Have you ever known someone who did not look up at the sky at night? Someone who stared at their smart phone rather than casting their gaze upwards towards a star-studded dome above? I hope not, because I would certainly feel sorry for them. Why do we humans look up at night? What draws us to those beacons shining out from the depths of the cosmos? What secret messages from the timeless vastness above whisper deep within our being?
No doubt the stars are beautiful, especially as seen from a dark sky like we find in the Methow Valley, but there is perhaps another reason we are mesmerized by the stars. We came from them. Where did the elements that make up this world and everything on it including us come from? You may think we are from the earth, but our true origin is far beyond this little world that we inhabit.
The human body consists of about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. Where were they created? Not in the earth, nor the sun or even the Big Bang, that cataclysmic event that heralded the beginnings of the universe 13-plus billion years ago. Take a look at your finger nails. Those atoms that you nonchalantly clip off when they grow too long were created in only one place, deep in the heart of massive stars, stars much bigger than our sun.
You may calculate your age based on how many times the earth has spun around the star we call the sun. Your true age, however, the age of the atoms in your body, is far older, billions of years older. When massive stars run out of gas, they swell up in size and then explode as a supernova spewing the elements they have made out into the cosmos. These elements then become the building blocks of new worlds like our earth.
I wish I could point out to you where you might spot a supernova in the sky right now, but the last one observed by humans in our Milky Way galaxy happened on Oct. 9, 1604. That was 415 years ago.
I can tell you where to spot a star up there that is about to explode. Just after it gets dark, look low in the southwest for the constellation Orion and the bright reddish orange star at its upper left-hand corner. That is Betelgeuse, a strange name for a strange star. It is right at the end of its life cycle and has puffed up into a monster over a billion times the size of our sun. It is wheezing and panting like an old man gasping for his last breath. We can even see it changing in brightness and size as if its chest were rising and falling.
If you are out under the stars waiting for it to go bang, do not hold your breath. Astronomers give it about 100,000 years more or less. That sounds like a long time, but in the life of a star it is just a heartbeat.
Billions of years of years ago before our sun was even born, one or more stars like Betelgeuse blew up in supernova explosions, seeding the cosmos with the very atoms that make up the earth and all life on it. Those atoms are still within us today. We are literally the ashes of dead stars from long ago.