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Friday, 03 February 2012 17:35
On stars and bugs
On stars and bugs

Joshua SteinJoshua SteinAs I sit at my desk, a bug flutters by. It and its family share my home, adding little but some small annoyance. Each bug is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Yes, that dot, or maybe smaller. They seem to waft like a slow-motion knuckleball, though still too swift in their gyrations for me to catch them (except when I do!) and, once trapped, they are easily killed.

But I look at the bug and wonder if it has a name. (I hope some scientist has dubbed it something like Timwakefieldius minoris). More important, does it have a brain? I know it has wings and I assume it has sex organs because spontaneous generation is no longer de rigueur in the scientific world. But how all that and a digestive system and sensory organs are crammed into such a small space, eludes me.

Then I look up to the sky. It’s glorious in the winter. When there are neither clouds nor moon and the air is crisp I can see to the south the Great Winter Oval, an asterism (a pattern of stars) consisting of first-magnitude stars from six different constellations. Starting at what appears to be the top and proceeding clockwise, there’s Capella from Auriga (the Charioteer), Aldebaran from Taurus (the Bull), Rigel of Orion (the Hunter), Sirius of the Great Dog, Procyon from the Little Dog and Pollux of the Twins. In the midst of all this, just a bit off-center, is Betelgeuse, which forms the right shoulder of Orion. Viewed as in a gallery over my neighbor’s house, this elongated circle forms an enormous objet d’art. The red giant Betelgeuse, large enough to cover our solar system at least to Mars and possibly beyond, throbs. No Timwakefieldius minoris here.

And yet, these glorious points of light are only the local eye-catchers. Our galaxy has about 200 billion stars (estimates vary) and there are probably as many galaxies as stars in our Milky Way. In the autumn, find Andromeda – two lines of stars that seem to come out of the square that is the constellation Pegasus (the Flying Horse). If you know just where to look, out of the corner of your eye (you can’t see it straight on) is the gauzy blur of the Andromeda Galaxy, a good two million light-years away (a light-year is approximately five trillion miles. Now multiply that by two million and you’ll agree that it’s not within walking distance). It’s the farthest thing you can see with the naked eye.

How big is the universe? The answer depends on whom you ask, but a good guess is that its diameter is just shy of 14 billion light-years from here. All of which makes me think that none of us is much more, indeed we are probably considerably less, than a Timwakefieldius minoris in the grand sweep of things.

The psalmist asks: “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars, … what is mankind that You should care about him, mortal man that You should think of him?” and then answers his own question, “You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty.”

Well, that’s one approach. Shakespeare expressed another: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

So, who is closer to the mark, the psalmist or the Bard? I know not; but as old age creeps upon me, as I look at the tiny bug and at the glorious stars and imagine the unimaginable vastness of the universe beyond, I think … it must be Shakespeare. We come and go like the tiny Timwakefieldius minoris, unremarkable in the vastness, alone in our teeny speck of the corner we occupy in outer space. So, petty as we are, it is the petty that consumes us. Locally this is currently being expressed in the anger directed at a young woman who wants to honor the spirit of Rhode Island’s founder and of the U.S. Constitution by fighting to remove a prayer displayed in a public school. To quote Shakespeare one more time, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Joshua B. Stein is a professor of history at Roger Williams University. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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