Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Night Wonders (Or, Why I Love Astronomy)
I remember a drive my parents made once. It was in the dark of night, I was swaddled in a blanket, and the city lights had long since receded into oblivion. We stopped in the middle of a desert landscape, and when I got out, all I felt was the cold seeping into my bones and the desire to fall asleep again. My mother pulled me out of the road and gently told me to look into the night sky, and when I did, what I saw took my breath away. There, in the depths of what I thought was unchangeable and static, was a comet. This strange visitor from the unknown, this smudge of white light from the farthest reaches of space, had saw fit to grace us with its presence. I felt then neither the cold nor the tiredness I had felt earlier, but some strange sort of awakening. I must have been young, because the desert brush towered over me, but at that moment I wondered where it had come from and how it came to be there. I wondered what it meant, and why it was here. And then I looked past it into the stars gleaming coldly behind it and asked my questions again.
Later, there were times when I'd get upset - mainly about my insecurities, my weaknesses, my doubts. As an angsty teenager, I'd run out of the house, defiant of the authority my parents held over me but still unhappy about whatever it was I was running away from at the time. About four houses to the west of mine opened up to the mesa, and it was to there I'd run to for sanctuary. Out in the wilderness, again I'd look up, and again those points of scintillating light would shine down, enough to be seen but hard to understand. I would laugh at my foolish vanity, because in the face of forever, what did it matter? Looking into the universe, albeit a limited window into it, all my worries would seep away and become replaced with the awe of my childhood memory. What is our place in the universe? What is the meaning of it? How did it come into being? Are there other levels of consciousness far exceeding our own? And then an even stranger question: why is there the assumption that the universe holds any meaning? Is meaning, in fact, only a human construction? A human yearning to comfort ourselves that we are in fact important and that sentience is something more than molecules forming protein strands?
Today, I know the universe is not as static or unchanging as I had previously thought. It's a vibrant and violent place involving unimaginable distances and terrifyingly powerful energy. However, I still do not understand any more than I had earlier, because each new revelation brings with it new questions to outnumber the old. And my quest for meaning, or perhaps lack of it, is still as strong as it ever was. Maybe my reasons for going into astrophysics are cliche - the overall "meaning" of the universe, aliens, strange planets and their stranger horizons - but it's those basic questions that keep me going. It's still what I ask when I gaze up into the night sky, my head full of wonder. In fact, I feel like a child.