Celebrating Our Cosmic Journey
The following article is from Meadowlark Economics: Collected Essays on Ecology, Community, and Spirituality, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2009 by James Eggert. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?
Who hasn't felt a shiver down their spine contemplating the creation, the vastness of the cosmos? Or asked themselves: How did it all begin? and Where do we fit within the ongoing evolution of the universe? More often than not, these questions are rekindled in our thoughts and conversations as we step out under the bright stars of a dark night.
Indeed, I recall so well that mild summer evening years ago when our nine-year-old daughter and I walked hand-in-hand to the back of our property. On that unusually dark and beautiful night, we made our way to a secluded part of our land. Earlier, I set up a small telescope in a relatively flat, unobstructed viewing area. We then pointed our telescope toward the lovely constellation of Lyra, the "Harp" configuration of stars between the constellations of Cygnus and Hercules.
Next, we took a peek at Lyra's unusual Ring Nebula, a donutlike graygreen wisp of fluorescence or, some might say, a faint puff of smoke from some far-off pipe. What we saw was actually a dying star some twenty-two hundred light-years away. Astronomers tell us that Lyra's ring is a bubble of hot gas expanding ever outward -- a gentle but final shrug of a relatively small star that was once much like our own sun. We were, in a sense, witnessing a grand preview of our own stellar future.
Of course, our sun's solar swelling and superheated ring-puff will occur between one and five billion years from now --plenty of time for good digestion, a long, long life, plus sufficient geological time for millions of future generations of Earth-bound species, including ourselves. But eventually our home star will change into what astronomers call a "red giant." It will swell and burn with intensity. Its expanding heat and searing bubble will burn Earth's precious skin of green and atmospheric blue. It will vaporize rivers and oceans alike, boil away every stream and splash of puddle.
"But," my daughter asked, "Will people be able to live? Would we have to wear space suits? Could we move to Pluto?"
I was impressed with her strategies for survival. Of course, it may be possible to extend life on another planet or a moon within our solar system. But sooner or later, our Sun's hot ring and its inevitable burnout will leave scant hope for life-forms within this planetary neighborhood. As one astronomer described it, "... the Sun will be a cold, black-dwarf governing a retinue of fused and hard-frozen worlds orbiting in a darkness lit only by the light of the distant stars."
In the meantime, what do we do? Perhaps we should simply share the beauty, share the evening's friendship and wonder while witnessing the moment, this moment. That night my daughter and I chatted about our feelings and life's meaning. We mixed into our hour some science and silence while experiencing the deepening darkness and relishing the night's enchantment. Also that August evening, we saw some meteors.
My companion counted eleven. Excitedly she nudged me-"Look, look!"
As we packed up our telescope, we made a date to go out again. But next time we would observe not star destruction, but stellar creation. We promised each other that come winter, we would take a peek at Orion's famous nebula, a zone of the night sky that astronomers have described as a "stellar nursery." In observing Orion's bright dust cloud, one can actually witness infant stars in the making, baby stars sparkling through the blue-green glow of Orion's galactic mist. Such are some of the ongoing creations of our ever-evolving universe.
My daughter and I would both make one last glance overhead, taking in the unearthly stillness while admiring the dark and deepening beauty. Again, who has not sensed those large questions coming on as he or she stood, so small, so insignificant, under the sweep of stars and the mystery of the night?
If I could, I would like to find out where we came from, to follow back that old trail of universal time and visit some of the landmarks of our cosmic history. The ideal? To make familiar the sequences that brought us to this moment of consciousness, then to invite this history into the mind and heart, not with fearful strangeness but with understanding and affection, as familiar as our own home, or perhaps like C. S. Lewis' version of comfortable familiarity: "soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes, and the thump of a sleepy dog's tail on the kitchen floor."
What actually happened then, in the interval from that original emptiness to the moment of us sharing these thoughts, or me sitting at my desk tapping the keys of an old Royal typewriter while enjoying the distant trill of a resident field sparrow?
