Thursday, March 1, 2012

Jupiter's Lesson on Perspective

Stargazing in Alaska is problematic. In the summer, there is too much light to see many stars. Spring and autumn each offer a few weeks with a good view, but in the winter clear means cold. Since I am a wimp and a terrible Alaskan, my normal view of the stars takes place during the walk from the car to the house.

Last night was a rare exception – a dark, clear sky and a not-too-cold temperature. Several planets took advantage of the chance to show off their best view. In the east Mars shone bright red and lonely over the Chugach Mountains. Normally that view would have been a showstopper, but Venus and Jupiter blazed so brightly in the west, directly opposite poor Mars, that I didn’t like to look away from them. I don’t think I have ever seen Jupiter shine bigger or brighter than it did last night.

It was a busy evening, so I got several opportunities to stare at Jupiter last night. Since red lights are for thinking strange thoughts, sitting there I was amazed that I could see anything at all that is 741 million km away. Paradoxically it is amazing that anything the size of Jupiter could ever be made to look like a pin head in the sky. It is strange that something that massive can be made to look so tiny to us. It is awe inspiring to live in that kind of world. I was in a terrible mood, but still, I was moved by mighty, tiny Jupiter.

Since I habitually over think things, I got to thinking about perspective. We never really know the truth or the magnitude of something when we see it from our point of view. There is too much about it that we will never see. The truth is that Jupiter is the second-largest thing in the solar system. At two and a half times the mass of all the other planets combined, and 66 moons, it dwarfs everything else we can see from the Earth except the sun. From my perspective it is a small, bright dot in the sky over Cook Inlet. The space between those two ideas is where I find my place in the universe.

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