I love looking at the stars, like the LED Christmas lights pinned to a blanket stretched like a child’s bedroom tent above my head. They all seem to be the same distance from where I’m lying, just out of reach of my fingers, though in my mind I know the distances between me and them vary.
Low in the western sky, for example, a red star we call Betelgeuse holds command, its fiery glow dimmed by the years and millions of miles it has traveled to my eyes.
Scientists say Betelgeuse is expanding. It’s already huge. If a celestial Indiana Jones grabbed our sun with one hand and slid Betelgeuse into its place with the other, the new sun would fill the space between our sun and past Jupiter, devouring the first five planets of our solar system.
The good news for planets on its burning path is that Betelgeuse is approaching its expiration date. Soon. Maybe in 100,000 years. Certainly within the next million years or so.
Unless, of course, the apex star Betelgeuse has already burst, like a balloon stretched beyond its capacity. Each time this happens, the fireball explodes into a super nova and, briefly, becomes the brightest object in the sky. It is so far away that light from this immense event would not reach Earth for more than 700 years.
As I sit in the dark on a summer night, I ponder the possibility of someone, possibly several, watching the light bouncing off my planet. I wonder what name they give to what I call Earth.
Talk about “something bigger than me”. I stare at an array of sparkling party candles that are reflected in stars so distant that some of them haven’t existed for millions, even billions of years.
I don’t remember what it felt like to be ejected from the blind world of Mother’s liquid-filled womb. I was present, of course, like all of us, respectively, but we are good at forgetting. I’ve heard that when a child starts talking in whole sentences, he forgets that he was never able to communicate like this.
I think that’s how it is for a baby who hasn’t discovered the difference in distance between colored shapes that he can’t quite reach near his head and similar colored shapes across the room. Both are simply out of reach. Then one day he finds out what we’ve always known – we can reach them; we just haven’t figured out how yet.
So I’m sitting in the dark of the Earthly night, gazing up at the “sky” and seeing stars, all about the same distance out of reach of my grip. To my eyes, Mars and Alpha Centauri — the closest star system to mine — are about the same distance from where I’m sitting, 155 million and 26 trillion miles respectively.
In one of his songs, “Aurora Borealis,” country music star CW McCall talked about a camping partner who looked up and commented, “Smog, get out here in the sticks.”
“Hi Joe. It’s not smog; it’s the Milky Way,” he was told.
Which is not milk at all, but the reflections of millions of rocks within the boundless confines of our celestial neighborhood, each running its own path through what defines the universe. The question is: why aren’t there more.
It is difficult for us mere mortals to conceive of a space without limits. Since the beginning of human time, we have expanded our definition of “the Universe”. Every time we think we are about to touch the hem of Heaven, we discover that we still have a long way to go.
John Messeder is an award-winning environmental columnist and social anthropologist and lives in Gettysburg. He can be contacted at [email protected]