Both modern science and also some of the ancient creation stories believe that in the beginning, there was a pause. It might help to try and imagine pure space, pure emptiness. It's interesting to note that there are large zones in our night sky where there's practically nothing at all: cosmic voids, they're called. Two voids that have been closely studied are the BoÖtes Void (named after the constellation that depicts a mythological herder) and the one in Coma Berenices ("The Hair of Berenice"). You might try to find these constellations on some dark night in the spring. Then relax (take your time), and imagine the great gaps within. Can you somehow sense the pure space and great emptiness just before the universe began?
To get into the mood, I sometimes look through my telescope at an "empty" zone of the night sky, away from the great masses of stars. For me, at least, this is a starting place. I look and look and look, taking in the magnified circle of magnificent blackness. On these special nights I recall the quotation from the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese philosophical text written in the fourth century BC by Lao Tzu:
The Way is a void
Used but never filled;
An abyss it is,
Like an ancestor
From which all things come ...
Whose offspring it may be
I do not know;
It is like a preface to God.
Again I put my eye to the eyepiece, looking into empty space. Within the ring of ultrablackness, I can sense the quiet:
There is a being, wonderful, perfect;
It existed before heaven and earth.
How quiet it is! How spiritual it is! It stands alone and does not change,
It moves around and around but does not on this account suffer.
All life comes from it.
It wraps everything with its love as in a garment ...
I do not know its name.
Consider too the many Native American creation stories, some of them surprisingly similar to Lao Tzu's description of modern cosmology. One of my favorite legends involves an original being called Maheo whose mood, it was said, could determine the state of the universe:
At first there was nothing. In the beginning there was nothing in all of time and space. Only was there darkness and Maheo. If Maheo was silent, then the Universe was silent. If Maheo was still, then the Universe was still.... All around Maheo was nothingness and silence, age upon age.
Then Maheo began to realize the great power he had, the power to actually create. From that insight, he reasoned that "power is nothing until it has been used to do something." Thus armed with both power and insight, Maheo concluded it was time for action:
He took all of time, past and present and future, and gathered it in one hand. Into his other hand he gathered all space. With these in each hand he clapped. A great clap it was, greater than thunder. For this clap was the first sound ever heard in the Universe.
Continuing the story, we learn that from that first "clap,"
came all things, and everything from which all things could be made.... Stars came flying out of his hands like sparks from crackling wood in a fire. Everywhere did the stars fly out and continue to fly out and burn today everywhere across the night-time sky. This is how time began and all things began to be made.
To a modern astronomer, Maheo's "clap of creation" is again amazingly similar to the Big Bang theory of the beginnings of the universe (with the addition of some familiar audio/visual effects: "like sparks from crackling wood in a fire"). Consider too the Old Testament's creation story of Genesis 1:3. The biblical description brings to light an important detail, conforming nicely to recent scientific theory. Recall that on the first day of creation, before the Earth had form, "God said, Let there be light: and there was light."
Physicist Chet Raymo, author of numerous books on astronomy, believes that the Big Bang was actually misnamed. Instead of "The Big Bang," he suggests "The Big Flash," an event some 13.7 billion years ago consisting of "an infinitely dense and infinitely hot seed of energy" coming essentially out of nothingness. And as the universe fed upon its elementary diet of light and gravity waves, the primeval cosmos literally flowed from physical matter into light and back again into matter. Of that stupendous, creative moment, cosmologist Gary Bennett writes:
Packets of energy called photons raced through the early universe.... In a sense the universe at this state was light.... Although the temperature had cooled a lot since the inception of the universe less than a millionth of a second before, it was still enormously hot-hundreds of times hotter than a detonating hydrogen bomb. At these temperatures, matter emerged as elementary particles when photon collided with photon. Einstein's famous equation E = mc2 beautifully documents this early era when energy and matter flowed back and forth interchangeably.
And what happened after this grand opening event of our universe? Professor Raymo states rather simply (I detect here almost a yawn, as if the really hard part was over): "the universe was off and running."
After a millisecond of extreme rapid expansion ("era of inflation"), astronomers mark a point (about four minutes after the Big Bang) where the universe "cooled down" to approximately a billion degrees, while its elemental composition consisted of approximately 75 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium.
