A glimpse of infinity

“Be glad of life,” my student’s Facebook status said, “because it gives you the chance to love, to work, to play, and to look up at the stars.”

The quote comes from American clergyman and author Henry Van Dyke, but the sentiment could’ve come from me.

I love looking into the night sky and being filled with wonder at the vastness of it all. Fewer things strike me as more beautiful, fewer things feel so profound, as when I look up and see infinity. On some nights, I can see a million stars. There are so many, maybe it’s a million million.

That’s an exaggeration. I know that astronomers have actually figured out how many stars are visible from earth with the naked eye on a clear night. I don’t remember the figure.

But for me, looking up at the heavens, science doesn’t matter one single bit. The sky is filled with a million million stars. It’s what infinity looks like.

Sometimes, depending on where I am and what time of year it is, I can see the Milky Way airbrushed in an arc across the sky. Sometimes it’s so faint that I almost have to pretend it’s there; other times it’s so bright I feel like I’m about to be showered with stardust.

Looking at the night sky isn’t just a chance to glimpse infinity, either. It’s a chance to glimpse eternity, too.

The universe is so old and so big that light reaching us from some of those stars was actually cast in our direction billions of years ago. Even at the ridiculously fast speed of light (186,282 miles per second), those stars are so far away that it has taken all that time for their light to reach earth. The light we see, in those cases, is billions of years old. Stargazing, then, is a form of time travel because in the light of stars we see the primordial past.

We also see stories in the stars. Heroes and villains and magical creatures: Hercules, Orion, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Draco. Other cultures saw different figures. Modern astronomers recognize eighty-eight constellations. Once upon a time, I used to, too. Now I’m lucky to pick out the dippers and the question mark of Leo and a few others.

Orion remains a steadfast companion whose company I enjoy on my stargazing nights. He stands vigil—or perhaps he’s standing guard—during the winter months. When he disappears for the summer, I miss him, and I always welcome his return in the fall. He’s one of my oldest friends (and in a literal sense, he’s the oldest friend because he’s millions of years old).

It’s a little harder, here in the middle of town, with light pollution dulling the sky and domesticated trees along the sidewalk blocking the view, to see the stars. Maybe that makes them all the more special, though, because I have to look harder. How metaphoric, too, since I have to work a little harder these days to keep my sense of wonder intact.

But they are there, and they are wondrous indeed. For being so huge, the universe gives me great comfort and peace.

“For my part,” said Vincent van Gogh, “I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream.”

And the dream, I know, is lovely and full of wonder.

1 reply »

  1. Wonderful. Just wonderful. I’m reminded of two things I wish I’d written.

    WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
    – Walt Whitman

    All the light that shines on you
    Is from a dying star
    The star’s been dead a billion years
    Now it’s shining off your car
    To light your way….
    Jeffrey Dean Foster