C. L. Williamson
We are the universe experiencing itself.
That's why we're here- Carl Sagan
From the time it first bathed the surrounding, embryonic darkness with
searing radiance, the star had fused hydrogen in a desperate struggle
against gravity's crushing embrace- a defiance that would continue for
millions of years, until its hydrogen supply was consumed. Then, the heat
and pressure long generated by its nuclear furnace would falter, forcing
the star to burn successive elements faster and faster, transmuting them
up the Periodic Table; helium, oxygen, carbon, silicon and finally iron-
the end of energy producing fusion reactions. Fuel supply finally exhausted,
furnace cooling, the doomed star would collapse and detonate. The resulting
Supernova would scatter these laboriously produced elements back into the
galaxy, for use by future stars, planets and their rare progeny- living things,
and only with the most exquisite rarity- sentient beings.
But the progenitor star, still in middle age, and untroubled by time or fate,
devoured hydrogen greedily, as though it had all eternity. Gravity meanwhile,
squeezed ever more tightly- and waited.
A photon, liberated deep inside the star needed a hundred millennia
to leave the hot dense core. Radiated and absorbed through countless
collisions in the dense interior, even an unthinking photon might lose hope
of ever finding the star's surface and the freedom of interstellar space.
But the frustrated photon, after a million years paying homage to the
Second Law (of Thermodynamics) was rewarded, and so reached the
photosphere, and long awaited transparency.
Free at last, the photon began its long journey. Others of its kind
streamed alongside, some from the same star, and, as the years
went by and distance increased, from other stars, until finally
from the whole disk of the great spiral galaxy. For over two million
years the little wave of light flew as straight and true as the gentle
curve of space-time would allow.
Earth meanwhile, in eternal pilgrimage, traced ellipses around the Sun.
Ice caps expanded, contracted and expanded again. Contents shifted-
their great plates grinding relentlessly over the Earth's mantle.
And our primate ancestors, slowly emerging from the shadows of instinct,
slept fitfully in pre-anthropomorphic darkness, troubled by wordless
dreams of dim but growing awareness.
Early autumn had been dry, and the night both clear and windless.
The man and girl both carried red flashlights to protect their night
vision, and as they walked carefully into the backyard, they spoke
softly so as not to disturb the neighbors.
"No moon tonight," the man whispered.
"And no porch lights either", the girl replied. "We're lucky."
The telescope had been setup an hour earlier so that the optics could
equilibrate with the temperature of the night air. The 12 year old, was
normally full of questions, but speaking seemed out of place in this dark,
quiet world overarched with stars.
Even so, she whispered expectantly, "What will we see tonight?"
The man spoke again. "Well now, it's been at least a month since we've
been out,and as you may have noticed, the sky has changed somewhat.
The summer constellations have departed- but there's a treat for us
tonight. And you'll hardly need the telescope or even your binoculars."
Reclining on the lawn chairs and gazing skyward, both were silent
for awhile lost in thought.
With starlight softly illuminating his features, he explained that in summer,
the Milky Way arched high overhead, forcing nighttime observers to look
through its crowded plane. But as fall and winter approached, one looked
out and away from the galactic plane into a vast abyss- "the greatest void
imaginable by the human mind. But the Milky Way has a neighbor to keep
it company," he continued quietly. And with that he pointed to Cassiopeia.
The bright constellation was shaped like a "W" resting on its side. "And now
if you look to the right of the upper half of the "W" you will see a hazy
smudge. It's called Andromeda."
Locating it took her a few minutes, but there it was- a distinctive oval shape,
glowing softly in the night sky. Even in her binoculars, it remained ghostly
and unresolved, though nearby stars blazed clear and diamond hard. "It's
composed of hundreds of billions of stars," he went on, "but even the
brightest can be resolved only in the largest telescopes. You are looking
out over two million light years- to the most remote object that can be seen
with an unaided human eye", he said triumphantly, hoping to impress her.
The lack of an immediate response was an indication that perhaps he had.
Lifting the binoculars back to her eyes, she marveled at the beauty of
the soft iridescent form.
After two million years without interaction, the photon plunged
through the earth's upper atmosphere. Striking nothing at first, it continued,
until it hit the optical glass of the binocular objective and refracted- changed
direction- then again at the eyepiece- a short distance through air,
and then the cornea of her eye. Again refracted but still at lightspeed,
it finally touched her retina, and relinquished there, all of the energy
it had so long ago acquired from the star of its birth. The gift delivered,
the photon, winked out of existence. But its final communion with matter
contributed to an image of softly glowing, ethereal beauty,
and to a rather startling idea now taking shape in the girl's mind.
Gazing upward, she inclined her head momentarily, in salutation,
and acknowledgement of her newly discovered kinship-
then shivering a little, whispered quietly, "Thanks daddy."
© 1999 Charles L. Williamson