Virtually all the heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen would thereafter be manufactured in the process of star births and star deaths, that is, in the interiors of stupendous fireballs and planetary nebulae (such as Lyra's Ring Nebula), and most importantly, within the titanic explosions of supernovas, intense zones of radical destructions and fused creations, of atoms compressed into heavier and heavier elements. Hydrogen fuses into helium and on to carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron, ever recycling, ever evolving.
So where do we look? In what direction of the night sky did this stupendous "Big Bang" event take place? In actuality, we are of the Big Bang and are currently coevolving with it after nearly fourteen billion years. In response to the question, "where did it take place?" we learn that the Big Bang "occurred everywhere ... space itself came into existence with the Big Bang." Indeed, the remnants of the original creation event can still be heard today via microwave radiation that "hums" smoothly and evenly from each and every part of sky. Unable to pinpoint a single direction of the source, I confess to some disappointment, as if I had run into an invisible barrier in investigating a crucial detail of my family history.
However, the next stage of cosmic evolution does offer greater possibilities for gaining a feeling for, and connection to, our early universe. Gary Bennett continues his description of the beginning moments:
As hydrogen and helium spewed forth from the primeval fireball, instabilities in the material formed and grew. Vast clouds of hydrogen and helium, each billions of times more massive than the Sun, fell together under the pull of gravity to make protogalaxies. Inside the newborn galaxies, turbulent regions of gas coalesced under gravity into stars.
Indeed, we can detect, even "see" these very young, massive galaxies, and within their cores or centers we find highly energized radiation sources astronomers call quasars. Quasars appear to be fantastic powerhouses, stupendous beacons of radiation dating back to just two or three billion years after the Big Bang. This makes the telescopes that detect them equivalent to scientific time machines, witnessing the universe as it existed four-fifths of the way back to its explosive birth. Though quasar beginnings are still somewhat mysterious, there are some interesting theories about their origins.
Some astronomers suggest that they were formed as ancient galaxies collided (not an unexpected event, as the universe was more tightly bound up at the time). Furthermore, it's believed that each of these "quasi- stellar" objects contains one or more black holes, or large gravity whirlpools that tug on and pull in gas, distort space itself, and thereby capture even light waves that pass nearby. Yet just before the final descent of matter and light into the blackness-of-no-return, some ultrahot elements (heated by friction) beam out powerful waves of radiation like a final "cry" before the doomed matter disappears into the swirling vortex.
Astronomers may disagree about some of details of the Big Bang and its aftermath, but there is little argument over what we can see when we step out on a clear, moonless night. Nearby, in time and space, we have friendly stars, beautiful stars easily accessible with a pair of binoculars or simply a bend of the neck. And those lucky enough to experience a night sky without light pollution can enjoy that lovely river of light called the Milky Way.
In his book Armchair Astronomy, British author Patrick Moore explains that it would be theoretically possible for a single star to escape from a galaxy such as the Milky Way:
Once beyond the galactic halo, a star would be beyond the limit of detection ... particularly if it were a star no more luminous than the sun. We can visualize the sky as seen from a planet moving round such a star. The night sky would be virtually blank; nothing would be seen apart from dim glows in the extreme distance. It would seem decidedly lonely, and I think we must be grateful that our Sun is not a solitary wanderer in the space between the galaxies.
"Decidedly lonely ..." but as we know, we do have an intimate galactic neighborhood, a cosmic home visible as a lovely, creamy-white trail of countless specks of light seen overhead on a moonless night. In our Milky Way galaxy, there are some two hundred billion stars in addition to the sun! And not only can we easily see our galaxy, but we also know something about its size and spin. We are lucky to live in an age when astronomers can, with reasonable accuracy, pinpoint our solar system's position within the galaxy's vast, wheellike superstructure.
To bring the Milky Way, symbolically at least, into close proximity, one could begin with a cup of hot water and a spoonful of instant coffee. Once you submerge the crystals, give the liquid a clockwise spin. Within seconds, you've created a miniature galaxy out of a conglomeration of bubbles. A coffee galaxy will usually consist of a central core of densely packed bubbles and well-defined spiral arms that swirl about against a backdrop of inky blackness.
