Wonder//

If You Do One Thing For Yourself Tonight, Go Outside and Look Up

One astronomer explains what to look for when you look at the night sky.

Courtesy of  Igorfp / Getty Images 

As a professional astronomer I have grown comfortable with numbers. They provide a language—distance, temperature, mass, velocity—through which we can visit worlds we cannot touch and describe places we cannot see. They are tools for exploring a universe so strange that it often challenges our day-to-day experience and sense of reality. But there is also another language spoken by the stars, one that is profoundly human. 

My own interest in astronomy began with that second language, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. I was ten years old and my mother took me to hear a lecture at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. The astronomer was talking about the work of Edwin Hubble, namesake of the famous telescope. He explained Hubble’s great discovery: the farther away other galaxies are, the faster they appear to recede from us. This showed that space itself is expanding and changed the way we think about our Universe. Combined with the sheer size of the observatory’s telescope, this blew my ten-year-old mind. But what I know now is that it wasn’t the numbers that hooked me; it was the way those numbers made me feel: simultaneously big and small, wonderstruck and humbled, joyful and curious.

In the years since, one of the things I’ve come to value most about Astronomy is the chance to share that sense of wonder every time I watch someone discover, or rediscover, the night sky. Sometimes this happens with a wild new revelation—a new planet or a new nebula—but many times, it comes from the familiar.

Orion, the Hunter, is a winter constellation known to many of us in the Northern Hemisphere. We recognize it by the characteristic three stars of the Hunter’s belt and the solitary supergiant stars—Rigel’s fierce blue at Orion’s foot and Betelgeuse blazing red at his opposite shoulder.

One night I had the pleasure to take a family stargazing under the dark, clear skies of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I live and work. The family came mostly from New York, where light pollution makes stargazing difficult and hides many of the sky’s most beautiful features. They were adamant that we go on a particular night and when I met with them, I understood why. It turned out that their grandfather was traveling from another country and could only stay for a single night. I got the sense that he didn’t get the chance to spend much time with his grandchildren.

As we walked out to the telescope, with the entire Milky Way unfolding above us, he stopped to pick up his grandson. After wrangling the young boy’s attention, he pointed up to Orion’s belt, to its middle star, and said, “Do you see that star up there, the one right in the middle? That star has been with me my entire life and, when I’m gone, I want you to look up at that star. When you see it, you’ll know that I’ll always be with you.”

That star’s name is Alnilam. It is more than 30 times the size of our Sun and burns at a temperature nearly five times hotter, giving it a brilliant blue-white color. But none of this was important in that moment, or to that grandfather. Even though the star is over 1,300 light years away, it felt present and close in that moment. It held meaning for him, and afterward, meaning for those he loved. I was stunned by the power of that connection and it forever changed the way I see Orion’s belt.

The science of Astronomy will always rely on the language of numbers, but next time you look up at the night sky, remember that it is also speaking directly to you as a human, as it has spoken to those who have come before you for thousands of years—curious and wonderstruck, humble and joyful. All you have to do is listen.  

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