Everywhere you turn there’s evidence of the cycle of life. It’s obvious and, for all of us, it’s altogether comforting. It’s in the trees, in the flowering bushes crushed by the winter cold and yet in full bloom by June, and certainly in eyes of every newborn, human or otherwise. And, it’s in the stars. They’re born, they age, they die, and from their deaths new stars are created.
One of the brightest and most observable objects in our winter night sky is Betelgeuse in the huge constellation Orion, The Hunter. The “red giant” is a variable star. It has brightened and dimmed for as long as people have gazed upon it. It is so immense that if it were to replace the sun at the center of our solar system, its mass would overtake and engulf our planet.
We normally think that it takes time to grow so large. But that is not the case with Betelgeuse. While the sun is, perhaps, around 4.5 billion years old, the red giant is a baby at just 10 million years of age. Just like us, stars are not all the same. Sometimes, the best and brightest among us are not rewarded with long life. Scientists have always known that red giants behave this way. Their growth is too great to be sustained.
Recent articles have pointed out that Betelgeuse has, of late, dimmed much more than usual. It may simply be an anomaly, a function of an old star having a coughing fit of sorts. But Betelgeuse is clearly at risk. It may just have another 100,000 years of life, a mere blink of the eye in the life of a star. But the recent dimming has led some to wonder whether its end may come even sooner. When it does finally succumb, when its core finally burns up the last of the helium and is left with solid, heavier elements, it will shrink and then explode violently into a supernova that will be unmistakably visible to all.
And then what? Well, researchers have been analyzing a meteorite that fell in Australia some 50 years ago. They have been able to date embedded, microscopic particulates, and have concluded that some of these tiny grains or, as they phrase it, stardust, are 7 billion years old. Just as Betelgeuse will explode, so did an ancient star in our galaxy. Its remnants flew into space billions of years before our sun was born, before any of the planets we are so familiar with were created. And, while the explosion of that star helped to generate new stars, bits and pieces continued to fly around and by chance embedded in a meteor that fell to Earth. Even crazier, the same researchers found evidence of other, much younger stars, more stardust, in the same piece of rock that found its way to Australia.
But it’s much more than that. At a lecture I attended many years ago, someone asked the speaker whether his study of astronomy and the awe he felt on a regular basis made him feel small or whether, being a part of something so grand, he felt larger than life.
The thing is, I don’t remember his answer. I was too busy forming my own. I was too busy trying to understand that there is no distinction between the heavens and the earth. One reflects the other. The cycle of life is everywhere. Matter is neither gained nor lost, it’s just moved from one object to another. We’re the stardust. Does it matter whether the emotion of awe makes one feels bigger or smaller? I don’t think so. It only matters that we know that we can experience it because we’re part of it.