As an astronomer, I am accustomed to observing the cosmos in quiet places. But since the start of self-isolation, it’s so quiet that my own heartbeat is the only background noise. I observe galaxies in the deep universe, in places so far away that their light takes billions of years to reach our eyes. I am used to contemplating this immensity and seeing how little our planet seems in comparison.
I am used to observing the past through the lens of the Hubble Telescope’s and seeing galaxies formed when the universe was an infant. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Hubble, events scheduled to commemorate all that we’ve learned from its three decades in orbit have been postponed.
But in an era where much is uncertain, we can still ponder how what’s happening today fits into the vastness of time and space that is the greater universe.
Sometimes I wonder what our own galaxy looked like billions and billions of years ago, before our solar system was born. I often stare at the Hubble Deep Field—an extremely long-exposure image of an apparently blank spot of sky that reveals a wealth of dim, previously unseen objects—searching for clues: galaxies colliding, stars exploding and stellar nurseries. It is an amazing journey to be able to travel through space and time and see the universe unfolding in front of our eyes. And yet it’s hard to think of such things during the anxiety that comes with our current state of self-isolation.
Can this situation help us reflect on our own existence? Will we ever reach a point that we will start questioning our future? Will we make our existence more sustainable after this horrifying experience? Can looking to the stars bring us closer together?
A couple of months ago, Betelgeuse, a bright star in the Orion constellation, started to get dimmer and dimmer. Astronomers all over the world thought this might be a signal that the star was about to explode—although if it was, they knew it might not happen for another 10,000 years or more. Still, I went outside every night to check it out. I was hoping it would explode, and I was betting that such an incredible phenomenon would be perfect for us to reflect on how we treat our planet. Imagine seeing a star shining as bright as the full moon even during the day. Wouldn’t that make you wonder about the universe and your role within it?
I started dreaming about how we could use such an event to remind everyone that stars produce nearly all of the chemical elements in the universe (aside from hydrogen and helium), which came directly out of the Big Bang. Everything we breathe, touch, and see was made inside stars. The iron in our blood, calcium in our bones, and almost the entire periodic table are products of stellar evolution. At the end of their lives, stars explode and launch all those elements into space where new generations of stars and planets will be formed inside billions of galaxies. This cycle is how our solar system and life within it was formed.
If everyone on the planet would be able to see what Hubble’s powerful camera reveals in the deep field, but with the naked eye, I think we would get closer to each other. Those galaxies seen in the deep universe have transformed and evolved over billions of years and now have multiple generations of stars and planets. Our sun, our planet and our neighbors are a product of the evolving universe. There were stars before our star was born, and there will be new stars after our star is gone. It is an amazing scientific realization, and one I was ready to share with everyone staring at the exploding star.
Betelgeuse didn’t explode, and in fact more recent observations note it is actually returning to normal. But nothing is normal here on Earth now. I am beginning to realize that we didn’t need a star to explode to unify us. All we needed was a common problem.
I am hoping that everyone on the planet is saving some time to contemplate the universe and realize we are not alone. No matter where we are, or who we are, we’re on this planet together. Since we are all made of stars, looking up at the night sky gives us a glimpse of our past and our future, and we can contemplate both together.