We Never Looked at the Stars

What my high school astronomy club taught me about everything except astronomy

Seen with the naked eye, the Pleiades is a smudge, a weird diffuse patch in the sky. If you stare hard at it you can make out seven individual stars. If you stare really hard and lie, you can see fourteen. In truth, there are about a thousand, forming a cluster, a group of stars that all formed from the same cloud of gas. These burn with the bright blue of young stars as they orbit each other, held in the gravitational pull of the cloud they were born in. As time goes on they execute unimaginably complex orbits around each other, sweeping in and out, getting knocked one way and another by the combination of forces from every other star in the cluster. In time, the complex dance of gravitational forces will conspire to eject the stars, casting them out alone or in pairs into the interstellar void until the whole cluster evaporates. Until then they stay in the cluster, a group of stars born together, so close they appear as a simple smudge in the sky.

The one thing my high school astronomy club almost never did was astronomy. We joined the club for all the normal reasons — to have a place we belonged, to flirt, to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives. Being high school kids, we were terrible at all of them. We were also terrible at astronomy. The only one of us who even knew the constellations was John. He would point them out on the rare occasion when we’d gather on Mary’s Peak, a hill near Corvallis, Oregon — the place we called home, largely because our parents had jobs there. The rest of us would stand around and wonder if anyone besides John cared about Cassiopeia, and why he cared, and whether we should feel bad that we didn’t know where the Pleiades was.

We wanted so many things, and first of all what we wanted was for John to stop showing off about the constellations so we could get on with the serious business of joking, gossiping, and flirting very badly. The Pleiades, frankly, was too far away. We didn’t know how far (John did). The distances between the stars are too big even to think about, too far to have any sense of what it means.

Once a year the Astronomy Club would pile into vans and drive across the Cascades and the high desert of Eastern Oregon to Pine Mountain, to spend most of three days not looking at stars. Eastern Oregon is nothing like the green, lush Portland-area Oregon that most people know. A hundred miles into the state the Cascade Mountains rise up ten thousand feet into the air. Clouds from the Pacific ocean slam into them and deposit their rain into the Willamette valley. Beyond is a vast desert, populated with sagebrush and rattlesnakes and towns with fake old-West facades.

We went to Pine Mountain because many years ago someone built a giant research telescope on top of it. People build big research telescopes (the kind in the big white domes) on mountains because the air is thinner and calmer there. Less atmosphere means less distortion of the starlight, and a clearer picture of the night sky. Technology progresses, and this one had been retired; now it was used to teach high schoolers about astronomy. We could come and see Jupiter and Saturn and the Andromeda galaxy if we wanted to. We could also look at giant posters on the walls of all of those and more, images taken by newer and better telescopes.

If we could ever get close to a single star, we’d see it was not a simple twinkling point, but a giant ball of exploding gas. Among the primordial clouds, a clump of gas is pulled together by its own gravity, and that attracts more and more. Gravity always attracts, never repels, and if nothing else happened the clump of hydrogen would condense into a smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller ball until all that was left was a black hole — a spot of nothingness, inaccessible to the rest of the universe, cut off and alone. But as the gas is crushed into ever-denser patches it gets hotter and hotter and hotter until it ignites with nuclear fusion. Hydrogen atoms come together and fuse to form bigger and bigger atoms — helium, carbon, oxygen, the dust of the universe. And from those collisions energy is released, mostly as photons, particles of light that would stream out to the ends of the universe if they weren’t trapped in the cloud of gas, pushing back against the collapse of gravity. The explosion pushes and the gravity pulls until the whole cloud is a giant fireball, a balance between opposing forces, a seemingly eternal nuclear explosion the size of a million Earths. And that’s what a star is — a constant tension between the impulse to collapse into the nothingness of a black hole, and to explode and scatter photons and dust across the cosmos.

The first night of the trip my sophomore year we spent most of our time trying to build a fire. It was drizzly, not enough rain to put a fire out but enough to make starting one a giant pain. Josh, a Mormon who was always bemoaning the fact that one couldn’t be both Mormon and cool (he would later learn otherwise, but became an accountant anyway), arranged the kindling into a pyramid shape, which he was sure would start the fire. It didn’t.

I was antsy and damp and I couldn’t just sit there. I reasoned that I knew how to do things and how physics worked — I had read a book on quantum mechanics — and I was sure it would work if we just made the pyramid shallower. As I eagerly jumped in to fumble the kindling into place, I stepped on the wrong part and collapsed the whole thing.

Dale, an Eagle Scout, swept past me, with a bundle of wood in his arms and a look that said, “get away, what are you doing?”

I sat down, crushed, wanting to vanish. I wanted to contribute. I wanted everyone to see me contribute, see me making a difference. I had added what I knew, and it had made things worse. In the world of making fires, I was a nothing, a non-entity, and Dale, the Eagle Scout, was king.

