March 25th, 2017

'We are all the stuff of the stars'

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream," Vincent van Gogh said.

Stars don’t make me dream as much as they remind me how amazing the universe is. Take starlight, for instance.

Looking at starlight is like traveling back in time because, depending on a star’s distance from Earth, its light can take as little as four years to get here, or as many as 7,000.

Think about it the next time you’re looking at the Big Dipper. Light from its closest star takes 79 years to reach Earth. For the farthest, it’s 123 years. When I’m stargazing, I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that I’m looking at slices of history.

Still, we can make some sense of the night sky. Constellations help us see stars as groups rather than as scattered points of light.

Last summer, I spent more time stargazing than I ever have, and I began trying to learn constellations I didn’t already know. Many people can recognize at least a couple. The Big Dipper is probably best known. This time of year, easy-to-spot Orion (the Hunter) dominates the south sky.

I learn constellations by starting with ones I know and then trying to learn their neighbors. If a constellation has a bright star or distinct shape, it’s usually easy to figure out.

Once you can pick out the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, for example, it’s easy to find Draco (the Dragon) snaking between them. Once you know Orion, it’s easy to spot Canis Major (the Great Dog) scampering at Orion’s heel.

And after you use the brightest stars in Orion and Canis Major as guides to find the relatively obscure Canis Minor, you’ll be hooked. It’s a great way to relax.

You may be content with lying back on a blanket or folding lounge, looking at the constellations and planets, and watching for satellites and shooting stars. Or maybe you’ll want to look for more: nebulas, star clusters and galaxies other than our Milky Way. To see them, though, you need a telescope.

The most common advice for newbies is to buy a good beginner’s telescope instead of paying hundreds of dollars more for a better one, because it may turn out you won’t use it as much as you expect.

With warmer spring weather coming—and, I hope, clearer skies—I just ordered a small telescope. It cost less than $140, including shipping.

As I use it, I’ll be reminded of just how small our place in the universe is. But despite the smallness, we are still part of it.

Owsley Stanley, a key figure in the West Coast countercultural movement in the 1960s, said, "We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars."

Perhaps that’s why we look up at night—to be reassured that eventually, we’ll return to where we started and shine again.