Assuming you make one of these tiny galaxies, and if it has two or three spiral arms, you have now re-created a surprisingly good representation of the Milky Way. Miniature coffee galaxies are perhaps two or three inches across. The Milky Way, in contrast, is some one-hundred thousand light-years from edge to edge. (Recall that a light-year is the distance that light can travel in a year's time-approximately six trillion miles.) In comparison, the closest galaxy that's similar in size to our Milky Way-the great galaxy of Andromeda-is a little more than two million light-years away.
As we visualize the Milky Way swirling through space, we might then be curious and want to know: exactly where do we reside in respect to the galaxy's central region and flowing arms?
Telescopic data indicate that our sun's location is neither in the center nor on the very edge of the Milky Way. Our galactic arm, the Orion Arm (or "Spur"), is between the inner Sagittarius Arm and the outer Perseus Arm. And within the Orion Arm, the sun is approximately twenty-eight thousand light-years from the galactic center. Or, it could be said, our solar system's "suburban" location is roughly three-fifths of the way from the galaxy's nucleus to its outer edge.
Perhaps on some cold winter evening you will find yourself taken in by the Milky Way's great river of stars coursing across the sky. If so, try to find the Charioteer constellation of Auriga (near the Pleiades, or "Seven Sisters" constellation). Since our solar system is located in the inner part of the Orion Arm, when you look at Auriga, your line of sight will be looking toward the thick middle region of our spiral arm's river of stars (opposite the galactic center). If, however, you look toward the bright star Sirius (the "Dog Star"), your galactic view will be directly into the outer section of the Orion Arm's tail.
In late summer you'll have another opportunity to orient yourself, only now your line of sight will be directed into the interior zones of the Milky Way galaxy. For example, when you look at the constellation Cygnus, the "Swan" (easily seen in August or September), you'll be looking toward the inner part of the Orion Arm, toward the stellar "roadway" that would lead round to the Milky Way's central core. Our solar system is, in fact, moving in Cygnus' direction as we circle the galaxy's nucleus.
Now look toward the constellation Sagittarius (the "Archer"), which is perhaps best seen from a lawn chair on a clear, moonless night in August. (From overhead, North American observers can follow the Milky Way's starry "river" down to the southern horizon.) As you skim the horizon, you may not see the well-defined archer, but something more resembling a teapot.
Now if you would happen to shoot a cosmic arrow toward the spout of the teapot, your arrow would travel through trillions of miles of space-through dark, obscuring dust clouds and massive star clusters, and finally (some twenty-eight thousand light-years away), your arrow would penetrate the center of the Milky Way's nucleus, the mysterious heart of our galaxy. Because of the intervening dust and gas, the Milky Way's central core is all but invisible-even to the most powerful optical telescopes. Yet it can be "seen" with telescopic instruments that are capable of measuring infrared, X-ray, ultraviolet, and other forms of high-level energy. Thus, on an imaginary journey to the Milky Way's center, we would eventually come upon "... a monstrous pulsing heart for the Galaxy, a core of violence that recapitulates the violence of the creation itself. The nucleus of the Milky Way Galaxy is apparently the site for cosmic convulsions on the grand scale, perhaps a place where countless suns are swallowed up by a massive gravitational black hole."
Every once in a while it is helpful to experience a true sense of place -- even on a galactic scale. Of greatest importance is the fact that we reside at a relatively safe distance "in the suburbs," so to speak, away from lethal pulses of radiation from the central core. But wouldn't it be interesting if there was some way to get a photograph, or perhaps construct an image of what the Milky Way might look like from a distance, to somehow capture the galaxy's elegant form and inherent beauty in its entirety? Given the hundred-thousand light-year span of our galaxy, humans may never see the Milky Way from such a distant vantage point. Yet it is relatively easy to take a look at a close neighbor-the great Galaxy of Andromeda -- a spiral galaxy surprisingly similar to our own in size and shape.
