Light from a Long Time Ago

The entire night sky in the northern hemisphere revolves around the three stars that actually comprise the “North Star.” Photo: Stockfresh

It’s well after midnight and I’m again reminded of one of the primary reasons I enjoy the outdoors: perspective.

Last night I was camped out in a recliner on our little patch of lawn on the edge of suburbia. Equipped with a few adult beverages, good music in my headphones and the night sky, it was a peaceful and sublime break.

The reason for my contemplative mood is the conclusion of a week that would even have business guru Dale Carnegie reaching for the tranquilizers. It was actually a wonderful week in which I started a new job and, as expected, I was busier than is reasonably humanly possible. After five days of literally continuous email and phone calls, all while trying to learn the ropes, I was mentally exhausted.

Because of this ‘happy stress’, I have a renewed appreciation for the weekend.

So the hour was late as I finally went outside to decompress. Sitting there I looked upward and began pondering the stars that were shining so brightly that they cast black shadows on the ground.

I tried to define the various constellations even though my knowledge on the topic is still woefully short. While working my way around to the Big Dipper, otherwise known as part of The Great Bear, I followed the last two stars in the formation to Polaris, the North Star.

Years ago I learned that you can reliably determine north at night if you can find the Big Dipper. Five times the distance between the last two stars in the “cup” of the dipper, on the same imaginary line, lays Polaris.

The interesting thing about the North Star is that from our northern hemisphere perspective on earth, every planet, constellation and heavenly body revolves around that point in the sky. If you take a time-lapse photograph on a clear night, the moving star trails will form a perfect circle with Polaris serving as the bull’s-eye.

I find this a fascinating concept. In fact, as I was standing in the darkness and considering the whole idea, I found it utterly profound. The beer helped.

Actually, I thought it was “deep” until I went inside and jumped on the Internet to investigate the science behind this phenomenon. The cold hard facts took some of the philosophical glimmer out of things.

Unlike common misperception, Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky. In fact, it is about 42nd in magnitude in the heavens and actually comprised of three stars, one large and two smaller, that just happen to line up with the earth’s celestial North Pole. That makes the cluster appear relatively motionless from our hemisphere. There is no “Southern Star.”

The stars do not line up perfectly and only indicate true north twice per day. However, to the naked eye, they don’t move appreciably and can be used “as is” for non-precision navigational purposes.

Polaris lies about 224 billion miles away, which translates to roughly 430 light-years (though some astronomers argue different figures). That means, if my math is correct, the light I saw was actually emitted from the stars sometime around the year 1588 and had been in transit since that time.

I stopped reading right there and went back outside.

Looking at the twinkling of the rather mundane stars, I contemplated my new knowledge. Though I realize the measurement might not be utterly precise, it was amazing to think that what I was seeing actually occurred around the time the Spanish armada got their butts kicked by the English, the Roanoke colony disappeared and Thomas Hobbes was born.

Think of all the generations and history that has passed since that light was generated by the process of hydrogen turning into helium. The bones of most of those who were alive in that year have disintegrated to dust and nearly all traces of their existence have vanished into the vapor of history.

It’s sobering.

I looked up and considered that the cold blue light twinkling in my night sky didn’t care about the puny affairs of man. For at least another million years, that light would likely continue streaking towards earth where some future human would stand and ponder those who had likewise looked upward 430 years earlier.

Considering the vast time and distances, the past and the future, the cold rationality of the universe versus my own little splotch of carbon-based life, I had a refreshing moment of clarity in perspective. Tomorrow and perpetually, the stars will shine, the springs will flow down the mountains and my problems and triumphs, already insignificant in the grand scheme, will likewise fade into obscurity.

Being reminded of that adage is one of the major reasons I go outdoors in the first place. It just takes something as insignificant as the entire cosmos to help remind me of that occasionally.

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