Under a night sky

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Despite knowing embarrassingly little about it, I’m so fascinated by the universe.

Stars. Planets. Black holes. Meteors. Gravity.

How much do I regret not paying any attention in my science classes growing up? At some point in my academic career, I determined I didn’t have any aptitude in them. That they weren’t my thing. I wasn’t a math girl, a physics girl; I was a writer. I read books.

I should have known I didn’t have to choose, but I was lazy. I didn’t try.

But, you know. It’s too late for regrets. And the good thing? Though I’m seven years out of college and far longer from high school (!), the quest for learning continues. In the bold digital age, I can learn anything I want with enough time and patience.

It’s pretty awesome, actually.

Spence joined a local astronomy club a few years back, and I’ve gone with him twice to hang out in the observatory and check out the moons and rings of Jupiter in their humongous telescope. Unfortunately, both times have been freezing cold — and I’m a total weakling. After a few hours in the chilly air with hands that have gone numb, I’m out.

But before I reached that point on Saturday, I was able to play around with some long-exposure photography of the night sky. Nothing I saw really comes across well in an image, unfortunately; I’d need some serious skills and probably superior equipment for that.

But what I can try to express? What it feels like to stand beneath an open expanse of sky, where the stars burn brighter than I’ve ever seen them. I stand in the cold, exhale; I think, I am here. I think again of the pale blue dot, of being one human being at a specific point in time in a vast, unpredictable universe.

Sometimes it makes me sad, and other times . . . well, it makes me want to do something. Be something.

I like the latter better.

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Being married to a scientist is a challenge — in a good way — and I revel in the opportunities Spence has to share his knowledge with me. For a while, that intimidated me; my husband just has such a different skill set, you know? Where I excel in the arts and humanities, focusing on language and history and philosophy, he is so grounded in the practical world.

But still, we work. Mostly because we both love to learn, I think, and we’re always learning from each other. I talk to him about famous authors, The Great Gatsby, the outcomes of wars, the culture of far-flung nations. He tells me about gravity and Tesla coils and currents.

And what Spencer can’t tell me, I look up on Wikipedia.

It works.

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The meaning of a dot


At a photography club meeting last Saturday, a friend showed a dark, unusual image at the end of a presentation. I squinted at the screen, wondering what he could possibly be showing us, as Jeff asked the group if we recognized the photo. A few people did.

It’s Earth, he explained — our home. A “Pale Blue Dot” in the vastness of space. And then he read aloud a passage from astronomer Carl Sagan. It was one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever heard.

We talk about more than photos at our montly gatherings — though the subject is certainly steeped in photography. Pale Blue Dot is a picture of Earth taken from 3.7 billion miles away. Captured in 1990, you may have heard of it — but I’ll confess I never had. (This upsets my scientist fiance, I’m sure.) In the days since Jeff showed us Pale Blue Dot, it’s been ricocheting around in my mind . . . as has Sagan’s passage from the book of the same name:


“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Home. Our little sliver of the universe.

Sometimes thoughts are too big to begin to contain them. This is probably one. But as someone always prone to asking too many Big Questions, it’s gotten me thinking — and thinking — and I felt it worth sharing.

Even on the bad days, even on the tragic days, even on the scary days . . . I’m glad we’re all here. Together.