To find Andromeda's fuzzy congregation of stars, it helps to have a star chart on hand as well as a pair of small binoculars. If you want to increase your chances of success, try viewing Andromeda on a moonless night in mid- to late September, when mosquitoes have disappeared and darkness arrives relatively early in the evening. First, can you find the North Star via the Big Dipper? Next, find the constellation Cassiopeia, located on the other side of the North Star from the Big Dipper. Cassiopeia's most conspicuous feature is a compact group of stars in the shape of a "W." Note that the bottom side of that "W" consists of two "pointers" directing your line of sight even further to the east. Using the upper pointer, sweep your binoculars to the right until you come upon our sister galaxy as a faint, fuzzy smudge. You've just located Andromeda.
As you look through your binoculars, Andromeda may not be a very spectacular sight. However, you can magnify Andromeda not just through your eyes, but also in your mind. Consider Andromeda's three hundred billion stars. How many planets might it have? And what varieties of life and other amazing creations and fascinations? Consider that its light has traveled approximately two million years before reaching the Earth. And too, that the light from our Milky Way of two million years ago (from the era of some of the earliest humanlike creatures) is now reaching Andromeda, making it easy to see (in our imagination) the Milky Way's soft galactic glow.
Enjoy Andromeda! Consider her swirl and inner secrets. Imagine the billions of stars within a single galaxy and then step back to consider the billions of galaxies that are at this very moment unfolding to the music of creation and the evolving harmony that began with the Big Bang. Now return again to the Milky Way (our Milky Way), and home in, if you can, on our solar system. Can you make out that lovely blue-and-white, cloud-swirled world below?
I have often wondered what it would be like to be an astronaut, to see the Earth from such a vantage point in space, to be a lucky observer from above our planet's neighborhood: how would it feel? Perhaps Louise Young, in her book The Blue Planet, said it as well as any, reflecting on the beauty, delicacy, and indeed, the very miraculousness of it all:
In the photographs of the earth from space, the planet looks like a little thing that I might hold in the hollow of my hand. I can imagine it would feel warm to the touch, vibrant and sensitive.... Beneath the mobile membrane of cloud and air are a storehouse of splendors and a wealth of detail. There are rainbows caught in waterfalls, and frost flowers etched in window panes, and drops of dew scattered like jewels on meadow grass, and honey creepers singing in the jacaranda tree.
And finally, let us return to solid earth, to our neighborhood, and to the warmth and comfort of knowing we are home.
1. Daniel Whitmire and Ray Reynolds, "The Fiery Fate of the Solar System," Astronomy, April 1990, p. 29.
2. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), pp. 56-57.
3. Lao Tzu, The Way of Life, trans. by R. B. Blakney (New York: American Library, 1955), p. 56.
4. K. L. Reichelt, Meditation and Piety in the Far East (New York: Harper & Bros., 1954), p. 56.
5. This story, narrated by Kiowa/Caddo tribesperson Mary Bombadier, was taken from Legends in Stone, Bone, and Wood, by Tsonakwa and Yolaikia (Minneapolis: Arts and Learning Services Foundations, 1986), p. 14.
6. Tsonakwa and Yolaikia, p. 14.
7. Chet Raymo, The Soul of the Night (New York: Prentice Hall, 1985), p. 46.
8. Gary Bennett, "Cosmic Origins of the Elements," Astronomy, Aug. 1988, p. 18.
9. Raymo, p. 47.
10. Bennett, p. 20.
11. Patrick Moore, Armchair Astronomy (New York: Norton, 1984), p. 128.
12. Raymo, p. 102.
13. Louise B. Young, The Blue Planet (Boston: Little Brown, 1983), p. 266.
James Eggert lives with his wife Pat in rural west-central Wisconsin. He is an emeritus faculty member from the University of Wisconsin-Stout (Menomonie, Wisconsin) where he has taught undergraduate students for thirty-three years. Eggert has written five other books including What Is Economics (4th ed), Invitation to Economics, and The Wonder of the Tao, as well as numerous articles for journals, popular magazines, and newspapers.
Teaser image by divyanshs, courtesy of Creative Commons license.