Stardust to star billing, you folks are the best

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 7, 2004

So how's this for celestial serendipity? Two weeks ago I quoted a remark by the late Franciscan astronomer "Lamplighter" Lucian Kemble on the human longing for meaning within a vast and impersonal universe. "You and I may be made from dust," Lamplighter said, "but it's stardust."

Then on Jan. 2, a NASA spacecraft by the name of Stardust passed through the tail of a comet and, in preparation for exciting new research into the formation of our solar system, scooped up a thimbleful of dust.

And only a day later, NASA's robotic rover Spirit landed on the surface of Mars and rewarded earthlings with 3-D panoramic photographs of its new home in Gusev Crater, a Lake Ontario-size bowlful of dust!

But really, while appreciating the friar's good intentions, aren't we still left with the seeming insignificance even of stardust within the grander scheme of things?

I mean, consider for a moment the enormous size of the known universe. It took Spirit less than seven months for its journey to Mars. Travelling at the same speed for a hundred trillion years, Spirit could still not reach the furthest-away galaxies detected by the Hubble Space Telescope. That's big!

For those of you keen to get a better feel for the magnitude of the universe, check out
. This animated Web site takes you, in powers of 10, from the subatomic world of protons and electrons to a view of our own Milky Way Galaxy from a point 10 million light years from Earth.

Then imagine the view from 1,500 times further away, and you begin to get an idea of the entirety of space, in which the Milky Way Galaxy itself is but a speck of dust among billions and billions of other galaxies.

But you and I are not merely specks of dust in space. We are also "specks of dust" in time.

Astronomer Carl Sagan illustrated this quite graphically in his book The Dragons of Eden. Compressing the 15-billion-year age of the universe into one calendar year, starting on Jan. 1 with the Big Bang, all of recorded history, he wrote, takes place in the last 10 seconds of Dec. 31: the invention of writing occurs at nine seconds to midnight, the birth of Buddha at five seconds to midnight, and the birth of Christ at four seconds to midnight, with everything since the Renaissance filling the last second of the year.

Even if you and I live to be a hundred, according to such a clock, our lives would be nothing more than the snap of one's finger. Pretty humbling, eh?

So, just what are we mere mortals to make of ourselves, in view of the splendour of space and time?

Nearly 3,000 years ago, Israel's great King David reflected on this very question.

"When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained," he wrote in Psalm 8, "what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour."

A 21st century poet struggled with the same question in "Planetary Mood." James Harbeck – and yes, he's my Toronto-based writer/editor son – shared his poem with me while home for Christmas:

I'm feeling very planetary –
It's just a mood I seem to have,
stuck on this tiny orb in space
with the entire human race
and various creatures big and small...
I have to wonder at it all:
a flyspeck in infinity –
that's all we are, and nothing more.
One could feel such emptiness
and wonder why we're even here –
what would it change to disappear?
But, after all, that's what friends are for.

And that's what coffee companions are for, too, my friends. To us has been given the honour of celebrating the genius of God's handiwork in each other. To us it has been given to remind each other of the privilege that is ours to be members of the human race – stardust and more.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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