Lying on a dirt road in the Adirondacks, I saw the stars weave themselves into constellations before my very eyes. It was a warm July night, and my friends and I were out camping far from the light pollution of New York City many miles away. We had been walking down the road just a moment ago, singing songs and riding the sugar high from our trail mix and marshmallows (which would later be used to create some delicious s’mores), when my brother did something few people ever think to do: he looked up. He looked up, and stopped moving, spellbound by the cosmos lighting the sky above him, and by the countless shooting stars plummeting towards Earth, becoming trails of light and then nothing.
Following his gaze I too looked up and saw more stars than I had previously thought could exist in a single sky. Without speaking, we all lied down on the dirt road and, like Whitman, “look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” Perfect silence save for my friend Kieske, who was murmuring words in a language I couldn’t understand. I didn’t need to understand. In that moment, I knew exactly what the people lying on the dirt next to me were feeling. With the mysteries of the universe on display before our very eyes, I could only marvel at how beautiful and insignificant we all are, insignificant to the point where we might as well have been the dirt we lied on, and how much our lives resemble the myriad of stars above us: tiny pinpricks of light in the inky void. The spectacle before us was a beauty unlike any I had previously experienced, made all the more beautiful by the sense of wonder and mystery that surrounded the celestial bodies.
However, advances in physics, astronomy, and cosmology are attempting to make the cosmos much less mysterious than they have been before. We are learning how the universe works at an exponential rate, and one must wonder if there will be any mystery left to the stars in the near future. There are already serious talks of colonizing Mars, and New Horizons has whisked its way past Pluto. All the while, particles are smashed together beneath the Earth as we try and learn how the Universe started. To those readers who fear a lack of mystery in our near future, I say, fear not. To use a metaphor employed by Carl Sagan, science is akin to a candle in the dark. The circle of light surrounding the candle represents the wealth of scientific knowledge, and the darkness represents all that is unknown to us. Thus, as the circumference of light grows larger, the border of darkness and our understanding of our insignificance does likewise, and the amount we have yet to learn grows with each new discovery. However, there remains a very stark difference between gazing up at the stars as my friends and I did on that dreamy night in July, simply seeing them for what they are, and gazing at the stars through a telescope, equations and charts at hand, or even further, computers doing all of the star gazing for us. Though, in the end we are all still left feeling like tiny flames in a world of stars.
Trust me, I know that feeling small can be scary, and it may be tempting to hide in the cave where we don’t have to worry about what we don’t know and just how large everything is. However, I would urge us to not retreat rather to rise up and do all we can to illuminate the surrounding darkness, even as the darkness grows with each expansion of light. After all, without science how can we ever hope to, in the words of Captain Kirk, “boldly go where no man has gone before?” However, I would also urge you to remember to do something so few people do nowadays: look up. Look up, without any telescopes, computers, or equations, and take time to see the stars not as a scientist, but as a human being. Lie down on a dirt road somewhere in the middle of nowhere, feel small, feel insignificant, feel overwhelmed, and be reminded of what inspired the learn’d astronomers in the first place: the mystery and magnificence of the heavens.