An Excerpt from Jim
of November 18, 2001
issued from the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA
Jupiter with its elegant moons so clearly visible this morning averages being about 400 million miles away. I cannot really grasp what a million of anything is, so in my mind Jupiter simply swims in an unimaginably empty abyss too far away to relate to. Yet this distance is nothing compared to the distance of the next-brightest object in last night's sky, Sirius the Dog Star, which this morning stood not far from Jupiter. Sirius's distance from Earth is so great that light emanating from it takes 8.7 years to reach here.
Since a light-year bespeaks a distance of about 6,000,000,000,000 miles, Jupiter is only 0.00000145 of a light-year away. If my calculations are right, Jupiter averages only about 46 seconds away, traveling at the speed of light. Jupiter is 46 seconds. Sirius is 8.7 YEARS... Think of it. Meditate on it.
Yet, Sirius looks big to us because it is so close. Betelgeuse, the bright star comprising Orion's right shoulder this morning, lies 300 light-years away. And there are many, many stars much farther away.
In fact, when I stepped into the field this morning and could see the constellation Andromeda a little to the north but otherwise right overhead, above my Pecan trees, there was a smudge plainly visible. This was the great Andromeda nebula, M31, and it was 1,500,000 light-years away...
This unthinkable distance is only possible because it lies outside our own galaxy. Our sun is just one of some 100,000,000,000 stars making up our own galaxy, which from the vicinity of M31 would appear as a tiny smudge in the sky. All the stars I saw this morning, except for those in M31, were members of our own galaxy, which is a little like a spiraling wheel. To see M31 I was looking through the clutter of our own galaxy, to see another galaxy, which was M31.
The first time I glimpsed the majesty in this arrangement, I no longer felt that any religion placing us humans at the center of the universe was appropriate. I lost all confidence in all religions, but at the same moment I gained by the same measure in the opposite direction an underpinning for an abiding spirituality. My awe in the Creator behind these workings only increases with every new discovery, every new return to a starry field. .