By Deane Juhan
I recall a night, outside on the back deck of my second childhood home (situated up on the side of one of the mountains that towered over our small town’s valley, where my parents had moved us from the flatter concentrations of the grid of named and numbered streets and avenues) when I stood alone and gazed dreamily up at the densely spangled black backdrop of a high altitude Colorado night sky. I must have been nine or ten at the time. I spent many solitary evenings there, engrossed by the twinkling of thousands of stars slowly shifting their fixed map across the darkness onto which they were projected. I knew that their apparent progress right to left was illusory, caused by the rotation of the Earth beneath me that I could not feel, but I had to extrapolate this reality by imagining my own movement, unsensed and counterintuitive, in the opposite direction.
By virtue of my having seen charts of the constellations in books, certain groups of stars connected long ago with non-existent lines by the imaginations of gazers in the past, certain familiar patterns reliably stood out for me and separated themselves from the random gestalt that surrounded them. Some had become immediately obvious--the Big Dipper and its merging with Ursa Major, Cassiopeia’s block letter double-u, Orion’s splendid belt, dagger and outstretched arms. Other figures were harder to clearly identify, like the less obvious hints of the Zodiac’s creatures, which required more chart study to easily pick out. Certain individual stars stood out as well, prompting one to remember their names--above all the significantly placed North Star around which all the others revolved. But it was only by focused concentration that I could visualize the remote North Pole being directly beneath it and my own station near the globe’s 40%, latitude, 115% longitude, where I myself was wheeling around Polaris’s stable pivot point.
As an idle exercise I began to further explore my placement and movement within these heavens--on a planet, in a solar system, in a galaxy. Abstract illustrations from school books were my only possible starting point, and I set about the task of setting these images and myself into a motion that contradicted my more immediate sense of standing still on our deck. I was on the northern and western hemisphere of a planet whose spin was carrying me around in a faithfully repetitive circle. That planet was itself orbiting our sun (now invisible, a hub of secondary rotation that in the night had to be summoned by my imagination on the far side of the globe). So I was simultaneously on the rim of two circles, one much smaller than the other, and my personal trajectory on the smaller described a tight spiral created by the Earth’s spin coiling around my larger orbit around the sun.
The Milky Way was vivid in the mountain sky, and I knew that it was, from my own perspective, a line of sight edgewise across the disc of our galaxy. And I knew that if I were somehow able to “look down” on this disc from a vantage point sufficiently “above” it I would be able to view Earth’s and the solar system’s placement within one of its arcing arms, somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the way out from its own densely incandescent hub. So now in order to chart my own path through space, a third rotation had to be factored in to my planetary spin and my solar orbit--the much vaster circling of my location within this galactic tentacle which was taking part in the rotation of the disc. I could hold in my mind an image of the spiral created by the double track of Earth’s spin and orbit, but imagining the tracer implied by this third wheel proved to be far more difficult to envision--a moving point on a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.
Before I could digest this complication and deposit it in my mind as the shape of my path, I remembered from my books that our galaxy was not only spinning, it was tumbling as well. And as it was spinning and tumbling, it was also moving in a radial trajectory away from a hypothesized center of an explosive origin common to all matter in the universe. The cubing of my spiraling motions on Earth--spin, orbit, galactic rotation--had been difficult enough to envision, but this sudden raising to a fourth and fifth power of complication extended my spatial imagination into an exponentially further addled state. Then more remembered and necessary calculation crashed in upon this confusion: The velocity of each of these spiralings, in terrestrial miles-per-hour, was different--hundreds of mph for my planetary spin, thousands for my solar orbit, millions for my galactic rotation (whose circumference was always increasing and whose velocity was therefor always changing), and billions for the Milky Way’s outward trajectory from its origin. And the arcs of all these curving vectors constantly suffered perturbations due to the shifting gravitational fields in which they were embedded, giving my own movement through space an unsteady drunken wobble. Well before I could translate these further calculations into the shape of my path, my inner eye had utterly foundered, and the path of my own trajectory--although I knew it had to be determined by the regularity of gravity’s dynamics--was completely outside the bounds of my imagination’s capacity to visualize it.
