Clear summer nights are great for looking up at the heavens. But there is something about clear winter nights that makes the night sky even more awe inspiring. I am not sure why. Maybe it has something to with the cold crisp air. I was thinking about one night recently when I happened to look skyward and saw the Milky Way in all its glory. What a sight! We need to look up more often at night.
The Milky Way is one of perhaps a billion galaxies in the universe. And it is our home. We live here in the Milky Way among some 400 billion stars along with dust and gasses. It is hard to fathom.
I used to tell my students to take a geology or astronomy class if they could, because among other things, it would stretch their concept of time. We are used to thinking in terms of minutes, hours, days, and years. We seldom think in terms of millions of years or light years. That is the time scale used by geologists and astronomers. The Milky Way is a good illustration of that. A light year, of course, is the distance light travels in a year, or about 6 trillion miles. The distance from our sun to the center of the Milky Way is about 30,000 light years. And our solar system is about one-half of the way out from the center. Our nearest spiral galaxy (M31) in the constellation Andromeda is two million light years away. Trying to comprehend that is mind boggling.
Early cultures, of course, did not know what the Milky Ways was. Some thought it was the backbone of the sky. Others thought it was a great snowdrift, campfire ashes, or even the burned, scorched path left from the passage of the sun. It also was part of some culture’s spirituality. According to at least one source, the Lakota referred to the Milky Way as the “Spirit Way.” Good spirits were guided to the Spirit Way by the wind, and the Spirit Way continuously moved around the sky to avoid the bad spirits.
So if you notice the sky is clear some evening, make a point to go out and gaze up at the Milky Way. You might even do some star gazing too. But be sure to give some thought to the immensity of it all as well as its cultural significance. Oh, and if you have an opportunity to take a geology or astronomy class, take it!