Cosmic Sightseeing 1

When you have Andromeda, who needs Fairies?

The directions said, “Drive until the road changes to gravel and keep on going until the end.” I liked the sound of that: the end of the road. It’s a rarity these days, finding such out-of the-way places. It feels like going back to a time before our world was covered in asphalt and sealed in plastic. Back to when the stars still shone at night.

 

We were on our way to a rental cabin on 160 glorious acres of meadow and forest, somewhere between the Methow River and the Sawtooth Wilderness.

Just as promised, the end of the road led us up to the cabin, where we were welcomed by a string of Tibetan Prayer Flags hung across the front doorway. The cabin was beautifully rustic, artfully done by people who seem to have a deep connection to the natural world. In the magnificent setting on a small ridge above the meadow, it seemed magical.

Apparently, we were not the first to think so. Inside, we found a brochure advertising a “Fairy and Human Relations Conference”, a huge celebration held on the property each year. The photos showed hundreds of people dressed in robes, gossamer wings, flowery tiaras and flowing scarves, holding hands and dancing around a huge circle in the meadow. They spend a weekend together every year communing with their nature spirits and other aspects of the ‘faery realm.’

It’s not my thing at all, but lots of people apparently take it pretty seriously. So be it.

This weekend, though, we had the place to ourselves. On our first night there, sitting outside above the darkened, silvery meadow, my thoughts shifted to the stars. I think the mysteries of science are so fascinating, I don’t think much about things like fairies (except for the occasional mutant octopus daydream). The observable Universe is just so interesting, filled with mysterious forces, energies and structures—things like strange quarks, quantum foam, and Dark Matter.

And don’t even get me started on concepts like Infinity. I’ll just go on and on forever.

That first night we sat back in our nifty REI camp-loungers and gazed up at the star-filled sky. It’s always so hard to fathom what you are really seeing when you look upward.

Our star, the sun, is only one of several hundred billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. And sprinkled throughout intergalactic space…there are a hundred billion or so galaxies, each with their own collection of hundreds of billions of stars. I’m not sure how that totals up, but it’s a lot. And that’s just the observable Universe. It’s possible the Universe itself is infinite…(oops, there I go).

As the night sky grew darker and the bright points of starlight began to pop out all over, a faint, fuzzy smear appeared across the sky. It was Andromeda, a spiral galaxy that is our closest galactic neighbor, and the most distant object visible with the naked eye (although, to call Andromeda an object is a stretch. It contains roughly a trillion stars, after all).

Andromeda, also known as M31, is captured in the NASA image from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer. The view shows the ultraviolet light…invisible to our eyes but interpreted by NASA’s telescope.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away—just a hop and a skip in galactic terms. That means it takes the light from Andromeda 2.5 million years to reach earth. Right at that moment, my own personal retinas were receiving light waves that were emitted by Andromeda’s stars 2.5 million years ago. I was looking into the past, seeing Andromeda as it looked long ago.

We see Andromeda through a galactic curtain of stars from our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Our galaxy has 200-400 billion stars or so, Andromeda has a trillion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wondered…what was Earth like 2.5 million years ago—at the same time as my visual picture of Andromeda?

At roughly that time period, the ancestors of humankind were roaming the African savannahs. They stood completely upright, had short, hairy bodies with long arms—but their faces would have looked fairly human. They were also clever, being the first of our ancestors to make stone tools. It was the very beginning of a new age…the dawn of the Stone Age. *

At night, they surely looked up to the star-filled skies, and wondered what it was all about. How did their primitive, but clever minds process what they were seeing? What were their stories?

And in the distant future…what will the night sky look like?

3 billion years from now, Andromeda and our own galaxy, the Milky Way will merge together. By then, Andromeda will fill the night sky like a glowing, cosmic lightshow.  The entire night sky will glow brightly from the light of new stars born from the energy of the collision of Andromeda and the Milky Way.

It seems like magic.

In 3 billion years, Andromeda will dominate the sky. This image is a mash-up of my earlier sketch and the NASA image. Of course, in reality, 3 billion years from now, the landscape at this location will be completely changed. It could be on the bottom of an ocean, or in the middle of a desert.

 

For more information check out NASA’s site:

http://www.nasa.gov/

Check out the BBC series or the amazing ipad app “The Wonders of the Universe”. I think it’s worth the price of the ipad just to get this app!

For more on our human ancestors

http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/cavemen/factfiles/homo_habilis.shtml?img1

http://www.amnh.org/content/search?SearchText=homo+habilis&x=0&y=0

If you want to stay at this really awesome rental cabin:

http://www.skalitude.com/

If you prefer faeries:

http://www.fairycongress.com/

 

*give or take a few hundred thousand years, and possibly a few evolutionary branchings.

6 thoughts on “Cosmic Sightseeing 1

  1. Millions and Billions and Trillions!!!!!!! How can I think of a comment after reading those numbers? The concepts are fascinating! Write more on this subject.
    Love from your “down-to-earth” parents…

  2. You are so talented! Almost infinitely so! 🙂 I’m so honored to be your friend and fortunate to enjoy your wonderful art and writing.

    • Thank you Dean! I hope you get to visit this cabin sometime. In addition to the billions of stars, there’s thousands of birds. It’s a real sanctuary.

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