Have you seen the Milky Way recently?
If you have, you can count yourself among the fortunate.
Astronomers say that light pollution from artificial lights is strong enough in many places to blot out the stars. They’ve calculated that over a third of humanity, and almost 80 percent of North Americans, can no longer see the Milky Way. Indeed, here in Toronto we’re lucky if we can even see the Big Dipper.
Few of us seem to recognize how sad this really is.
Vision scientist Sonke Johnsen does. He wrote:
“The thought of light traveling billions of years from distant galaxies only to be washed out in the last billionth of a second by the glow from the nearest strip mall depresses me no end.”
We seem to devalue the incredible gift of the night skies. We don’t pay it much mind when it’s there. And if we can’t see it any longer, the loss is of little importance to us.
Why is it that losing our connection to the wonder of our galaxy doesn’t seem to bother us? Is it our self-sufficiency? Are we so caught up with our shiny, man-made baubles that we’re blind to our need for something real?
I think this detachment from the cosmos speaks to a spiritual apathy, too.
How is it that we’re indifferent to the awesome gift of the Son of God?
I sometimes wonder if people who live in the countryside have a better appreciation for God’s creation than we city folk?
I’m specifically thinking of the ability to see the majesty of God’s handiwork as seen in the starry night sky.
Living in a big city (in my case, Toronto), I’m only able to see a handful of heavenly bodies. I can see the Big Dipper and a smattering of other stars, bright planets such as Venus, and the moon in its phases. But that’s about it.
Big cities produce so much ambient light that it obscures our view of the wonder of the night sky. That’s why many jurisdictions are creating what’s known as “dark sky preserves.” These are regions far enough away from the lights of built-up urban areas that the majority of stars can still be seen.
Governments commit to protecting these preserves from development so that the full range of the starry sky will always be visible from those areas. They seem to understand that it’s important for us to be able to maintain our connection with the night sky, and see it the way our ancestors did.
Perhaps we should take a page from their book, and create some “dark sky preserves” in our own lives.
I don’t mean areas from which to see the night sky, but spaces in our lives that remind us of God’s majesty and creative ingenuity as expressed in nature.
When you look up at the stars in the night sky, what do you feel?
Many people say the vastness of the universe and the countless stars make them feel puny and insignificant.
In a way, that’s understandable.
The star that Earth orbits around is just one of many in the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. In fact, there are perhaps 100 billion stars in our cosmic “neighbourhood.”
And the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies. Estimates vary as to how many galaxies exist in the observable universe: some experts suggest a couple hundred billion, and others postulate as many as 10 trillion.
It’s impossible for us to know how many stars there are in the observable universe, but here’s the largest guess I came across: Multiplying the higher number of estimated galaxies by the Milky Way’s estimated 100 billion stars gives a possibility of 1 septillion stars in the universe (1 quadrillion in the European system). That’s a “1” with 24 zeroes after it!
The Milky Way is so enormous that, even travelling at light speed, it would take 100,000 years to travel across it. The observable universe is incredibly more vast: according to current thinking, it’s about 93 billion light years in diameter.
No wonder people feel small when they contemplate the unimaginable expanse of the universe!
But for me, this knowledge doesn’t make me feel insignificant.
It makes me feel just the opposite.