The crazy thing about looking at the sky is that what we see is such a small part of what is actually there. Like putting a drop of pond water under a microscope, with technology we often find so much more than we could have imagined.
So it is with the constellation Bootes, The Herdsman. It sits well up in the western sky throughout August and begins to slide toward the horizon and a bit to the north in September. The red giant star, Arcturus, 25 times larger than the sun, forms its base. Simply follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle to find Arcturus, unmistakably the brightest star in that part of the sky. The standard direction is easy to remember: arc to Arcturus.
I’ve always looked at the constellation as a giant sugar ice cream cone with Arcturus the pointy bottom. But, thanks to work being done by scientists, specifically a PhD student in England, Bootes is filling more than my summertime need to escape the heat. There is now another arc to consider that runs along the top of the cone and points back towards the Big Dipper.
You and I can’t see this new arc, not with our eyes nor our backyard telescopes. But it is definitely there. Dubbed the Giant Arc, it consists of a stream of galaxies spanning over 3 billion light years in length. Its distance from Earth has been measured at 9 billion light years. Just one light year is 5.8 trillion miles, putting the math beyond my comprehension.
While size alone makes this a big deal, there is something else about the Giant Arc that raises a larger, more significant issue.
The cosmological principle is a fancy term for something that seems quite fundamental and obvious. Assuming everything began with the Big Bang, the distribution of matter in the universe should be pretty uniform. To illustrate this on a small scale, fill a large bowl with water and drop a pea into the center of the bowl. The waves should spread out evenly with just minor fluctuations. In the case of the Giant Arc, our simple experiment falls apart.
The discovery of the Giant Arc raises questions about the cosmological principle and, in the extreme, possibly about the Big Bang. The structure appears to show that galaxies sometimes form against expectations, in an unpredictable pattern. This doesn’t mean the Big Bang didn’t occur, or that all of the science connected to the Big Bang is wrong. But it does push us to keep digging and to keep questioning.
For most of us, at this point, the response to the implications of the Giant Arc is akin to finding sand between our toes after a walk along the beach. Following a year like we’ve had and with increasing worry about excessive heat, drought, virus variants and political strife, astronomical discourse seems more than a bit extraneous.
Why look to the heavens with so much trouble right here on Earth? More than once in the past 18 months I told myself to stop thinking and writing about the stars. So many other things were so very much more important and immediate. At times, it seemed as if the weight of all the sickness and destruction would drive me to seek solace through isolation.
Instead, though, I’ve continued to be drawn to stories like the Giant Arc. I’ve long held to the belief that “everyone needs a passion.” Call it a hobby, if you like, or a pursuit. The benefit does not come from collecting a new stamp or sighting a bird for the first time or hitting your first home run beyond the fence in left field.
The benefit is in recognizing that the daily grind hasn’t beaten you. The desire to remain passionate about something special in spite of endless obstacles not only proves one’s fortitude, but also proves, as Yogi Berra proclaimed, that “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And, if it ain’t over, then every day brings an opportunity to learn something new, to be in wonder of something and to believe in the hope of better days ahead.