In our homeschooling this fall we’ve jumped into astronomy, so tonight I took the kids out with a star atlas and binoculars to scan the night skies.
It was a moving experience for me. I’d long known a few constellations, and the North Star of course, so I knew how to find my directions. But it’s amazing how well you can orient yourself when you understand some basic astronomy. You can go out and find the axis of the Earth, running from the North Star down through the globe, and see how, as you’re spinning around that axis, the whole dome of heaven will revolve above you from east to west, all around that one unmoving star.
Then, if you want to know where the basically flat disk of the solar system is spinning through the backdrop of the (vastly distant) surrounding stars, you can find the constellations of the Zodiac, where the Sun and the Moon and the planets all “wander” as the solar system cartwheels along in the galaxy. To orientate myself to finding the Zodiac this time of year I follow two of the stars in Cassiopeia, which looks like a jagged “W” (or lightning bolt), that point to the Great Square of Pegasus. If you follow that side of the square into Andromeda, you can barely see galaxy M31 (Andromeda), at over two million light years away the most distant object visible to the naked eye from Earth. Going down from there, you can trace the faint line of Pisces as it hooks around the corner of the Great Square, then go on to Aquarius, which looks to me like a bicyclist riding over the edge of Capricornus.
Then you can look over the other way and see the Pleiades low in the sky, and know that soon Aldebaran will arise in Taurus, and not long after that Orion. So if you know when the stars arise this time of year, you can tell more or less what time it is by looking to see which stars are rising in the East.
And as you take your time, lying there on the grass with your children, you can find all the other stars and constellations – Bright Deneb flying high in Cygnus, the swan, and over there by Draco’s head is Vega, in Lyra, and over there is Altair, in Aquila, and together they make a huge triangle of the three most lovely stars you ever met. It’s astounding to think of it, how you can position yourself on a spinning globe, whirling in a disc of a solar system that’s likewise spinning through the heavens as it slowly revolves around the Milky Way Galaxy, our arm of which you can see glowing faintly across the sky.
In times like that, I can feel the reality that we’re all connected in a cosmic web, a dance of energy and gravity repeated in fractal patterns from the smallest quark to the vast sweep of galaxies and beyond. When you look at the neurons in the human brain the pattern is strikingly the same as the galaxies flung across the skies. Atoms dance together in a pattern of energy that forms a neuron. Those neurons dance in a pattern that make my brain and its neurally connected body. That living dancing body is itself like a single neuron in the collective human brain which hums its note in the ecosystems covering our little blue planet. They dance together, our planet dances within itself even as it dances its way on its jaunt through the Milky Way and the universe beyond. The stars are just bright glowing points of energy in the web that connects us all from the humblest quark to the mightiest supernova. And we can go out and see that cosmic web, orient ourselves as we effortlessly dance along with the heavens, and know that fundamentally we’re all one. We’re all connected. I can’t even tell you how awesome it is to experience that with your children, or anyone close to you. Which is anyone at all, because after all, we’re all connected. 🙂 And maybe, just maybe, if I tweak my little part of the web with positive energy, I can make a flower smile in a planet on the other side of the universe when the patterns have all played out.