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Under a cloudless sky one night this month, I sat on my deck and tried to see how far I could see.

I saw so far that I couldn’t understand how far it was. And if you try to see as far as I did, you can. You will end up feeling the same way.

Some moonless night, drive out to a country road where the only light comes from stars. Pull over. Turn off your headlights. Wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark (this will take a few minutes) and then look to the eastern sky.

You’ll see the Great Square—four stars—in the constellation Pegasus. (If you check a star map first, it will be easy to find.) The constellation Andromeda, shaped like a long, narrow V, is attached to the square’s left corner star.

Because your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you’ll see two dim stars about halfway between the point of the V and the open end of the letter. If you look slightly away from them, you’ll see a dim, fuzzy spot of light just above them. You can’t see it if you look right at it.

That light is the Andromeda Galaxy: the most distant object we can see without binoculars or a telescope. If you’re like me and have a tough time understanding large numbers, the distance between us and the Andromeda Galaxy is so vast that it can’t be understood.

To consider the distance, we need to start not by measuring distance, but by measuring time—specifically, seconds. Let’s work from there: 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day: 86,400 seconds in a day.

Now we can take up the idea of distance. Let’s say you’re on that dark country road and you look up. If you’re like most people, the easiest constellation to spot is the Big Dipper. While you’re looking at it, consider this: starlight travels at 186,000 miles per second.

That’s as far as I can take the math without my brain seizing up. I had to use the Internet to find much of what follows.

At 186,000 miles per second for one year, starlight travels 5,878,499,810,000 miles. It’s easier to call that distance a “light year,” just like it’s easier to think of 10,000 pennies as a hundred-dollar bill.

So: You’ve spotted the Andromeda Galaxy. Just how far away is that fuzzy spot of light?

Take a breath: The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light years away.  So, to find out how many miles it is between us and our neighboring galaxy, just multiply the number of miles in a light year—5,878,499,810,000—by 2,500,000.

Math that big hurts my brain. When I look at the Andromeda Galaxy, I cop out by saying the light I’m looking at is over 2 million years old.

And now we’re back where we started: thinking about time.

What was happening on our planet 2.3 million years ago? Well, humans build like us wouldn’t come around for another 2.1 million years. As the Smithsonian Museum of National History points out: “The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.”

Here’s something else to think about: scientists say the Milky Way (our galaxy) and the Andromeda galaxy are headed for a collision.  We don’t have to worry about it, though.

It’s not going to happen for another 4 billion years.

Latest Month

March 2017

Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

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

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”


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