In 1989 I happened on a couple
of books by William K. Hartman and Ron Miller, most importantly
one called Cycles of Fire, which told the story of
the grand cosmic cycle star formation and synthesis of elements
and how those elements have been blown back out into space and
the process starts over again and how we fit into this whole
sort of cosmic recycling program. The book was beautifully illustrated,
and it just really gripped me.
So I said to myself, "Well,
I live in New York City, so I'm not really going to be able
to see anything in the sky—which is what most people think—so
I read a few more books, and I read a lot about the Orion Nebula,
which is the closest star formation region to us in the galaxy—about
1500 light years away—and
I looked at a lot of photographs of it and I learned where it
is in the sky. And then I was walking down the street, up in
my neighborhood in Washington Heights, on 169th Street one winter
night, and I happened to look up, and I recognized the constellation
Orion, from having seen so many pictures of it! And I said,
"Oh my God, I can see the constellation Orion!" And
I ran upstairs, got my binoculars, came back downstairs, and
there it was! The Orion Nebula, from 169th Street,
in spite of all the street lights and everything!! I was really
I joined the Amateur Astronomers
Association, when I found out about them, and I started going
to their observing sessions in Carl Shurz Park, and after a
while, my girlfriend spotted a telescope in a store, and she
said, "That telescope would be perfect for you!" and
she talked me into buying it. And when they constructed the
new Rose Center, they began to recruit a group of volunteer
Explainers for the Center. As soon as I heard about that, I
knew I had to be a part of it.
The single craziest question I've
ever been asked ... a woman in her 30's—she
was quite earnest; she wasn't kidding—she
asked me, "When the astronauts go into space in their space
shuttle, how do they avoid bumping into the stars? There are
so many stars up there, how do they find their way around them?"
She had no idea—and
a great many people have no idea—the
distances involved and what the stars are and the fact that
the sun is a star. Even the fact that the Earth goes around
the sun! A National Science Foundation survey a few years ago,
showed that 27% of American adults still think the sun goes
around the Earth!
When I'm out in a really dark
sky and I'm alone and it's just me and the universe, it's really
like I'm out there, cruising through the galaxy. Which
is really what we're doing! I mean, the sun and its planets
are like a space ship cruising through the galaxy, and I can
really feel that when I'm out there under a really dark sky
with the universe all around me. It's like I'm sitting at this
really big picture window on the observation deck of a space
ship, looking at the scenery.
But more philosophically, some
people say that the universe makes them feel insignificant.
I don't feel that way. I feel that it makes us very
significant. Because what we're looking at, all around us in
the universe, is the creation process. This grand, cosmic, recycling
program is the process which created us, and we are going to
go back into the system, and new worlds are going to be created
from our atoms. So the universe created us, and through our
eyes and our brains, it can look at itself and appreciate itself.
That makes us very significant!