For untold thousands of years, humans looked up at the night sky, every night. When there wasn’t artificial light, the night only had firelight and the faint glow of the heavenly bodies. The brightest glow would be, of course, the moon, but around the moon would be a mass of pin pricks of light and distinct across the sky was the band of fuzzy matter we now know the Milky Way. This is out galaxy.
We can now only speculate what the ancient mind thought of the night sky. The night must have had its own set of perils, but often, it surely was a time of contemplation. A day of seeing things up close and evaluating the potential of the environment for threats and opportunities would give way to an evening of lying down and looking out at the night sky. This great and awesome miracle must have filled the old ones with wonder, as it does to us today. We know how massive the galaxy is which makes its incomprehensible size even more wonderful and wondrous. Just our one galaxy, our tiny corner of the Universe, is measured in units difficult to sense or believe.
It is not often that I am far away from a city and can see the massive bands of the Milky Way. Camping often takes me to remote places and Big Bend National Park, deep in the heart of Texas, is remote. From my campground in the tiny town of Terlingua, I was able to see the stars so well that the bands of our galaxy were visible to the naked eye. Masses of stars tracked along a detectable band of white. This white band is the spiral arm of the galaxy and I, standing on the ground, on earth, can see it quite clearly. This is what the ancients saw, and seeing it fills me with the same sense of wonder.
We humans now know much about our galaxy. Thanks to the efforts of generations of observers and math experts and physicists, we know that the galaxy is a collection of stars built around a center that is speculated to also be filled with dark matter. The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy which means it looks kind of like how we see a a hurricane from above with a center and arms that spiral away from that center. The galaxy gives the distinct impression of motion.
The Milky Way is speculated to contain 200 billion stars like our own. The earth rotates around our sun but our sun is rotating around the black hole at the center of our galaxy. The disc-like galaxy has many spiral arms, and ours is called Orion.
Learning about the stars in the sky is an interesting pastime, but I rarely can remember much about the constellations. They have Greek names, at least to Western audiences, but I only know a few formations, like the Big Dipper. I learn new things often, but looking at the stars has never occupied much of my time, and I’ve not bothered to memorize the night sky. Perhaps I should. I only see it clearly when I go camping, which is not often enough.
But when I see the night sky, and especially when I can literally see the galaxy arms spiraling across the sky right over my head, I am filled with the wonder that the ancestors must have felt, and it makes me feel that I very much am part of something larger, sometimes special, and good.
By the way, a friend of mine explained the North Star and why it never moves: it is above the North Pole. That star is off in the galaxy somewhere but from our position, it’s millions of miles away from our north pole and so while the earth spins on its axis, and we see the stars move across the night sky, that one stays constant because it is above us. Isn’t that awesome? Who made this majesty?
It is worth noting that camping is generally a low cost activity unless one insists on ‘glamping’ in which case the sky is the limit on costs. But looking at the stars is free to all humanity from any vantage point on earth. Understanding what we’re seeing is our birthright. You just have to let your eyes adjust to the dark and stand there. Like most of the truly valuable things in life, looking at the stars is free. The benefits are subtle, but real. The eternal heavens were there for our ancient ancestors and they are there for us now. Looking at the stars provides the ultimate perspective because we came from them, and to them we will return.