Night sky declares it's winter

Stars, our eternal companions, provide solace, source of wonder

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2000

"But I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix'd and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament."

-- "Julius Caesar," Shakespeare

As I was driving home on a recent clear night I saw my old friend Orion for the first time in many months. Pulling over to get reacquainted, I also saw the big and little bears, along with several other acquaintances in the heavens.

Winter had finally arrived. Many people measure the seasons by the calendar or by the migration of birds. I measure it by the stars. If it's dark enough to see the stars, it's winter. Being born and raised in Alaska, this has always made sense to me.

In the summertime, the sun is out until midnight, so it's too light, even in the darkest hours, to see anything but the brightest stars. In the winter, the sky is often pitch black, but it's too cold on clear nights to truly enjoy an extended exploration of the heavens.

Sure, it's easy to spot Orion, or our state's icon, the Big Dipper. I learned at an early age that the cup of the Dipper pointed to the North Star (which, despite popular misconception, is anything but the brightest star in the sky), and would guide me back to safety if I was ever lost.

I could see a few other constellations, and the faint glimmer of the Milky Way. But I spent so little time admiring the sky during the cold months, I thought that was all the stars there were.

Imagine my surprise the first time I found myself on a dark summer night, a hundred miles from the nearest street lamp in southcentral Washington state.

Stars filled the sky, filled it! The Milky Way was not a thin, hazy string, but was a huge collection of stars in a band so broad it took my breath away. I pulled over and climbed atop my Volkswagen camper to lie back in the warm night air just to look.

In the succeeding hours, I picked out constellations I had only seen on sky charts. I watched as the Big Dipper circled ever-steady Polaris. I wondered no more how our caveman ancestors could think the stars were the campfires of distant tribes.

I imagined the astronomers of ancient Greece and Rome and China charting the heavens, discovering the travelers they came to call planets, and noting the time and place of supernovas and comets. Could they imagine the astronomical distance the light from those stars traveled to reach their eyes? Did they know they were looking hundreds, thousands or even millions of years into the past?

It's no wonder star-gazing is the mother of all science, prompting the development of physics, mathematics and geography. Some of the greatest thinkers of all time dealt in stars and our relationship to them. Pythagoras, Aristotle, Aristarchus, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton were all close friends of the night sky.

Little did these deep thinkers know that we are stars ourselves.

As legendary astronomer Carl Sagan taught us, we are star stuff. In a universe comprised mostly of hydrogen and empty space, all heavier elements, such as carbon, the stuff of life, are manufactured in the cores of stars or in supernova explosions. Our solar system, our planet and us, are second (or third) generation elements, created in this way. We are stars. When you look up into the night sky you see us.

It puts the petty disputes on our infinitesimal lump of star dust, tucked away into an insignificant corner of a nondescript galaxy, into perspective.

The stars saw our solar system coalesce five billion years ago. They have seen every president, every dinosaur, every thing, come and go. The stars will be there when our species reaches out to them in a few hundred years when we attempt interstellar travel. They will witness our sun become a smoldering red dwarf 10 billion years from now.

The stars are there, and always will be there (until they burn out at the end of time), to offer perspective and to give us company.

During the decade I lived in Seattle, the night sky was filled with a neon and fluorescent haze, almost always obscuring the picture show above.

But on occasion, and often when I needed it most, there, at the apex of the dome of the sky, was the flag of my home state. It reassured me that I was not alone, that anyone I ever knew just might be looking up at the Big Dipper, and we were somehow connected, despite the miles.

So hello, Orion. Hello, Ursa Major, Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Pisces. It's good to see you again.

Jay Barrett is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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