgo Cluster, 60 million light-years away.
And I have seen far. On another night at the Warren Rupp observatory, my observing partner and I observed the faint glow of dozens of galaxies in the Hercules Cluster. At half a billion light-years away, we saw the galactic cluster the way it looked when tiny ocean creatures like trilobites ruled Earth’s oceans. We saw it as it was when Earth’s landmasses were barren save for ancient species of lichens and fungi.
Much has changed in the astronomical world since then, but my vague feeling of astronomical ignorance has remained.
The number of galaxies — billions back then — has morphed into trillions, six trillion at last count. I am as ignorant about trillions as I was about billions when I was a kid.
The age of the universe now stands at 13.8 billion of our Earth years.
No amount of direct experience, no matter how pleasant or profound, produces a sense of understanding of numbers so large and time scales so vast.
These days, my mind frequently turns back to that little hillock outside of Wooster. Gazing at the Milky Way for the first time was probably reason enough to remember the event with fondness.
However, the experience meant far more than that. For the first time, I felt that I was a part, albeit a tiny one, of the Milky Way.
As stated that way, the proposition is commonplace — one of the clichés of astronomical writing.
But in this case, an astronomical commonplace turned into an almost mystical realization. Every star, seen or unseen, every planet that orbited a star, every shooting star that occasionally graced the night, every rock and every tree, every drop of water, every human, dead or alive, every atom that vibrated within me was — and is — part of the Milky Way. And the Milky Way is, in turn, a tiny splinter of the universe that was so gloriously laid out for me that night.
The pandemic has produced in us feelings of loneliness and isolation, and I am no exception. But when that bitter sense of “otherness” seeps into my heart, I think about that moment so long ago when she and I lay upon that little knoll, when I felt so deeply connected to the universe and all its parts.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.