Monday, May 21, 2012

Eclipse, Part Two...

Most people don't look up at the sky on a regular basis. A lot of people nearly never take time out of their busy days and nights to ever look up and see what's going on in the universe around them.

There's nothing like an eclipse to change that, although even in the midst of yesterday's annular eclipse, I saw people rushing around at the height of the Moon's journey between Earth and the Sun, apparently not paying attention to the wonder in the sky above them. Some of them seemed not to notice the odd cast to the light and the extraordinary blue tint that the sky had taken on.

I have to say that I honestly don't understand how they could just go on with their normal, everyday activities with what was going on above their heads. Even here, not in the path of the most extensive coverage of the Sun's disk by the moon, it was clear that there was something extraordinary going on. I've seen solar eclipses before, but I've never experienced one that so obviously diminished the amount of sunlight that usually makes it to Earth on a clear spring afternoon. You just couldn't not notice if you were anywhere where you could see outside, not here where I am.

And if you weren't in the path of the eclipse, let me just say, I'm sorry. It was spectacular.

Actually, aside from being in a windowless room, it would have been difficult for anyone here where I live to notice even if they were inside. I had been watching the eclipse off and on from the beginning, going outside every half hour or so to check the progress of the moon making its way across the sun with my home-made pinhole camera, but I was inside writing, when I glanced out the window above my desk because it had grown noticeably darker in the room as the height of the event approached.

Of course, I went outside to take a look. With the exception of one man across the street, none of the neighbors were even outside. The twelve-year-old in me wanted to go knocking on doors, to tell people to get outside and see the wonderful show the Sun and the Moon were putting on in the sky. I didn't do that. I've been made fun of before for looking up rather than down an my feet. But some part of me still thinks I should have.

It's not like what is above our heads is some faraway place that has nothing to do with us. The Sun warms our world so that life can exist here, and it makes it possible for plants to make their food to live, to become what feeds us, directly when we eat fruits and vegetables and indirectly when we eat meat that has in turn fed on plants. But those aren't the only connections we have to the stars.

In a very real sense, we come from the stars. Every bit of us, every molecule, every element that our bodies are built from, started out inside a star. When Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang that line in "Woodstock", "We are stardust...", they weren't making it up. We really are part of the stars. Not the ones we can see in the sky at night now, if we are lucky enough to be in a dark enough location to see the night sky without the competing lights here on Earth. Instead, we are the product of stars that have already lived and died and exploded, sending the elements created in them as they went supernova and spread those elements out into the universe where they could create planets and plants and people and, well, pretty much everything else in the cosmos.

This is my challenge to you. Wherever you are, take ten minutes to step outside tonight and look up. If you are in a city, try to find a place where the lights in the sky aren't overpowered by the lights on your block, so that you will be able to see as many stars as possible. But, even if you can't find a place with low light levels, just go outside and look up. There are stars up there, and galaxies. And planets, not just here in our solar system, but out there orbiting other stars. At last count, nearly 800 planets have been detected outside our solar system. Even if few of those planets so far discovered are not likely to have life on them, who knows how many might be out there that could have, might have, do have some kind of life. It could be "life as we know it" or it could be life of entirely different kinds. It could be microscopic life, or it could be intelligent life. But none of that matters. What is important is that they're there, part of the grand whole that we call the visible universe.

And if that isn't something to stir the imagination, and the soul, I don't know what is.

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