A very long time ago,
In a galaxy far, far away…
There’s absolutely nothing! I should know, I have been scouring the sky for years. Not a single peep out of the alien overlords. Does this mean that I’m not the chosen one? (collective gasp from the audience)
Okay, perhaps not nothing. Casting aside my disappointments with E.T, the night sky is indeed a marvelous spectacle. There’s no sight that can be so humbling, yet empowering at the same time. It rewards your good days and redeems the rough ones.
When I was younger, but not young enough for this to be not embarrassing, I used to be extremely afraid of the dark and of being alone. Put those two together, and you have the perfect recipe for wet pants and recurring nightmares. So I guess one of the primary reasons I was drawn towards the stars, was that they provided light where there was none. A virtue that I hold on to, even today, albeit in a less literal sense. The day someone told me man had been to the moon was when I got permanently hooked. In the next few years, I briefly halted my “Secrets of Droon” collection, ( think of it like a children’s version of Harry Potter but way cooler, because it was spread into about 44 books and the kids don’t grow up and make out with each other.) and focused solely on getting my hands on books about space and planets in every bookstore, library and the annual Scholastic Book Fair (God bless those guys!) that I could get into. My bookcase grew out of space for books about space. A nerd was born. Of course every kid dreams of becoming an astronaut at one point, this kid just took himself way too seriously. Fifteen years later, here I was, picking Aerospace Engineering as my major, against a large number of forewarning from my parents, teachers and even a few friends. Their worries about less scope and possible life of unemployment did little to convince me otherwise. I was either going to space, or at the least, have something made by me sent up there and aerospace seemed to be the right step towards that goal. Of course, ‘reality’ sure hit later, but I still have my hopes quite high.
However that wasn’t the first time I had made a choice that was deemed a little weird by those around me. Back in 2012, I made my parents order binoculars worth 10,000 INR ( around hundred dollars now on amazon ) online. Might not sound like much to most of you, but spending ten thousand rupees on a hobby was a huge deal in my household. I had been asking for a telescope since I knew what one was. Even attempted building my own with 3 friends back in 7th grade but that bottomed out as we couldn’t buy the lenses. Telescopes turned out to be too expensive and after reading Philip’s Stargazing with Binoculars, I convinced myself that binoculars are the way to go for a novice such as myself. It was our first online purchase (again, kind of a big deal back then) and when it finally arrived 14 days later, I felt like a father looking at his newborn for the first time. Any one of my friends would tell you I still take care of it just as if it was a real infant.
The real challenge followed soon after. At first everyone was excited and the whole family would accompany me to the terrace and take turns using the binoculars. The moon was everyone’s first choice, and probably the best as well, given how she defines magnificence. You get to really appreciate the three dimensionality of the moon at first glance – its no longer a circle or a crescent with cartoon eyes, it is a sphere, of countless craters of varying sizes and textures and shadows scattered all across. The ‘mountains’ on the moon become exceptionally detailed right along the terminator, the shadow-line that divides the illuminated and non-illuminated sides of the moon. Of course, stare at the moon long enough and you’ll have this lingering dark spot dead center of your field of vision for about 5-10 minutes later, but totally worth it. Trust me. Then there are star clusters and certain galaxies and nebulae which you can observe, given you know where to look and can read the sky. Seeing hundreds of stars nestled close to each other in a circle in an otherwise barren patch of sky is bound to make jaws drop everywhere. Jupiter and the Galilean moons, Saturn and Venus outshine the stars with Mars making an appearance now and then as a salmon colored dot.
However, it is the stars that draw the line between passion and fascination. Anyone would be awestruck on seeing the moon up close, all bright and shiny, but it is a totally different case with stars. Stars are gigantic balls of fire, which is pretty darn cool, but they are so far away they reveal absolutely no detail on viewing through a binocular. Or even a telescope for that matter. However, twin stars that are too close and appear as a single star to the naked eye become more distinct under the lens and a thousand stars that are too faint to be viewed directly, come into view. Any patch of sky that seems empty to the naked eye get studded with stars the moment you bring your binoculars up. But it loses its charm after the first three minutes for most people. It takes a whole new perspective to appreciate what you just witnessed and that is what defines a stargazer. All the dazzling, colorful pictures of nebulae filled with haze and stardust that people see on the internet and books pretty much ruined our ability to appreciate a calm, cloudless, star-studded night sky.
Light that is created billions of miles away, in a reaction stirring itself inside the heart of a fireball, has traveled all that distance possibly reflecting off of so many planets, curving under the gravity of nearby stars, splitting through ice and dust and mostly, long stretches of pure nothingness, only to end its journey at the back of your eyes. Light, however small a speck it might be, that was on a star is now inside you and that doesn’t fascinate you? Is that even possible? If the grandeur of the night sky does not humble you, you’re living life wrong. For a moment everything that we do here – fussing about our pretty faces, rushing to earn the most money, that one fight that’s got you down since last week – become insignificant as you realise that none of them deserve the importance you’ve assigned to them. The universe is a living organism, functioning as one body, with countless interconnected organs all affecting one another and every one of us is a part of it. The moment that realisation hits you, man’s oneness with the stars, that’s when you truly appreciate life and the unique ability to experience, that which man has been gifted with. Technically, since matter is neither created nor destroyed, we are all composed of stardust and light. I do not know if I’m still making any sense because I’ve tried talking about this with people and usually end up depressing them the moment I mention our lives hold no significance. Maybe you have to experience it to know it. What seems depressing in text is actually extremely freeing in reality. Riding a roller coaster is surely more fun than operating one, even though operating it, is a more significant task, isn’t it?
One of the highlights of last year was the appearance of one green comet – Lovejoy.( If I can’t be an astronaut, I would definitely settle for the job of naming comets.) It was on TV with a bright head and a long green tail and suddenly everyone wanted to accompany me to stargaze. Of course half the people were disappointed once they knew a comet isn’t the same as a shooting star and other half, when I couldn’t locate it. As days went on, the crowd thinned and finally when I did see it on the fourth day, it was just me on the rooftop. It most certainly looked nothing like the pictures, it was more of a small white haze, like an extremely faint patch of cloud. And that was satisfying enough. I returned every night to follow its path, revelling at the feeling of being part of a centuries old tradition, since the time Galileo decided to take a theatre toy and point it towards the heavens.
You know how whenever you’re alone in a new place, you feel much more comfortable when you look into your phone? Apparently that’s because it gives you a sense of familiarity, sort of like carrying around a piece of your home wherever you go. I guess that’s what the stars provide for me. A constant in a world that won’t stop changing. No matter what I do, the stars are going to keep smiling down on me and I shall always be at peace knowing that.