Orion's Belt(way) Reality


I have just  finished my family trip to the other side of the world, a remote dot in the middle of the pacific, the last days of a beautiful Christmas visit with my in-laws.  I’d call it a vacation but for the fact I managed to work with joy every day; writing my blog or revising my books.  What really felt like work was observing the ongoing war of attrition against taste and sanity that is the 45th Presidency and the media’s increasingly onanistic response to it.  The latest, a book, The Fire and the Fury, added an extra gossipy sheen to what we already know or, at the very least, suspect about Trump’s wellbeing: he didn’t expect to win; he isn’t really suited to the job; he might not be a well man.

The oxygen was further sucked out of the room by a (rather wonderful) speech by Oprah Winfrey, which then propagated the ongoing debate about whether one business minded celebrity (albeit with, I suspect, more palatable views) can beat another business minded celebrity.  Personally, if Oprah wants to run… then run, but run for a state senate position or even governor, do that for a while, then run for president… the Ronald Reagan or (in the UK) Glenda Jackson approach. 

Entertainment stars now are to US power what Roman generals were at the height of its empire (the winners), but in politics, like most jobs, it pays to do your dues.  Just ask Crassus, co-ruler with Caesar and Pompey.  He wanted the quick route not only to a military victory to equal his great rivals, but also to (more) vast amounts of gold.  He was arrogant and hadn’t done his homework.  He ended up with the Parthians pouring the wealth, molten, down his throat, which didn’t do much for his longevity. 

All this endless politics, this noise, forced me outside to get some peace.  On a beautiful Hawaiian night, cicadas chirruped, insects hummed, the air was still but for the gentle rustle of trade winds through palm trees.  Above me, the Milky Way shone in its full glory, resplendent, it’s majesty undimmed by light pollution.  Cassiopeia was upside down (from my perspective), a giant ‘M’, as if a toddler had scrawled a giant bird across the sky, rather than the more usual ‘W’.  But, as always this time of year, the star of the sky was Orion. 

Orion is, along with the Big Dipper, one of the few northern hemisphere constellations that most of us can identify.  The three stars of the belt in particular have straddled myths and legends across continents. 

The constellations were useful drawings in the sky that provided meaning and stories to guide us through the long nights.  The northern hemisphere is full of dragons, hunters, bears, flying horses and the great gods and monsters of the zodiac.  In the south: sextants, telescopes, microscopes, a ship’s keel.  The instruments and tools of seventeenth century European sailors unconcerned with the myths and beliefs of the indigenous peoples they met and terrorized. 

In actuality the stars in any of these patterns bear little or no relation to one another, flattened in our perception, by the vast distances involved and their relative brightness.  Though the stars of Orion appear to us, though cultural memory, to be connected, they do not remotely inhabit the same place in space or time. 

When you look at Orion you are looking at light that began its journey in 18AD  before Jesus started his ministry under the reign of the emperor Tiberius (Alnilam middle Star in the belt is 2000 light years away), or light that was born at the time of the second and third crusades (Rigel, the brightest star, 864 light years away) or when Europe was recovering from the devastation of the Black Death (Betelgeuse 640 light years away) or when James Cook was sailing the antipodes discovering New Caledonia while across the world Washington had raised a militia and the US Constitutional Convention was meeting and preparing for war (Bellatrix 244, light years away).  The light of history is shining, and the distances travelled, unfathomable.

Our nearest star, outside the solar system, is Proxima Centauri, four and a quarter light years away.  A number I hadn’t considered properly growing up in the era of the TARDIS, hyperspace and warp-drives, the basis of so much great science fiction.  The numbers seem small and somewhat innocuous (4.25 Light Years, see, tiny.)  Then I did the math.  The fastest machine we have ever created, the New Horizons Space Probe, which used the slingshot power of Jupiter, the solar system’s biggest planet, to reach speed of 58,000 km/h (36,400 mph) would take 81,000 years to reach it.  If you arrived at a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri today, your journey would have encompassed the whole of human history from the time we, as a species, first left Africa.  That’s the nearest. 

Now, I think the idea that we are the only intelligent animals in a universe (heck even a galaxy) as large as ours, is arrogance of the grandest scale.  But, if Einstein is right and the speed of light is the universal speed limit,  we will never meet them, or not for a very long time.

Then I consider that every atom in my body, born through nucleosynthesis in the fire and fury of a sun, might already have made a journey of similar magnitude. 

Forget Trump or Oprah.  We all are timeless.  We are all stars.