The Double Cluster, captured as a meteor passed through the field of view.
Benjamin Law / S&T Online Photo Gallery

“Life here,” says the narrator in the opening credits for the original Battlestar Galactica series, “began out there.”

I forget about that, a lot. Not that there was a previous version of BSG that somehow did not feature Katee Sackhoff and Edward James Olmos. No, I lose my sense of connection. I forget the profound words of Carl Sagan:

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff.”

Carl Sagan

I get distracted by everyday concerns, and by mundanity and pettiness. I forget that we were forged inside stars.

When I’ve spent too long away from the night sky — due to clouds or personal conflicts — I feel out of balance. I stray from my equilibrium. Sometimes I don’t understand just how far from center I’ve drifted until I come back again.

Disconnection was precisely what I was feeling at the end of 2022 — plus disorientation, disquiet, and probably a couple other d-words, too. Despite all the good progress of the preceding twelve months, I was teetering into familiar burnout. Long weeks had passed since I’d last taken a deep breath under a wide open nocturnal sky.

Around the middle of December, we finally had a clear night. I set up the borrowed NexStar 127SLT on the concrete pad behind the house. I was determined, at long last, to show M the Double Cluster. It was a challenge getting both of the knotted whorls of stars in the 32mm eyepiece, but I just managed it. I banged on the living room window to let M know I was ready, and he shuffled outside.

“Where am I supposed to look?” M didn’t yet have his night vision, and with NGC 869 and NGC 884 near zenith — and with the tripod not set high enough — he had to sit on the ground to access the eyepiece. “Okay, I think I see some scattered stars. That’s it?”

He was underwhelmed, and I was disappointed. I pointed the scope at Jupiter instead, and M was moderately impressed. It helped that the scope was at a more comfortable viewing angle.

Jovian system
A small telescope will reveal Jupiter's four brightest moons.
Bob King

“Did you find something?” our neighbor asked as he, his young daughter, and their puppy came through the back gate, on my texted invitation.

M and the neighbor chatted in the dark about work. The puppy head-butted my knee, asking for pets, while the eight-year-old took a turn at the scope.

“I can see the moons,” she said, her voice serious.

I started to explain how Jupiter is a gas giant with many, many moons, but she cut me off.

“I know,” she said. “We did a week on the planets in school.”

I felt both chided and encouraged by her fresh interest in astronomy, especially when her father told me they’d been outside on previous evenings, trying to catch sight of the Geminid meteor shower through cloud breaks.

But as excited as I was to share the stars on one of the first clear nights in far too long, I craved quiet. I wanted to have the sky to myself. I needed to reconnect.

The neighbors went home to bed, and M headed inside to warm up. The night was cold and damp, but it was just me and the stars. I took a quick tour of the Pleiades and the Hyades. I spied the Orion Nebula through the tree branches. Then I pointed the scope again at the Double Cluster.

Sagan’s words echoed in my ears. Does the universe know itself through us? Maybe it goes both ways. I find connection and reassurance under open skies. I more easily accept my imperfections and shortcomings when contemplating stellar origins.

“Star stuff,” I whispered back.

I sat on the rough concrete, the cold numbing my butt and spiraling up my spine. I looked through the small scope and breathed in the stunning view. The realignment was quiet and quick. My heart rate slowed and my breath deepened. I can’t say I was the unwitting recipient of universal mysteries in that moment — that would be an article for a much different publication — but I had the experience of coming back to myself and settling in, and that’s even better.

We are the universe knowing itself. We are star stuff.

There’s little doubt I’ll forget this truth again. I’ll get caught up in project deadlines, personal challenges, and political dramas. I’ll continue to have a very human experience at the bottom of this gravity well. I’ll be thrown off-kilter again and again.

But I hope I don’t forget how to reconnect. I hope I never forget to look up.


Image of Anthony Barreiro

Anthony Barreiro

January 5, 2023 at 7:12 pm

Thank you very much Jennifer. For me, it can be as simple as seeing the Moon again for the first time after a week of constant clouds. Instant reset. There she is, right where she's supposed to be at this moment in her orbit around the Earth, and our mutual orbit around the Sun.

By the way, I recently finished reading Jo Marchant's book "The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars." I highly recommend it. Starting with neolithic cave paintings and continuing through the ancient Babylonians and Greeks, Polynesian navigators, the usual suspects from the Enlightenment and the titans of relativity and quantum physics, with fascinating excursions into philosophy, art, politics, and biology, Marchant surveys how our relationship to the starry heavens has made us humans who we are. She tells the story of her own unexpected experience of awe seeing a truly dark sky for the first time. She laments that we modern humans have lost much of our direct personal experience of the sky, and ends her epilogue:

"There's another way forward: not to reject science, or invoke the supernatural, but to consider conscious experience as a natural, fundamental part of the reality that science describes.
"From both practical and philosophical perspectives, then, our personal connection with the cosmos is not a marginal, worthless bit of candy, worth discarding for technological convenience, but part of the essence of what makes us human. ...
"This is a book about how we have closed our eyes to the stars. The challenge now is to open them again."

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Jen Willis

February 2, 2023 at 8:41 pm

"The Human Cosmos" has been on my TBR list for a while. I hope to get to it before too much longer. Cheers!

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February 20, 2023 at 9:14 am

Thanks Anthony, I’ve just ordered this book through my library:)

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January 30, 2023 at 1:30 am

Reading belatedly, but, I enjoy your articles, and the philosophical side of stargazing -- that it's not just about collecting data but about seeking that sense of connection to the universe. Thank you 🙂

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Jen Willis

February 2, 2023 at 8:42 pm

Thank you, AB. That's precisely what I'm after with this column. I'm glad these pieces resonate with you.

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February 20, 2023 at 9:12 am

Keep these coming Jennifer, it’s going to be your fault when I subscribe to Sky and Telescope, I’ll just read a few more of your articles;)

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