How would you like to touch a star the next clear night? It’s not only possible but inevitable due to the amazing “photon connection”! So many of nature’s wonders we often fail to recognize in our busy lives (the majestic rising of the Earth’s shadow in the east at sunset being just one example). But this one surely tops the list since it is not confined to our earthly abode.
The poet Sara Teasdale said in looking at the night sky: “I know that I am honored to be witness of so much majesty.” Little did she realize the profundity of that feeling. For in simply looking up at a star, you are—in fact—actually touching a part of it!
To understand this, we first need to realize that we see the light of stars by the photons they emit. And secondly, that photons themselves have a very strange “dualistic” nature. They behave like a wave—but also like a particle. (I like to think of it as particles moving in waves.) What this means is that as the light from a star enters your eye, a piece of that star—something physical—falls on your retina. You are in direct physical contact with something that was once inside the star and has traveled through space and time to reach you!
This becomes even more profound when we look deeper into space than just the stars.
There are many other types of celestial objects shining in the night that we see due to their photons. And this even includes the remote galaxies themselves. One of the “nearest” is the famed Andromeda Galaxy, visible to the unaided eye on a dark moonless night in the fall sky. It lies 2,400,000 light-years from us, or some 144,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away! Think of it—two-million-year-plus-old particles entering your eye!
There are countless stories of people whose lives have been forever changed by simply looking up at the stars. This is especially true in the case of telescope viewing, which makes the photons more intense and let’s us go deeper into space. I well remember my first conscious look at the stars with the unaided eye at a very young age and seeing the Big Dipper. This was followed by viewing the Moon and Jupiter soon afterward through a small telescope. The photons had cast their spell on me and I knew then without any question, that I was going to be an astronomer.
A final note: we haven’t mentioned the Moon or planets in our discussion of the photon connection. That’s because these objects are not giving off their own light (or photons) but simply reflecting that of the Sun. But here again—those photons from the Moon, for example, originated deep within our Daytime Star itself.
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com