Before your city completely blots out the night with glaring, garish outdoor lighting in the frenetic fear of the dark side demons and the worship of glittery advertising, take time to go outside and look at the stars. By 8 o’clock in the evening Orion shines in the SW sky along with many other beautiful constellations spread across the sky. Whatever the season, the space that surrounds our planet is filled with stars – thousands, millions, billions, trillions of them.
Some Native Americans thought stars were the flickering campfires of departed spirits, others believed the night sky was a black dome with pinholes letting in light. The Greeks and Romans were so preoccupied with the night sky that they conjured up imaginary patterns in the stars and incorporated them into religion. Those same constellation patterns and names are recognized by us today.
What are stars really? Quite simply, they are suns, differing only in minor degree from Old Sol that illuminates our days and warms us with its rays. All of those stars or suns are the focal point of solar systems around which, almost daily, astronomers are finding new planets, some astonishingly like those in our own system. Think about it. Millions and billions of suns with the potential of harboring earth-like planets. I wonder now many people there are out there, looking back toward us, a single, perhaps rather uninteresting glimmer amid the broad expanse of their sky.
Sacrilege and blasphemy? I don’t think so. To me it is the height of egotism to think that an all powerful “God of the universe” only found it worthwhile to populate a single planet with intelligent life among the numberless “worlds without end” which he is said to have created. Some day we’ll know, but in the meantime, I see no harm in dreaming.
So here we are, floating in space, orbiting one of those pinprick suns in the blackness of the void and deriving from it everything we have. It is our sole source of energy and was responsible for the photosynthesis in ancient forests, swamps and bogs that became the coal and oil fueling our power plants. It is in the gasoline of our cars, the food in our markets and on our plates.
Tilted on its axis by about 23 degrees, Earth moves around the sun controlling our seasons. Day length controls the flowering of plants, influences cats dogs and many wild animals to grow winter coats and shed them in the spring, triggers the appearance of color in fall leaves, and controls the mating cycles in insects and many other animals.
Positioned 93 million miles away, our sun warms but doesn’t cook us because we spin at exactly the right speed on the rotisserie of our axis. A little change in that velocity and we’d either fry or freeze. During the night we get a little taste of what it would be like without the sun as the day’s heat radiates into the emptiness of space at a truly frightening rate, dropping the air temperature an average of 30 degrees. What if the earth got stuck and we had a night that ran for 24 or 48 hours? By the long awaited morning, we could be experiencing night time temperatures 120 degrees lower than normal – about 50 degrees below zero.
The complexities of our existence in the cosmos never cease to awe and inspire me. It seems that most of my life has been spent learning more and more about life on this little orb and yet as advancing age dogs my footsteps, the realization comes that my understanding is still extremely limited, even about the things I think I know.
So, let me challenge you. Don’t just wander aimlessly through life with your eyes on the ground. Look up, see the stars and strive to grasp their deeper meaning as they pass across the darkened fields and forests of Texas and the world.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.