They are pinpricks in the dark mantle of heaven, tiny oases of light in the desert of the night. We stare at them when the clouds have parted and the artificial lights of the cityscape have gone, looking out into the universe, into the past. Their shape has found its way into the iconography of every culture on earth. They are a deep well of mystery to be unraveled, a trove of endless knowledge waiting to be decoded by scientific observation and analysis. We entrust them with our wishes, and they are the vault of our dreams.
It is impossible to look up at the “heaventree of stars,” as James Joyce called it in Ulysses, and not experience a moment of transcendence. Even astronomers, whose lives are spent cataloguing the universe and translating it into numbers, are still humbled by the beauty of stars. Historical stargazers like Galileo, facing the wrath of the Church for casting doubt upon God’s divine order, could not stop peering up into the night sky. Some, like Giordano Bruno, went to their deaths transfixed by the possibilities of worlds beyond the confines of Earth. Stars may be, scientifically speaking, massive balls of burning hydrogen, but more than that, they are the very fires of imagination, reaching out to us from so far away.
Dreamers often trip over the sidewalk because they’re busy looking up. I remember visiting my grandfather’s cottage as a boy and sitting on the dock long past sunset, armed with a pair of binoculars, and feeling overwhelmed by the sight above my head – where metropolitan light pollution back home kept the players restricted to familiar constellations like the two Dippers, out here in the north was an entire galaxy revealed; the Milky Way in all its splendor and sublimity. The plethora of mosquito bites that revealed themselves the following morning was testament to how long I spent out there that night, lost in the possibilities of the grand everything. Not appreciating it at the time, but understanding now that on that evening I was connected to the entirety of human history, to everyone who had ever stopped in the night, cast their eyes to the sky and if even for a moment, wondered.
From a purely scientific viewpoint, stars are fascinating. The cosmic cornucopia of star types, from blue supergiant to brown dwarf. The cycle of their birth and death, the clever universe recycling the debris left by a supernova into new stars and planets, and in our case, new life. Black holes, pulsars, quasars, nebulae. Beyond every turn in the cosmos lies a perplexing new construct to enthrall the curious and the seekers of truth. Yet stars have an indelible spiritual quality also, something that cannot be reduced to an equation, a chemical reaction.
When we feel smallest, when we are walled in by the borders of our lives, the stars remind us that there is so much more – more than anyone can conceive in the longest lifetime, more than our species will ever be able to experience in its entire existence. It is no surprise then, that many wonderful narratives have been written that take place out there, and that the ongoing narrative of humankind’s fledgling exploration of the stars continues to compel. I’ve been a fan of both science fiction and science fact my entire life: books about the U.S.S. Enterprise and the Apollo missions have rested side by side on my nighttable. A most treasured possession was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery, acquired on a visit to Cape Canaveral and painstakingly assembled and painted by me and my father, with a place of honor among my collection of classic Lego Space. The stars call to our very souls, inviting us to follow like beacons of inspiration. Lighthouses of friendship and warmth amidst endless, oppressive darkness. And we are more than willing to answer.
As we craft our tales of imagined far-off worlds, or calculate the gravitational pull of a red giant, the question remains: what exactly are we looking for when we look at the stars? The simplest answer may be that in kindling our dreams, the stars are ultimately like distant, tantalizing mirrors. We look into them, squinting, peering long and hard, hoping to discover the missing elements of our own equation staring back at us. Out in the farthest reaches of the universe, we are looking for ourselves. That connection to the purest spiritual truth that has eluded us since our dawn and remains for now at least, like the stars, just out of reach – what it means to be human.