Before my grandfather died, accidentally struck by a 16-year-old driver in broad daylight as he walked to his Wednesday-afternoon bowling league, he built a 6-foot-long telescope to study the heavens. It took a year just to grind the lens. When completed, he mounted the telescope on the wheel drum of a Model A Ford so it could rotate. I was 12 when he was killed so we didn’t have a lot of time together. I wish I could have known better the man who built a telescope longer than I was tall, to see out into space and backwards in time.
I carry on his legacy as an Astro-fan—a participant in an ongoing astronomy class that originated at the local community college. We are retired NASA scientists, physicists, biologists, and one embarrassingly exuberant math-challenged writer. We seem to have nothing in common except a fascination with the grandeur of space, the beauty of the cosmos, and an unending curiosity about where it all came from and how it will end.
Every week I learn something new about the origins of the universe, rogue planets, dark energy and quasars. Fascinating facts I presumptuously assume everyone will want to know. A charismatic writing client once asked, “What lights you up?” And I thought, “Well now, that’s a cool phrase,” and I knew the answer immediately—learning is the light– and like our ancestors before us we have learned to carry the fire when we travel, and, like Herb and Denise, who teach this course, to share the flame.
My astronomy class has seen the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and studied the evidence that smaller galaxies have merged with ours at least 7 times.
Ten billion years ago, Gaia Enceladus crashed through the Milky Way and more recently we collided with Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy, although to say we collided is a misnomer. In the vast reaches of space, galaxies pass through each other routinely with virtually no direct impacts —just wild disruptions of orbits and redistribution of planets. It’s a cosmic dance, and our next partner, the much larger spiral galaxy Andromeda, will lead.
Astronomers estimate there are 20 sextillion planets in the visible universe. I memorized that fact last week, so I could imagine the immensity and so I could tell you.
So much wonder in the world. I like to stun myself with remarkable discoveries so I can experience one of the few characteristics that is unique to humans.
Self-awareness, language, altruism?
What sets us apart is our ability to feel awe.
We grow silent in the giant redwood forest—catch our breath at a mountain vista. There is a documented universal outcry at the moment of totality in a solar eclipse and a feeling of communal euphoria afterwards.
Wait! Did you know that our ability to witness a total solar eclipse is time-limited?
Cup the match. Pass the flame.
You witness the totality of the moon blocking out all but the ring of the sun’s corona because of a mathematically uncanny synchronicity. The sun’s diameter is 400 times greater than that of the moon, while the moon orbits precisely 400 times closer to the earth than the sun.
But the moon is moving away from the earth at a rate of 1.48 inches a year. In some distant future she will slip from earth’s embrace and set sail into infinity. Some discoveries are about letting go.
The James Webb telescope will begin sending back to earth its first pictures this week. We will be able to see almost to the beginning of time—back 13 billion years to what astronomers call the “wall of last scattering”—the impenetrable plasma that existed until some 380,000 years after the Big Bang when photons were released to begin their journey from then to now. From there to you.
Prepare to be astounded.
Prepare to feel your intense insignificance and your connection to what is limitless at the same time. Prepare to be awed.
A friend once said to me at a dinner party, “Oh I get it. You study this stuff because you think you are special— that you are somehow connected to something infinite.” It was simply an observation and not a wrong one. Why did it feel like a challenge? There is nothing to argue. Ever. Only new things to learn.
Light me up.
I took a sip of my wine and admitted, “True. And I think that love powers the universe in ways we don’t understand. And that love is refracted in the human spirit.”
So, let’s look at the numbers again because reverence is evoked by vastness. There are 7.7 billion of us on this planet—the only planet in the solar system not named for a god. That’s 7.7 billion of us looking up at 400 billion stars in a Milky-Way sky.
It’s not that I think I am special.
It’s that I think you are. As is the mysterious, uncanny, ever-changing universe that holds us in its arms.
And I’m in awe.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.