I’ve just been treated to my first view of Orion and the Pleiades this year: it was the unanticipated benefit of rising early on a very clear morning. They are my favorite constellations, one of them for being so bold and distinct, the other for being so delicate and small. The whole sky is resplendent: Mars and the crescent moon are in near conjunction, the whole moon being quite visible through earthshine, and Jupiter in Gemini is so bright I thought I’d forgotten which of Orion’s stars I should track to find Sirius.
The photo here is a fairly realistic clear-sky view of Orion. It’s one of the few constellations bright and distinct enough to be visible even from cities where light pollution is rampant. Sirius, the brightest of stars as seen from earth, is just out of this photo. If the weather cooperates for you, you could find it tomorrow morning by tracking Orion’s three-starred “belt” down to the left. The Pleiades are six (some say seven) dim stars tightly clustered together, on a line up to the right from the belt stars. Jupiter this morning was on a nearly straight line up to the left from the shoulder stars, and just past it were the “Twin” Gemini stars, Castor and Pollux.
One of Orion’s shoulders is a slightly reddish star that hardly stands out at all. (Its apparent size is exaggerated in the photo.) It is Betelgeuse, and it is a red giant, the largest star that’s easily identified by amateur stargazers like me. “Largest” hardly describes it. Comparing its size to that of our sun would be almost silly: this star is bigger around than the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and even Mars. And yet from here it’s barely a dot in the sky.
If you don’t care to get up to see this magnificence, it will come around for you soon enough on a December evening, though I can’t promise you’ll find Mars and Jupiter there then.
What shall we make of this glory?
There are some among us who have called this reason to doubt the existence of God and the significance of man. We are alone in the vastness, riding along on a tiny “pale blue dot” we call Earth. We are nothing, next to the whole.
It is hard to believe it was an astronomer, Carl Sagan, who first said that. I look up in the starry sky and I see the opposite. I see sublime magnificence. I see a display of glory. I see artistry.
Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards have shown how special Earth’s position is in the cosmos. We’re situated in the galactic and solar habitable zones, in the very small percentage of the volume of space where life is imaginable; and not only that, our location is uniquely ideal for spurring on science and artistry. It’s almost, one might say, as if we were placed here on purpose.
And then there are those skeptics who wonder how it makes sense for us to occupy such a small portion of such a large universe. I won’t dwell on that overlong here, as I’ve written about it before, but to me the question seems vaguely childish. It takes God to be miserly, if God exists, as if he would have difficulty justifying the investment of all that space and energy just to beautify his creation
There may be other reasons it took such a massive universe for God to do what he wanted to do: creating humans, among other things. But it seems to me that beauty alone is enough. If he did it just for humans, the angels, other possible creatures somewhere, and of course himself to enjoy, then that’s sufficient. He is a God of beauty and of joy, and the starry sky says so.
Some people read the sky as telling us we’re tiny, insignificant, nothings among the vast void. Some can read it as telling us we’re very small compared to the greatness of the Artist, and that he must love us very much to let us delight in such beauty. The latter is not only more preferable to me: it also seems much more real.
Photo source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Betelgeuse_position_in_Orion.png