The night sky has captured our collective imaginations since we humans first gazed into the velvet blue expanse. We found both our humanity and our gods among the heavenly bodies.
It’s likely that those earliest appreciations were purely utilitarian in nature. We valued the full moon for its pale luminosity allowing us diurnal animals a glimpse into the lives of the nocturnal, and we marked time by its 29.5-day cycle of birth and death. The sparkling stars served as our celestial guideposts, too, marking the shift of seasons and steering our steps from home to wherever and back again.
There’s no way to know for sure about the emotions those viewings summoned forth. Perhaps they brought a comforting sense of place and order to our lives. Maybe the periodic drama of meteors streaking through Earth’s atmosphere or the somewhat ominous slow-motion trek of comets that might appear only once in a lifetime reaffirmed an already acute sense of uncertainty and precarious existence.
Though knowledge of what lies outside our planet’s thin, life-giving membrane has grown far beyond anything our distant ancestors could comprehend, that ancient mystery and magic is still very much alive.
In this issue you can read about Dr. Clay Sherrod, atop Petit Jean Mountain, who continues to demonstrate and act upon our fascination with what’s out there. He’s been doing it for 50 years now. But maybe even more impressive is that Dr. Clay, as he’s known, doesn’t focus on only the pinhole perspective of a telescope while trying to unravel mysteries of space. Instead, his is a holistic view. He realizes the need for an intricate layering of all sciences in pursuit of understanding our world and universe.
We are the product of exploding supernovas and hungry blackholes, of the very energy and matter formed when the universe first came to be, and nothing stirs the existential questions more than the dark stillness of a clear night sky. I ponder the enormity of it all as light from the Andromeda Galaxy reaches my eyes after traveling through space for 2.5 million years. I think on the delicate balance that enables our existence as I behold the gossamer ribbon of our own Milky Way. And even more than the wonder, I feel a profound sense of belonging. It is as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says: “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out.”