I'm almost ashamed to admit it. I saw the Big Dipper tonight and my first thought was, "holy crap, it's so big!" You see, I was out on a late-night bike ride this evening and I happened to look up. There it was, dominating the northeastern sky.
You might imagine that, as an astronomer, I'd be pretty familiar with perhaps the most well-known constellation in the northern hemisphere (actually, if we're being picky, the Big Dipper is an asterism, or a part of a constellation). And, I am - just not, you know, out there in the real world. I see the Big Dipper almost every week at Fiske Planetarium. And, despite Fiske's stature as one of the world's best planetaria, compressing the whole night sky into a finite dome simply doesn't do it justice. Not even close.
Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to live somewhere where the night sky is relatively accessible. But, what about all the millions who aren't so fortunate, whose only glimpse of night comes from within the walls of a planetarium? What simple wonders they are missing. And, it's not merely the size of things that escape them; it's in the subtlety that the cosmos truly shines.
I've seen the pristine night sky only a couple of times in my life. Its details have been smeared out by the brushstrokes of memory, but my state of mind in its presence remains indelible. I felt a kinship with all those who have seen that same sight and a winsome longing that that moment may never end. It seemed as if a great reservoir of thoughts and feelings and experiences beckoned me to dive in. I was enthralled.
What astonishes me the most, I think, is the thought that there are people who confront that sight every night. If you're reading this post on a computer right now, you're almost certainly not one of them. I'm sure not. What a joyful burden it must be to welcome nightly the universe as an old friend coming to supper. How spine-tingling, back-straightening, and mind-wandering. How grand. How cosmic.