In 1965, our family moved from Topeka, Kansas to western Kansas, and even then, we were isolated far out in the countryside (coordinates = 38.377324, -99.01399). The one thing you could count on for at least a minimal amount of entertainment was... the sky. I can remember times when it was pitch black – no moon. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, but you could see the stars! Boy, could you see the stars.
One other thing you could see were shooting stars. I don’t recall whether that was a nightly occurrence, but I think it was. Obviously, some nights were more active than others. Of course, in the 1960’s, I’m not sure they (astronomers) could tell you ahead of time when there would be shooting star shows. Nowadays, they know ahead of time for every location on the planet. For me at least, it was just guesswork and random luck.
For six years, that was a nightly form of entertainment in a place where there wasn’t anything else. We had a 12” black and white TV and could only get two stations – two of the three major networks at the time. I believe one was in Hays, Kansas and one in Hutchinson, Kansas. We were pretty much in the middle between the two and the reception stunk. Simply put, we were isolated in the middle of nowhere – seemingly just a few miles from being off the edge of the world.
The house we lived in was actually a parsonage for a country church which was no longer being used as a church. It was locked and empty. Once I recall a wedding being held there, but otherwise it was vacant. A few years after we moved into the parsonage, some people came and picked up the entire church and moved it to Great Bend – about 13 miles away. They then filled in the basement with dirt and my dad used it as a garden for years.
The church – which was Lutheran – can now be seen on the south side of Great Bend, Kansas. It’s part of an historical site and museum. The coordinates for it are 38.349633, -98.765523. You can view it via google maps.
Before they moved it, my brother and sister and I used to lay out on the front porch of the church and look at the stars. It was sort of the ideal place because it was elevated concrete and it enabled us to avoid bugs. I remember once believing that I watched a star moving along the sky (which I suppose could have been an airplane), but then it stopped. I have very high spatial orientation abilities, so I noted where the “star” stopped relative to other stars. I remember watching for a long time and it never moved again. I remember looking up hundreds of times over my life and seeing the same star in the same location (duh). Obviously, I didn’t see what I thought I saw, but it’s something that always stuck with me.
So, the sky was our canvas and imagination our brush. Such is the life of city kids suddenly transplanted into the middle of the sticks.
I took astronomy in college and was surprised how much math was involved – and even though I’m very good at math, how difficult the course was. Nevertheless, I learned a lot and it made me all the more interested in the stars.
Considering how often you hear it now, it’s hard to imagine anyone would not know how many stars are in the sky. There are roughly 200-400 billion (with a “B”) stars in our galaxy – The Milky Way. But, the more amazing stat is that there are 100-200 billion galaxies in the universe. That makes the number of stars almost beyond comprehension.
One way to think of it would be to consider each person on earth to be a star. If so, there are about 6,400 billion times that many stars in the universe. So, for every single human, there are over six trillion solar systems out there – each with its own planets.
And, that’s just what we know of. Our ability to see to the edges of the universe is limited. Of course, we dare not ask how many universes there are.
The magnitude of this expanse is one of the reasons why I was always fascinated with Sci-Fi movies (Star Trek and Star Wars series) and why I was a big fan of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. Just as when I was lying on my back in the middle of nowhere staring at the sky, it was a form of escapism.
One day when shopping with my family in 2001, I was in a store that had a lot of odd gadgets. One of them was a piece of electronics called “Night Navigator”. It was later given to me by my second wife (Teri) as a present. This was a device that would mimic your sky at any given time. You would set your latitude and longitude as well as the time and date. Then, by aiming it north and holding it in a fixed location, you could see your sky at that very moment by looking at the Night Navigator. Of course, seeing the sky was free, but the Night Navigator was a couple hundred bucks as I recall. What it offered that the sky did not was outlines of constellations along with the names. And, of course, the names of the planets and stars were also included. You could simply hold the Navigator up and then move your eyes to the sky to see what you otherwise would think was nothing more than a bunch of stars.
It was a great learning device and still would be if not for the fact that nowadays, there are free computer sites that do the same thing. You can take your tablet outside and accomplish exactly the same experience as the Navigator without it costing a cent. Here is one example.
Oddly enough, I think my fascination with the sky has always made me more confident of my religious beliefs though I also know that a relatively small number of astronomers and cosmologists believe in God (reportedly 7.5%) – at least the Judeo Christian God. For most of them, I suspect finding a relationship between trillions of stars and a book on earth (Bible) that claims to explain the creation of the universe is preposterous. They feel that if God does exist, he couldn’t possibly care about us while he is governing this whole huge universe. I can understand that logic if an astronomer has no faith. However, for me, it’s more evidence – if not proof – that God must exist. How else can it be explained? In view of the fact that I have only one “God option”, I choose to believe that option. And, that seems pretty logical and scientific to me.