If nothing else, we’ve gone through a year when challenging truth seemed like an Olympic sport. I’ve grown tremendously weary of it. You see, hypotheses are meant to be questioned, and skepticism as a means to discern fact from fiction is absolutely necessary. But truth, once scientifically established, is truth.
I think we can use astronomy to show that pushing the limits of discovery and perception can lead to an appreciation that truth is liberating, even if it was not the truth we expected, or perhaps, hoped to find.
The coming of spring gifts us with several night sky sights that beg us to dig deeper and try to reconcile our understanding of truth. For me, one of the best of these sights is the zodiac constellation Leo, visible throughout April. Known by its distinctive “sickle” that forms the lion’s head, it can be found by using nearby guides. The Big Dipper’s pointer stars lead to Polaris, the North Star. If you follow them in the opposite direction and for a similar distance, you’ll wind up midway between two of Leo’s primary stars, Regulus and Denebola.
With the naked eye, Regulus – Leo’s heart – shines wondrously. It is enough to marvel at its luminosity and accept that it is one of our brightest stars. The truth, though, is that, with magnification, it is the light of three stars that we see, with a fourth believed to be nearby.
Denebola, the lion’s tail, seems normal enough. However, astronomers have found that its rapid spin has caused it to flatten at the top and bottom and bulge at the center. Further, it has been classified as a variable star: its brightness changing like a lightbulb on a dimmer.
Ah, but there’s much more to Leo. Looking beyond its individual stars leads us further into our past. While Regulus and Denebola are within the Milky Way in our galaxy, peering into the lion leads us to other galaxies. Indeed, Leo is the frame through which the Leo Cluster of galaxies is found.
When I started observing with my backyard telescope I looked for the galaxies listed in the Messier catalog. Through my eyepiece they looked like nothing, like smudges. I knew, though, that the truth was that those smudges, when photographed with astronomical cameras, gave way to images of incredible beauty. My initial belief was that Leo contained a handful of these galaxies. I now know that what I saw was but a fraction of what is there.
The Leo Cluster contains, perhaps, 70 or more galaxies. Located hundreds of millions of light years from us, each holds at least a few hundred million stars. Every smudge I was lucky to find was the light of countless suns. So, I have to ask myself, is Leo a constellation with a few bright stars or is it a window to trillions of stars and, perhaps, just as many planets?
Obviously, it is both. The science is not debatable. Part of me wants to keep asking how so many galaxies and so many stars can exist in what seems like an impossibly large universe. It just doesn’t seem believable. And yet, the research and the math have proven time and again that all of it really does exist despite my incredulity.
Accepting these truths doesn’t diminish my amazement. It allows me to be further amazed. And, it allows me to see that an incessant desire to challenge truth may indeed be a desire to never have to accept what must be accepted.
The reality is that truth is sometimes frightening. It may not be what we want to see or be told. It may push us beyond what we can grasp or what we have used to calm us in difficult moments. For me, though, despite the fears, despite my tendency to be rather untrusting, it entices me back to the eyepiece where more truth awaits.