Monday, August 09, 2010


It is summer, and in mid-northern latitudes the star Vega stands at the zenith. The name derives from the Arabic, al-Waqi, which Robert Burnham translates as "the swooping" eagle. The fifth brightest star as seen from Earth (not counting the Sun). The third brightest that can be seen from our latitude (after Sirius and -- barely -- Arcturus). A blue-white star in its prime of life. Three times bigger and 40 times more luminous than the Sun. Twenty-seven light-years away. Vega is right next door compared to the other five stars of the traditional constellation Lyra; Delta Lyra, the most distant, is about 900 light-years away, and the others are strung out in between.

I am reminded of a bit of musing I did in the final chapter of Honey From Stone. Vega's light moves away from the star in every direction, into the great emptiness of interstellar space, becoming ever more dilute as it expands. At our distance from Vega the star's light is dispersed over a spherical surface with an area of 320 septillion square miles -- an almost unimaginably large number, 320 followed by twenty-eight zeros. We see Vega with the Infinitesimal fraction of the star's light that happens to be intercepted by the pupils of our eyes. How small a fraction? Compare the size of these two oo's to the surface of a sphere with a radius of 27 light-years -- 320 septillion square miles!

I wrote: "I can work all of this out on paper, and still it seems a miracle. I lie back on this grassy bank and the light of 10,000 stars enters my eyes in sufficient quantity to enable my brain to form images of the stars. Ten thousand subtle but distinct wavelets of energy from out of the depths of space, and by some miracle my eyes and brain sort it all out, put each star in its proper place, recognize the familiar patterns of the constellations, construct a Milky Way, and open my soul to a universe whose length and breadth exceed my wildest imagining . . . Starlight blows through my body like a wind through the hedge. My atoms ebb and flow in a cosmic tide of radiation. Vega surges into luminescence and electrons do handsprings in the cortex of my brain . . . If you sip the sea but once said the Zen master, you will know the taste of all the oceans of the world. Tonight I have sipped 10,000 stars. I have tasted the universe."