Falling in Love with the Universe

Bright StarAbout a year ago I fell into a serious love affair. Not the Bill Clinton or John Edwards type of affair. Sleazy rendezvous in hotel rooms or government offices buildings.

More like the Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking type of affair. One where you look at the heavens at night, slack jawed, wide-eyed, scratch your head and just wonder. How could this all be?

Once a week I go to NASA’s online image bank and put up a new desktop image on my laptop. With all the new space observatories, The Spitzer and Chandra space telescopes, soon be joined by more, and Hubble still sending wondrous photos of deep space as well, the image gallery grows by the day.

Seen here, mostly hidden by a cloud of supercharged gas that in time will form more suns and solar systems, is a star that astronomers estimate produces 3.5 million times the light of our sun. NASA calls it the “silver medal” winner because another star in the Milky Way gives out 4.5 million times the light of our sun.

Forget about the 45 SPF sun block on any planet in that star’s solar system. Can you imagine an object 100 times brighter than the sun? Now try to image a star generating millions of times the light of our sun. I can’t do it. I suspect you can’t either. But in the world of astronomy concepts the defy all your powers of imagination are the stuff of everyday life.

And that’s my point; everywhere I turn I find another fact that just leaves me shaking my head. How could this be? Billions times billions of stars; billions of galaxies as well: how could that be? Pictures of star forming regions taken by our growing fleet of space telescopes birthing thousands of stars and stretching hundreds of light years across.

Our entire solar system would be one tiny spot in just such a place.

If I were to name a sun in the Milky Way for every one of the 6.7 billion humans on Earth, there would still be billions of suns bearing no name at all. Think of that the next time you’re in a crowded football stadium, or sitting in a traffic jam. Each person with their very own star and billions of stars left over.

Perhaps this love affair of mine is based on a sense of humility and perspective. Our tiny speck of a planet floats in a sea we call the Milky Way. And this mighty galaxy stretching an incredible 100,000 light years across is merely a speck that floats in a sea of galaxies where countless trillions of planets orbit countless billions of suns. It’s enough to stop you in your tracks and simply take your breath away.

You know that breathless feeling; it’s a lot like falling in love. In fact, I’m wrong to call this an affair. Affairs are just a passing thing; I suspect that I will be breathlessly in love with a starry night for all the remaining days of my life.

Martin Brown

SMW Money Editor

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