Making It In The Big Time
By Allan Eastman
Time For The Stars
Not so long ago, we were traveling around enjoying all the great natural beauties of South Africa. We had come to the eastern part of the Orange Free State, hard up by the soaring mountain ramparts of Lesotho and were spending the night in a gorgeous area called the Golden Gate. We had camped in a grassy meadow high up in a box canyon, surrounded on three sides by one of the great kopjes, a flat topped butte or mesa, its sides carved and sculpted by the ancient erosions of wind and water.
The locals had assured us that there were no lions or other major predators reported in the vicinity so we were relaxed as we settled in for the evening. It was a spectacular show.
First, the Sun sank down low over the antique landscape, lighting up the west in a phantasm of pastel oranges, scarlets, mauves and indigos. Just after it disappeared, the fabled green flash shot across the whole horizon. Then, night fell with that startling suddenness as it does in Africa.
Stars popped into view.
We were at about 2,000 meters elevation, over a mile up in altitude and far from any ambient light sources. The stars blazed with a steady intensity in the thin air, seeming so close overhead that you could almost reach up and touch them. And there were so many. The Southern sky is a continuing fascination to anyone raised in the Northern Hemisphere – its unfamiliar patterns only relieved by the comfortable sight of the Hunter, Orion hanging low above the world’s edge. It was difficult to pick out the Southern Cross and Great Magellanic Clouds in the sheer profusion of distant blazing Suns. The star light was so strong that it cast vague shadows across the landscape.
We lay back on our blankets watching the incredible celestial light show. It’s at moments like these when we really feel our connection with the vast Universe we are a part of – when we can contemplate the regal beauty of the night sky and sense the immensity of existence all around us. We are awed by the scale of the cosmos yet feel oddly connected to the entirety of creation. It gives both a tremendous excitement and a calm serenity to our human spirits.
We are traveling in Time as well. The light from the stars we are observing left their sources hundreds or thousands of years ago. As it reaches us here on this South African plateau, we are looking deep into the past. Perhaps some of these stars don’t even exist anymore, perhaps one has exploded into a Supernova around the time when Copernicus or Galileo were peering into their telescopes, trying to make sense of it all. The news just hasn’t reached us yet.
Later, a brilliant ¾ Moon rose over the kopje, flooding the landscape with luminescent silver light bright enough to read by and reflecting green or orange off the reflective eyes of small animals skulking curiously around our perimeter.
The next morning, I climbed up on the base of the sheer cliff around us in the fragile early light. In the weather beaten face of the rock, I found a thin seam, about 20 cm deep, embedded in the strata and running across its entire length. Unlike the hard stone above and below it, this seam was grainy and kind of sandy, easy to pull loose with your fingers. And strewn throughout this sandy layer were thousands of fossilized shells of tiny sea creatures, perfectly preserved in all their detail.
Here, at about 6,000 feet above sea level and locked into a mountain side was the remains of an ancient sea floor. This was another story told in Time - of our own planet and of its formidable past. How many tens of millions of years ago did these tiny creatures sink into the muddy bottom deep under water to lie there until I dug them out of this wall of solid rock?
That day, with the stars and the shells, cast a powerful effect on me. It really taught me to consider my own existence within the awesome scale of the Universe and the epic of Time that is the life of our own home, Planet Earth.
So, let’s go exploring into those huge numbers of Time that have led to our own existences in the apparent here and now. Let’s try to trace how humans have come to quantify everything all around us and attempt to understand our own place in this true, vast scale of Time.