How To Fall Forever Into The Night Sky

Aug 5, 2013
Originally published on August 13, 2013 6:31 pm

It's your neck that's the problem. Your neck is lying to you.

All your life you've had to look up at the stars. You walk along on a summer's evening and they're always there, those stars, those bright mysterious points of light, waiting for you to notice, waiting for you to understand what they are saying about time and space and your own place in it all.

But to see them you have to crane your neck. You have tilt back that big stone of a head to look up. Lets face it, that's uncomfortable. And more to the point you can't really sustain that head-craned-back position for anything more than a few minutes. That's why the only way to really understand the real truth of the stars is to lie down.

First you'll need to find a nice place, somewhere with the darkest skies possible. It's got to be a good place to lie down too, someplace comfortable. A wide-open field is best. Then, once you have settled down in your dark, quiet spot take a long deep breath and face out.

That's right, outwards, not up!

You see "up" is just an illusion. You're living on the surface of massive rock that's been pulling you down with its incessant gravity since the day you were born. It's fooled you into thinking the stars are "up" there, "up" in the sky, high above you. They're not.

Now that you are lying down, you can get to work. Imagine for a moment flattening the Earth into a thick wall. Imagine that this wall is not something below you but ... behind you. You aren't lying down anymore; you simply have your back pressed against something. And now what do you see in front of you?

Stars.

What do you see if you look toward your feet?

Stars.

And if you look to your right or your left or toward the direction the crown of your head is pointed, what's there?

Stars.

Finally, we come to the real kicker. That wall your back is pressed up against, what's behind it?

More stars!

There, now you have it. Now you can feel the real truth, like vertigo, as you fall into the starry multitude. These stars aren't twinkling lights above your head, they are all suns; vast spheres of thermonuclear burning gas. And, as we have just recently come understand, almost all of those suns support their own families of planets. All those stars, all those other worlds — they're everywhere. Now you can finally feel that you are there too, right in their midst.

Time now for the second big gestalt shift, the next change in perspective.

With your eyes aimed forward, focus on just one star. The sun (and its likely planets) that you are staring down lies more than 24 trillion miles away from you (a light year is about six trillion miles and the nearest star is more than four light years away). Now shift your focus and pick out another star, one that is close to the first. They look like neighbors. But that is just another deception. Your second star may be 10, 100 or 1,000 times farther away (or closer) than its neighbor.

All those stars, all of their planets, they aren't pressed onto the surface of a dark upturned bowl; they're arrayed in the three dimensions of cosmic space, like fireflies scattered across a summer field.

There is no up or down and you are not a resident of some city, some state or even some nation. You are not a Democrat or a Republican, a dockworker or a doctor. Right now, right at this very moment, you are a free agent hurtling through the midst of a vast city of stars, an all-encompassing architecture of suns.

So remember, always face outward into the surrounding sky. Because that is your true home.


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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Time now for a change of perspective on the cosmos. Writer and astrophysicist Adam Frank says make friends with science and the ordinary, even everyday stuff, and it will transform into the extraordinary. One way to do that is by taking a new look at the stars in the sky.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Stop looking up at the stars. That's no way to appreciate them. And it's no way to understand what they're trying to tell you. You see, normally, to get a view of those mysterious little points of light, you have to crane your neck. You have to tilt that big stone of a head back and look up. But let's face it. No one can sustain that head-craned-back position for very long. That's why the only way to really understand the truth of the stars is to lie down.

Now, first, you'll need to find a nice place, someplace with the darkest skies possible. It's got to be a good place to lie down, too, someplace comfortable. A wide-open field is best, but be careful about dog poop because that's going to ruin your cosmic journey right fast.

Then once you've settled down in your dark, quiet spot, take a long deep breath and face out. Face outwards, not up. You see up is just an illusion. It's a trick of the fact that you've been living on the surface of a massive rock that's been pulling you down with its incessant gravity since the day you were born. That's why you've been fooled into thinking the stars are up there, up in the sky, high above you.

Now, imagine for a moment flattening the Earth into a thick wall. Imagine that this wall is not something below you but behind you. You aren't lying down anymore. You simply have your back pressed against something. And now, what do you see in front of you? Stars. And if you look back towards your feet, what do you see? Stars. And if you look to your right or to your left or in the direction of the crown of your head, what's there? Stars.

And here's the real kicker. That wall your back is pressed up against, what's behind it? More stars. And there it is. That is the real truth. You can now feel like vertigo as you fall into the starry multitude. These stars, they aren't twinkling lights above your heard. They're all suns. They're all vast spheres of thermonuclear burning gas. And as we have just recently learned, almost all those suns support their own families of planets. All those stars, all those worlds, they're everywhere. And with your back pressed to the wall of the Earth, you can finally feel that you are there, too, right in there midst.

And now comes the next big shift. Eyes aimed forward, focus on just one star. That sun, and its likely planets, lies more than 10 trillion miles away from you. But now, look at one of its neighbors. They may look close together, but that is just another deception. That second star may be 10, 100 or 1,000 times farther away than its neighbor. All those stars, all their planets, they aren't pressed onto the surface of a dark upturned bowl. They're arrayed in the three dimensions of cosmic space like fireflies scattered across a summer field.

There is no up or down. You are not a resident of some city, some state or even some nation. You're not a Democrat or a Republican, a dockworker or a doctor. Right now, right at this very moment, you are a free agent hurtling through the midst of a vast city of stars, an all-encompassing architecture of suns. So remember, face outwards into the surrounding sky because that is your true home.

CORNISH: Adam Frank teaches astrophysics at the University of Rochester and blogs for NPR at 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.