It is the night sky that leads to light

Distances so great we can only transit them in our heads.

Carl Sagan captured the imagination of millions when he acknowledged in his Rod Serling, "Twilight Zone" voice: "Billions and billions and billions" of stars. The cosmologist and space-travel champion remains an auditory icon for inter-stellar grandeur and wonder.

But really, what are we earth-folk to make of those billions and billions of "star-folk" (which, thanks to the Hubble telescope, have metamorphosed into trillions and trillions)? Professional astronomers spend their entire lives studying and thinking about these lights beyond our sun. Even they can't wrap their minds around the very infinity they contemplate, so how are we to navigate the heavens?

Pick up Chet Raymo's new book, "An Intimate Look at the Night Sky." It quietly, inspiringly, and intelligibly sets a course into this kingdom beyond the imagination. The Stonehill College astronomy professor makes us feel at home in a universe of 100 billion galaxies.

A master teacher as well as a jargon-free writer, he majestically conveys how, in example after example from the arts, the sciences, and ancient history, we "carry the universe in our heads."

Raymo wouldn't be an astronomer if he didn't see symmetries wherever he looked. The structure of his book reflects this. There are 12 chapters divided into four sections. There are sky maps and diagrams of the reigning stars and constellations for a given season in the northern hemisphere. Magnificent, thought-provoking photos from deep space accompany each chapter.

His (and our) journey through the heavens begins in winter. The narrative follows earth's path through the four seasons around its solar furnace.

The myriad galaxies are not so much a maze ending in confusion as a starting point about the question of life beyond our blue planet. They become touchstones of inspiration and renewal in Raymo's search for meaning. "We are animals who evolved in a world without artificial light," he says. "Our brains were sculpted as much by darkness as by light."

His cosmological speculations are not of the "both feet firmly planted in the air" variety. Raymo anchors discussions in a series of ever-expanding questions: Why is the sky dark with all those stars beaming out light? Why is it fortuitous that our planet decided to reside where it did in the Milky Way? And oh, "by the way," just where is the Milky Way? How far is far, and why did it take us so long to realize stars weren't just over the mountains? How did starlight become the timepiece and tape measure of the universe? What are we to make of black holes besides great galactic garbage compactors?

Raymo never talks down to his readers, and he never loses them as he explains the latest scientific theory.

Only one complaint about this thrilling thought adventure: Physically, the book is odd. It's gift-book shaped with square pages. That means it's difficult to hold open except with two hands.

But this is a quibble. Raymo writes in such a way as to make the night sky a human story bonding us with infinity. Mortality all but dissolves in the hue Raymo gives the stars.

'We are children of the night," he writes, and then proceeds to refute the presumption that darkness is bad and that in dark places come slouching beasts of ill intent. He reminds light-polluted city dwellers that it was by looking up into the night sky that the human species began its mission to overcome chaos.

I have read a number of better "how to" look at the stars books. I have not read a better "why to."

Jim Bencivenga is editor of the Ideas section.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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