A deepness in the sky

 This week my youngest daughter is studying poetry for her English class.  She is on independent study (due to her mental health issues), and goes to the high school once a week for her tests.  Therefore, every day I have to prepare her study sheets and help her with her work.  I have enjoyed and appreciated poetry for most of my life and I’m trying to instill the same enjoyment in my children.  Thus far, however, only my oldest shares my enjoyment.  In fact, when she was barely in kindergarten she had already memorized one of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems, Annabel Lee and announced to her teacher that Poe was her favorite author.  I don’t think many kindergartners would pick Poe for that honor.

The poetry my youngest daughter is reading this week is generally well known: such poems as The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, a sonnet by Shakespeare, and poems by Poe, Neruda, and e.e. cummings. Poetry appeals to the intellect; it also, more strongly, appeals to the emotions.  I’m hoping she’ll get that.

So I’ve been thinking about poetry lately and how frequently I hear people say that they hate it.  Which tells me that they don’t really know what poetry is. 

For instance, if you enjoy listening to music, then you enjoy poetry.  Every song lyric ever written is a poem: everyone from Snoop Dog to Miley Cyrus, Elvis to Bing Crosby sings poetry.  Those songs you sing in church?  All poetry.  The Psalms? Poetry.  In fact, much of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, is poetry.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel? Poetry. Hosea, Habakkuk, Joel? Poetry.  Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Lamentations? Poetry

One passage from the Bible that particularly affects me every time I read it comes from the Psalms:

      When I consider your heavens,

      the work of your fingers,

      the moon and the stars,

      which you have set in place,

            what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:4)

The science fiction author Vernor Vinge wrote a book with the title, A Deepness in the Sky that won the Hugo award in 2000.  Today, scientists speak about “deep time” and “deep space.”  The two concepts are related.  It is generally believed that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, while the most distant object visible from Earth is about 13.42 billion light years away.  That these two concepts of deep time and deep space are related becomes obvious when one considers that distance in space is also distance in time.  Light travels about 186,000 miles per second (or if you prefer, about 300,000 kilometers per second). 

The moon is about 240,000 miles away. Thus, when the astronauts on the moon talked to mission control in Houston, their words took more than a second to reach Earth.  That’s why you’ll hear mission control and the moon walkers occasionally talking over each other, if you listen to those old transmissions from the lunar surface. 

If you’ve ever made an international phone call, you may have experienced something similar. Often, such phone calls get routed through a satellite.  Those communication satellites sit about 25,000 miles above the surface of the Earth. When you make a call, your voice is routed up 25,000 miles to the satellite, then goes down 25,000 miles to the person you’re chatting with.  Your caller’s response must then make the same trek in reverse.  So, a bit less than a third of a second passes between your speaking and you being heard, and another third of a second or so passes before the response can reach you. 

It gets worse the further you travel.  Light from the sun, traveling 186,000 miles per second requires about 8 minutes to travel the 93 million miles to the Earth.  Voyager 1, which just passed the edge of our solar system and is now in interstellar space, is more than 13 light hours from Earth, meaning a radio signal from the spacecraft takes more than 13 hours to get to us.

Sirius, the Dog Star, and the brightest star in the night sky, is about 8 light years from Earth.  That is both distance and time: light from that star requires about 8 years to reach us.  What we see in the sky now is how Sirius looked when George Bush was still living in the White House.  Telescopes become not just portals to distant realms in the sky, but also time machines tunneling back into history. 

If you look north tonight, you’ll see Polaris—also called simply the North Star.  The photons from that twinkling light began their journey before the Pilgrims left England for Massachusetts.  

The universe is enormous, beyond our comprehension.  It is deeper than the deepest sea, higher than the highest mountain, older than human history.  The Psalmist marveled at the heavens in an era before anyone understood just how deep the sky and how deep was time. Three thousand years ago, without our knowledge of the enormity of the universe, he wondered how it is that God ever cared to notice us. 

Our greater understanding today  the Psalmist’s questions even more profound.  Not only am I insignificant beyond comprehension, the entire human race, from its beginning to its future end, is barely a droplet in an endless ocean.

Even so, says the psalmist, God knows us, and cares about us.