“Oh My God, it’s full of stars”… These were David Bowman’s last words as he moved toward the monolith orbiting Jupiter at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic work – “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I loved this work, as well as many written by Mr. Clarke, and I’ve never forgotten that incredulous statement made by Dr. Bowman as he was being prepared to ‘enter’ the monolith. Flash forward to these past few weeks in south central Alaska and the amazingly clear nights we’ve experienced; living semi-rural I’ve been able to view the only recently returned dark night skies virtually every night across the past few weeks and they have been spectacular!
Initially I was looking to view ‘Nature’s light show’ – the Aurora Borealis – and I was just blown away by the displays during a number of the evenings in mid to late October and on into much of November. I saw auroral displays that topped anything I’d seen since I relocated to south central Alaska in August of 2013 and second only to an incredible display I viewed with a friend up on The Haul Road (aka ‘The Dalton Highway’, AK 11) in early September of 2000.
But the aurora are fickle and despite forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks of ‘high+’ (between 6 and 7 on the 0 to 9 scale) across many evenings and early mornings I never saw any additional displays. But every clear night I was treated to a star filled sky; in the early evenings I could easily see the edge-on view of our galaxy – the Milky Way. As the night progressed I saw many of the now familiar constellations such as Ursa Major – the same depicted on the Alaska state flag – and Ursa Minor along with Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Draco and Pisces. By early morning when the air temps hovered around 10.00° F – or, -12.22° C in terms of the metric system of measurement – the night sky was often crystal clear with the stars twinkling like icy diamonds. And as the much cooler temps have descended upon south central Alaska – the last morning in November I logged a chilly low of -12.9° F or -24.9° C – the air has further cleared making night sky observations majestic. Occasionally a meteor would flare briefly, sometimes leaving a bright after image of its trail. Although I’ve seen these sights many, many nights now it still never ceases to evoke a sense of awe and wonder! I cannot help but realize as I view the incredible night sky I’m looking back in time and any given point of light could be a star now gone due to novae or supernovae but the light of said destruction has yet to reach Earth.
I remember being so enraptured while watching the original PBS series “Cosmos” hosted by Carl Sagan in 1980; to this day I remember that incredible feeling provoked by his discussion of how everything around us – including ourselves – is the product of long ago stars which met their fates in different manners. To this day I remain absolutely fascinated with the understanding that we humans are the product of ‘star stuff’! Somehow it was at once both awesome yet humbling to realize the carbon in our bodies, the potassium and sodium that forms a ‘pump’ which helps to run our circulatory systems, the calcium and phosphorus in our bones and the iron in our hemoglobin all came from the violent explosions of long dead stars. What an absolutely magnificent realization that all life is based upon the deaths of ancient stars; it is Nature’s way of recycling the remnants of novae and supernovae.
So just by looking up at the clear night sky I could easily utter those now famous words from David Bowman’s encounter with the monolith. Yet somehow that would seem to fail to do justice to the real meaning behind that statement. No, in my case I feel more comfortable with a line from a favored song by Enya named, appropriately enough, “Paint The Sky With Stars”:
Place a name upon the night,
One to set your heart alight.
And to make the darkness bright,
Paint the sky with stars.