As he coaxed a spark to a flame to a fire, the rain slowed. The wood popped as little bits of water vaporized inside the wood and exploded, sending tiny embers wafting up, motes of dust floating around each other, looking a bit like stars themselves, like points of light shining through the darkness.

Deep in the hearts of stars, in the same nuclear reactions that power the conversion of hydrogen into helium, other particles are produced, called neutrinos. Unlike photons, which are trapped inside the star by electromagnetic forces, neutrinos interact with almost nothing. A single neutrino can pass through light-years of rock without interacting. They stream through space and through other stars — they’re the only thing produced in stellar fusion that can reach the heart of another star, though most pass through without a trace. But there are many, many, many of them. Every once in a while one strikes the nucleus of an atom exactly right, and produces a tiny explosion. Those occasional interactions are the only reason we know they exist, a single strike as the rest go streaming past.

The next day we hiked down the canyon, into the lava tubes and on until we reached the end. A lava tube is where a lava flow has cooled, the outer layer turning to rock while the inside drains, leaving an empty space. As the millennia go by, cave-ins sometimes allow access to paths that had previously been blocked, and other cave-ins mean that hiking down the tubes is an exercise in clambering up and down piles of rubble. I found myself hiking alongside Mary, a senior who I had never met before. Our school wasn’t big, just over a thousand students, and the club much smaller, but somehow our paths had never crossed. Smart, ambitious, and confident in a way that was, frankly, terrifying, she was like no one I had ever met. And we did something I had never done: we talked.

The discussion was mostly about how to get from one rock to the next as we went down the canyon, but we also talked about school and what we wanted to do in the future and whether sagebrush was interesting. It was the first time I had ever really talked with a girl.

I always thought this was because of how I looked. If I had to pick one word then to describe my appearance, it would have been “terrible.” If, five years later, I had to pick two words to describe my appearance in high school, they would have been “fucking terrible.” I had grown my hair to past shoulder length in a ponytail I never washed, and added a mustache and goatee for good measure. I wore T-shirts with four-color prints of a wolf howling at the moon. I was that guy.

In fact, none of that was why I never talked to girls. It was simply because I never realized they were people, exactly the same as and completely different from everyone else. But as Mary and I climbed over caved-in rocks and helped each other find the right way from boulder to not-exactly-stable boulder, we talked about the things that mattered to both of us, not as girls or boys but as people. We talked about the fear of being judged (constant), the pain of not fitting in (avoidable), the hope of success (a job? A good job? The Supreme Court?). We talked of dreams and hopes and fears — and as we talked I saw a whole world, the vast conflict of forces and pressures within her, a giant ball of sadness and potential the size of a million Earths. Slowly, ponderously, I started to fathom the universe of another person.

It terrified me. There was so much about her, about me, about everyone that I didn’t know.

Compared to other stars, the Pleiades are fairly close to Earth, only 425 light years away. I have to say, “compared to other stars” because that’s still a stupidly big number. Incomprehensibly big. It means that the light (and the occasional neutrino) that arrives from them has been traveling for 425 years before it reaches us, since roughly the time Galileo was born. We don’t see the stars, but a snapshot of a past across a distance we could never travel.

I should note that Mary is not her real name, which I’ve forgotten. We never spoke again after that day; I don’t even know that I ever saw her at school again. I hope she’s had a good life. I’m sure she has. I assume she remembers none of this, or remembers something very different. I’ve changed everyone else’s name as well, although I remember most of them. In the end, I’m not really describing the people themselves; I’m describing my memories, the impressions that they left on me, the vague caricatures and archetypes that inform who I am while bearing little resemblance to the people who actually existed.

I know now that every one of them was probably a total mess. But at the time, they all seemed so confident, so knowledgeable, so in charge of their own lives and who they were, so able to build fires and jump between rocks and talk to each other without being awkward. It was a constant struggle to survive in their world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were also trying to find their way through my world, and everyone else’s.

We caught up with the others at the end of the lava tunnel, which wasn’t really an end so much as the ceiling sloping down, or the floor sloping up, until it was too small for a human to move through. Eventually Josh, the one who wanted to be cool, took off his hard hat and started tapping on it with his flashlight. John joined in, tapping a different, complementary rhythm. Soon everyone but me had formed a drum circle in the cave. My first thought should have been, “Is this safe?” We had just finished climbing over cave-in after cave-in; we could only access this part of the tunnel because of a cave-in years before.

My actual first thought was that if I started to drum, Mary would realize that I couldn’t keep a beat. All of them, Mary and Josh and John and Dale and all the others would hear me throw off their rhythm, and they’d know. They would know that I didn’t fit. And then I thought, well, if I don’t join they’ll know too. So I joined in.

And we sat there, surrounded by thin layers of air and rock. Above us, presumably, stars; below us the impossibly slow churning of the Earth; through us the neutrinos and all the other invisible things. And inside, the flickering of flashlights on the walls of the cave as we each tried to fit our own rhythm in with everyone else.

Cover image courtesy of NASA. For more stories like this one, follow The Archipelago.