The twinkle of the past

My remedy for insomnia is stargazing. If I wake in the predawn hours and lie awake brooding about a $900 car repair bill or the fact that my teenage son will soon begin driving, I wrap myself in fleece and fake fur, and stroll outside to my driveway to study the stars.

When I look skyward on a clear winter night, the stars look like the tiny bright points of light on a toy that I used to play with many years ago. You would put plastic pegs through a piece of black construction paper with a picture or pattern printed on it – maybe a clown's face – and the pegs would light up the picture.

In the winter sky, it is no clown's face I see, but instead, Orion rising in the southern sky through the bare branches of the maple tree in my front yard.

Orion, the rectangle with belt and sword, is one of the few constellations I can easily identify. I love the sounds of the names of the stars that form his shoulders: Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, which mean, respectively, "hand of the giant" and "female warrior." The lower corners of the rectangle are Rigel ("foot") and Saiph ("sword").

As I hold up my hand and see that his belt is no wider than my fingertip, I recite the names of the three stars in the belt: Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka. From my perspective, those stars look as though they are right next to one another. They were all named by Arab astronomers in the Middle Ages.

The first star on the left – Alnitak, "the girdle" – is a blue supergiant about 820 light-years away. That means that when you look at Alnitak today, the twinkling light that you see was emitted from the star at the end of the 12th century, when Henry II was king of England. In a few years, his son Richard the Lionhearted would launch the third crusade. In France, the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame were under construction.

Breathing in the cold night air, I think of the incredible oldness of that flickering light from Alnitak. Even the history book I consulted to find that information made me cough with its dust and mustiness.

And yet, when I peer at the middle star in Orion's belt – Alnilam, the "string of pearls" – I must step even further back into history. This star is about1,300 light-years away. That means that its twinkling light originated around AD 707, when the Mayans in Central America were developing astronomy, a writing system, and a calendar – and nearby Teotihuacán was beginning its decline. Near the same time, the Easter Islanders began to build huge stone platforms, and the Axumite kingdom in Ethiopia was in decline, due to the expansion of Islam.

Thinking of the ebb and flow of civilizations makes me sigh. What problem was it that caused my insomnia? I can't really remember.

As I clutch my mug of tea and shiver in my fleece bathrobe, I squint at the last star in Orion's belt. I recite the stars' names again: Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka. Ah yes, Mintaka, simply named "the belt." Its twinkle is older yet – about 2,000 light-years away.

Look closely at its faintly wavering light. The light that you see was emitted from the star around AD 7 – when Teotihuacán (in what is now Mexico) was a rich city of more than 40,000 people, and the Mayan cities in northern Guatemala were growing. The Nazca culture flourished in Peru, tracing vast patterns on the Peruvian desert. In Rome, Caesar Augustus was emperor of an expanding empire, but the Coliseum that we think of as so ancient had not yet been erected.

Contemplating the rise and fall of all these civilizations as I gaze at the crisp night sky does not make me feel insignificant, but it certainly helps me put my own problems in perspective. I sigh again and watch my breath float away in a wisp of vapor. Perhaps the Arab astronomers who named these stars also sighed in the Sahara. What problems would they have pined about – a lame camel or a dried-up well?

I head back into the house, ready now for a few more hours of sleep. Maybe I'll study Taurus next month when my son starts driving lessons.

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