[020] Stardust

We are stardust.
Billion year old carbon
We are golden.
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
– Joni Mitchell

For a species that was mucking about in the slime just last week (in geologic time), our civilization has advanced at a pretty good clip. In the space of only ten thousand generations, our illustrious family went from taming fire to screwing in lightbulbs to igniting the ion thrusters of interplanetary probes. We are golden. But we pay a price, small or large, for every step out of the darkness.

Take those lightbulbs, for example. Humans are too puny to be seen from space. Even Chris Christie. You can’t even see the giant bridges he sabotages, or what he ate for lunch. So you’d never know there are 7+ billion of us scampering around on this orb. Until nightfall. Because what do we do in the dark? We turn on the lights!


500 million people in North America. Will the last one to leave shut the lights?

And do we ever. In this night view of North America – from the Arctic to Aruba – those zillions (actual number) of lightbulbs reveal our major cities, tiny towns, the highways and byways that connect us. The coastlines are well defined (everyone wants waterfront property); the lakes and oceans are absolute black. But look – there’s the tiny little speck of Bermuda floating in the middle of the Atlantic, halfway between Nova Scotia and Puerto Rico. You’d never see its pink sands and pink tourists in the daytime version of this photo, but it shines like a beacon at night.

I’ve never orbited the Earth on a satellite or space station, and (having seen the film Gravity) I never will. The closest I’ve come to that vantage point was on a flight from Cape Town to London. I woke up in the middle of that flight, middle of that night, disoriented. The cabin was darkened in ‘sleep’ mode, and everyone seemed to be complying with the suggestion. Where am I? I raised the window shade and was gobsmacked by the sight. My camera was stowed, but this is what I saw:

Cape Town to London - Night over the Med

Cape Town to London – Night over the Med

As the BA jumbo, seven miles high, approached the north coast of Africa, the velvety black Mediterranean Sea spread out before me like a jeweler’s cloth, scattered with diamonds twinkling the outline of Continental Europe. It’s one of those moments of my life which I can revisit simply by closing my eyes. Feeling my forehead and cheek pressed against the coolness, trying not to fog the window with my breath, hearing the low thrummm of the engines, wishing the plane would circle this spot for hours. That didn’t happen. I had already been granted one wish that day. BA had wrapped up a very nice upgrade for my 40th birthday.

So, lightbulbs. (If there is an award for Best/Most Digressions in a Blog Post, will someone please nominate me? I think I’d win. My acceptance speech would take three weeks.) Lightbulbs, right. Thomas Edison’s invention and its progeny certainly make our world a brighter, safer, more productive place. And a spectacular sight to behold from on high. But those same lights cause a sort of cataract to dim our sight for the real pyrotechnics: the view when we look UP.

Our home planet (Earth) orbits a star (the Sun) which flies through the universe as part of a pinwheel-shaped galaxy we call the Milky Way. This blog (and everything else in our solar system) can be found halfway out from the bulging center, along one of the pinwheel’s spiral arms. When we look up at night and see the milky haze of stardust and starlight arcing across the sky, we are looking toward the galactic center of the Milky Way, edge on.


The Milky Way Galaxy as seen from the Atacama Desert in Chile

Most of our night skies do not look like this, thanks to the light pollution from all of those brightly lit mall parking lots, gas stations, baseball diamonds and interstates. I live in the middle of Los Angeles. I’m lucky if I can see the full moon. This photo above shows the Milky Way in all of its glory, from a place with one of the darkest night skies on Earth: the Atacama desert in northern Chile. Here is the most amazing video, Ancients by Nicholas Buer, which sparked this post:

There are several hundred billion stars like our sun in that cosmic cloud of our galaxy. And there are several hundred billion galaxies like our Milky Way in the endless expanse of the universe. Some uber-geeky types speculate that there may well be billions of universes beyond that. But I think they just make that shit up. I mean, it’s not like you can prove anything like that. Like god or something. Oh, wait…

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way Galaxy

I came face to face with the Milky Way, once. The darkest night sky I’ve ever been under was a billion years ago (it seems) on an idyllic holiday with idyllic friends on the Caribbean island of Nevis. We had a taxi driver named Marlon Brando (why would I make that up?) who took us late one night to a local hangout waaaay off the beaten path in a jungle clearing on the beach. It was just an open-air pavilion packed with people, locals and touristos, dancing in the dank Carib humidity. In the wee hours of that morning, almost dead from happy dance exhaustion, my clothes soaked through, I stumbled out to the beach, looked up… and just gasped at the sight of it. We are stardust.

We are stardust looking back at stardust… which may be looking back at us. Like that bathroom mirror infinity. Only better.

The dark night sky makes me happy.
Day 020 #100happydays