I’m probably doing somebody I know and care about a great deal a lot of disservice in admitting this; but I can’t remember which one of them told me the most mind-blowing fact about our universe that I’ve ever heard:
“All of the light you see from the stars in the night-sky is thousands of years old”, said he or she, in a conversation probably influenced by a large carafe of wine and a ramekin of peanuts in a dimly-lit bar, “the stars you see tonight probably died many years ago, but because of how far away they are, they still look alive to us”.
The accuracy of the second part of that statement is prone to a lot of debate, usually by people with a greater vat of brain cells than I, who can rigorously punctuate each part of their explanations with the kind of knowledge you’d usually expect to find in a green-leather bound book with yellowing pages found on the bottom shelf of your local library. (The book was probably written by somebody called Quentin H Pugh and first published in 1929. It probably hasn’t been exposed to fresh air since 1931 and its main purpose today is residence for a small army of silverfish.)
Yet people are pretty unanimous about the first half of the statement. Looking into the night sky is, indeed, like looking through a lens to the past. Consider this: the light from the closest star to Earth (Alpha Centauri) takes four years to reach us, and that’s as quick as it gets! By contrast, the light from the stars furthest away from us take thousands upon thousands – if not millions or billions – of years to reach us. How crazy to think that whilst we can’t travel through time, we can effectively view different epochs of history in tandem with one another from the modern comfort of 21st century windows, all because of a bunch of science that the majority of us find difficult to truly understand.
In the past I have tried to engage with all that might have helped me understand all the what’s, why’s, how’s and when’s of everything there is to know about astronomy, but on each of those occasions my brain has switched off as soon as we started to transcend into the realms of Mathematics and other related gablurble. Mrs Green’s GCSE Physics classes would have been the prime place to learn about things which I didn’t realise would interest me so much nearly twenty years later, but back then I gave up on trying to learn because all I really wanted to do was make hats out of paper-towels for everybody in the class – including Mrs Green – and call them ‘Moon Hats’. The idea was that we could parade them in the corridors with all the cheap pride you might expect of pupils from the bottom set for Science; except I think the vast majority of them ended up in the bin. (Moon Hats unanimously failed the generic teenage ‘Cool Test’, so I cancelled the patent application and gave up my dream of a career in fashion design. I hope that, over the years, those toffee-nosed classmates have been able to find a way to cope with the guilt of this).
Trying to make me understand the rules of Science is like trying to vacuum up a desert’s worth of sand in a pipette. I just don’t get it; and if I were to even try it would only explode into a thundercloud of general mess and confusion that would rain havoc on all beneath it. Yet, I am fascinated by the night sky, to the point where I’d even say that my ignorance and lack of knowledge only makes the whole concept even more exciting.
I’m pretty sure that if somebody was ever able to have the patience and tenacity to get me to understand the finer details of why the light from stars takes so long to reach our vision, it would no doubt satisfy the part of my brain which is hungry for knowledge, and possibly even make me feel vaguely intelligent for a moment or two. On the other hand, I feel it would serve as something like a cold bowl of porridge to the part that enjoys being able to wonder, and imagine. Like all magic, once you know how the trick works it’s never as entertaining again.
And then you can’t help but transfer that concept to the more emotional elements of life. Many of us are so concerned by the idea of not being ‘in the know’. We like to feel informed and aware because it helps us to feel in control of the things going on around us (or we just enjoy being nosy), and there’s a sense of safety and security in that control.
And that’s all well and good, for sure, but sometimes it can be just as gratifying not knowing or understanding why things are the way they are. Finding answers isn’t always an easy task. It can take a very long time, cause a lot of stress, feed you inconsequential information that doesn’t really make you feel any better at all, and not lead to anything of any real substance. In fact, you can get so side-tracked by searching for answers that you forget what your question was in the first place, because the things you found out along the way multiplied it into a dozen more questions.
I have often been guilty of over-thinking which has lead to worrying and nothing has made this more apparent to me than a recent circumstance. I know that this is perhaps my way of trying to gain control of a situation, by identifying possible risks and working out how to overcome them in advance. It can be a really good tool at times, which has probably saved me from a lot of embarrassment and/or broken bones, but much like your favourite pencil it can go blunt and become useless if overused. When I think back to how much time I’ve probably spent worrying about things that never came into fruition it’s hard not to feel frustrated with myself, so I’m actively trying harder now to stem some of these thoughts and only think about what I need to, when it presents itself to me. Because if you think the scope and the science of astronomy is what makes light-years hard to comprehend, the human brain is even more complex and easier to get lost in.
And there’s actually something quite comforting about recognising that. Something relaxing about just stepping back and letting nature and fate do whatever it is they need to do. More time to enjoy the beauty, mystery and adventure of it all rather than expending all your energies on navigation.
When I look up at the stars I don’t want to think about a bunch of algebraic formula that will never make any sense to me. I just want to think about how tonight’s light is a gift from the past, and how amazing and mysterious the Universe is for supplying something that on the surface of it sounds so impossible. And that’s where I want to merrily leave that thought.
Pugh and co can take their answers elsewhere...
Song of the Day: Dreamgirl – Bollywood
Dream-pop from Kansas. This is one of those amazing songs that you might feel a little indifferent to at first, but then you hear the inexplicable ‘it’, and the song is subsequently stuck on loop for a week or so. The sort of rare song that makes you want to cry and smile all at once. Enjoy.