Why galaxies make my stomach hurt
by Michael O’Shea
Growing up in Chicago, I had never seen a galaxy or nebula. I didn’t know the comforting orange glow of the street and alley lamps (which made for great late night football games) had erased the sky above. I saw the Milky Way in books, but thought it belonged to another world, another time and place. I felt lucky to see the craters of the Moon. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Saturn’s ring and Jupiter’s moons when I looked through a telescope for the first time after my 13th birthday. There were a dozen or so visible stars on a good night and I might even see a shooting star during the summer! And no amount of light pollution could erase the sun with its ever-changing sunspot freckles. I was happy city kid, blissful in my ignorance of what else might be above
So imagine my surprise more than a decade later when I visited Stellafane Astronomy and Telescope Convention in rural, dark sky Vermont in August 2016. As the sun slipped away and the Earth fell to sleep, I sauntered outside. I looked up: a band of white glowing light stretched far overhead. It wasn’t streetlights casting this glow, but rather the center of our galaxy. Stars too many to count pricked the deep dark canvass overhead. The few stars I could recognize were lost in this glut of twinkling lights. Visually feasting on the starshow overhead, I was the kid who has eaten too much Halloween candy: feeling extravagant and sick from overindulgence.
But we weren’t done. I peered into a telescope far, far more expensive than the one I knew back in Chicago and saw….a galaxy! My first! A oblong white smudge with a telltale center and arms.
“That’s Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away,” my friend told me. So…the light I was now seeing was as as old as the oldest members of the genus Homo. Wow. A satellite galaxy sat nearby…and another. I had just seen three galaxies after a lifetime of seeing none.
I felt small, insignificant….and thrilled. Thrilled to be alive in 2016 where I might — in good health, without of injury or death — casually and among strangers use an advanced machine whose fabulous power was unknown to humans until the last few centuries.
I was satisfied, drunk on beauty, with both headache and stomach ache that comes from thinking too hard about the universe. I checked the time: 3am. I was cold and staff, my necks sore from shooting-star-wishing. I turned to go home.
But we still weren’t done. A man materialized next to us and offered us a look through his a custom-built telescope. It had a mirror the size of cow’s head and so we all — even the tall ones among us — had to a climb a ladder to access it. Heart pounding, I mounted the creaky ladder and peer into the lens that was gathering ancient photons from deep, deep inside the universe. As my eyes adjusted, I saw dozens of white smudges in seeming random orientations.
“What are those? Stars?” I asked.