I found that I had arrived at a threshold of understanding where it was necessary to make a huge leap toward the idea of an infinitely superior mind outside my own if I was to maintain any secure sense of a regular unfolding of a universe and my place it within these dismayingly dizzy nestings of ever-changing spirals, arcs and wobbles. I knew with a concrete certainty where my feet were on the deck in my backyard, but any further speculation literally spiraled out of my own mind’s control, and I acutely felt the need of an embracing framework of faith in a wiser eye in order to salvage a conviction that for the moment I indeed stood somewhere, anywhere, that I occupied a location that could provide for me a basis for enduring my own incapacity to understand the complex dynamics which which had gotten me to where I was and were taking me elsewhere.
Happily, the moment I surrendered trying to visualize where I was and where I was going this crescendo of vertigo settled into a quiet equilibrium, just as though something important had been resolved, and I was again able to look up at the stars with a tranquil wonder. This quiet revery, somehow deepened by the release from my prior mental dizziness, lasted for a while. Then it occurred to me that each “star” I was looking at was really just a narrow shaft of light--merely the width of my pupil--that was emanating from its source. The point of light that I called “star” was actually a tiny sliver of an enormous sphere of whose circumference was growing at the speed of light as its radiant energy expanded in all directions from its source. Its outer boundary had long since past me by, and I was standing in the midst of its total mass and dimension. And all of these radiantly expanding star-spheres overlapped one another in space, so I was standing in the midst of every one of them at the same time. This seemed glorious.
As I looked at the ancient patterns of the constellations another thought struck me: Viewed from any other vantage point in the galaxy, these patterns simply did not exist as I saw them. If, for instance, I could swing my view widely around so that I was looking at the tight cluster of The Plaeides at a right angle to my present line of sight, these Seven Sisters would not appear as a tight cluster at all, but as a string of stars scattered horizontally, bearing no resemblance to the constellation I was seeing. This line of stars would perhaps be millions of light years long (each of the Sisters being vastly different distances from me here on Earth); and the dimmest of their dimmer attendants might turn out to be the brightest stars of all. This rather drastically unsettled for me any fixed spatial order of the stars, presumed for millennia to be eternal. That apparent arrangement existed only from an anthropomorphic, terrestrial point of view.
Then things got worse. Once cracked, the celestial dome above me began to shatter once again, now along the fault lines of time. Since the heart of each star was a different distance from me, and since the speed of light is (so far as we know) a fixed constant, I was not seeing any of the stars at the same “time” from their point of view. Each point of light--or rather each streaming shaft of photons circumscribed by my pupils--had left its source at a different point in my clock-calendar time than all the others. Some photons had begun their journey toward me hundreds of thousands of years ago, some millions, some billions. In no instance was I seeing any star “now,” but only as it existed all those years ago. From the merely human point of view--which is the only one in which our sense of “time” is relevant--no star phenomenon that I was observing was taking place “now”; the only “now” that was happening was the process of visual perception taking place from my retinas to my visual cortex which announced to my awareness “star.” I saw them all simultaneously, but none of them were simultaneous in their origins. My own place in time’s trajectory immediately became as problematic as the vector I was traveling in space. Even a quickly gerry-rigged idea of “relative time” proved to be of no help to me, because I soon realized that the notion of relativity presupposed a “relative to what? And where in time was a “what” that could serve to orient the different “times” that were converging on my eyes? In the larger view of things, my place in star-time could no more be fixed than my location in space had been just a while ago.
I found myself plunged into a full catastrophe. And just as I had been compelled to come up with some sort of superior eye outside myself to which I could safely entrust my insistent existential requirement of a “where,” I now sought desperately for some mode of duration in which no clock ticks, an abiding eternity that could offer some sort of temporal foothold toward “when.” There was simply nothing that I could make out in the substantial world that would hold its shape in either space or time any more securely than shadows on smoke.
Then something happened. I have no idea how to characterize it, other than to suggest that it was like a dream in which you find yourself flying. Even in the dream you know that what you are doing is not possible, yet as long as you do not doubt it, there you are.
It was by then late, and I went inside, said goodnight to my parents, went to bed and fell soundly asleep. I awoke the next morning knowing that today, somehow, somewhere, sometime would be another day and that there would be more as long as I could manage not to count them.
Copyright June 2, 2011 by Deane Juhan