Monday, July 13, 2009

The Brilliant Sky

We are simply an accident of physics with all the biochemical trimmings.” – from Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness.

Out there, stars are living and dying, entire galaxies are colliding, and somewhere planets are falling into black holes. I guess if you had a civilization on one of those planets it would be quite discouraging. There are also comets, asteroids, quasars, pulsars, and supernovae. Indeed, the universe is as chaotic and violent as it is beautiful and vast.

And here we are, on this tiny planet, watching it, studying it, and dreaming of its mysteries. Did you ever realize that pieces of stars are touching you every time you look up into the sky? Not metaphorically but as a physical reality. In the nuclear furnaces of stars, energetic reactions create photons which then travel across the immense distances of space, in an ever aging stream, until they strike visual receptors in the cells of your eyes. When they strike the cell membrane receptors, there is a conformational change in the rhodopsin proteins which then generate a nerve impulse and this nerve impulse is registered in your brain. So now you are connected by a very ancient thread of light to every star in the sky and, at that point, I imagine you really could consider yourself a part of the fabric of universe.

While I was out on the Oregon coast this summer I was also going out in the middle of the night just to look out into space. There’s not too much interference from city lights and, since our moon was not present, the Milky Way was clearly visible. It was a vista somewhat different from the pulsing ocean but just as awesome. I also saw two man-made satellites and two small meteors skipping across the atmosphere. And I remember thinking how our lives here are so short and what a tragedy it is that our personalities, that we have struggled so hard to construct, will be extinguished upon our death. Yet, I thought while looking out into the sparkling veil of the night sky and past the subtle glow of our own galaxy, what a spectacular universe we live in nonetheless. Wouldn’t you agree?

- Just a peasant

Photo from our planet looking towards the center of our galaxy by Richard Payne. Can you see that the plane of our solar system is almost perpendicular (actually about 60 degrees I think) to the plane of the Milky Way? Tilt you head to the right.