Friday, October 17, 2008

Imaging the Milky Way

Imaging, or “applied imagination,” is usually directed inward (“creative visualization” or whatever), but in this application is directed outward—in this case, onto the Milky Way. The goal here is to experience our galaxy as it actually is, rather than merely as a blobby haze of light up there in the sky. This is done by programming the relevant information into the brain, and then going out and looking at the Milky Way with this information in mind. It’s a deceptively simple technique, actually.

Our galaxy is a 12-billion-year-old collection of stars spinning around in intergalactic space like a gigantic pinwheel 100,000 light years in diameter. (A light year is how far a beam of light can travel in a year. Light travels pretty fast—7 times around the Earth in one second—but even at this tremendous speed, it would take a ray of light 100,000 years to cross our galaxy.)

Our solar system is located 30,000 light years from the galactic center. We’re located in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood, all things considered—nowhere near “downtown,” but not stuck way out in the boonies, either.

The best time to watch the Milky Way is during the summer, when the brightest star clouds are visible during the evening hours. The best place to watch the Milky Way is anywhere far from city lights with an unobstructed horizon, particularly a clear southern horizon. An isolated mountaintop or wide mesa is ideal.

When imaging onto the Milky Way, just remember a few key facts, and imagine that these are so while looking at the galaxy. That’s all there is to it.

•All of the thousands of stars we see in the foreground are our galactic neighbors—most of them are mere dozens or hundreds of light years away. The hazy Milky Way itself, a luminous band of star clouds stretching all the way across the sky, is the main body of the galaxy looming in the distance, about 10,000 light years away. When this light we are now seeing began its journey, humans were just beginning to develop agriculture.

•The center of the Milky Way is located between Sagittarius the teapot and Scorpius the scorpion, but is hidden behind the bright star clouds in the foreground.

•The galaxy is rotating in the direction of Cygnus. One revolution takes 230 million years. One galactic revolution ago, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. One galactic revolution from now, who knows if Earth will still be a living planet?

The distances involved are so vast, and the time scales are so long, that it is difficult for us to encompass the reality of what we are actually experiencing as we stand outside looking into the heart of our galaxy. Despite the technology that has become our de facto God, and despite the superstitious faith that so many people maintain, we remain mere animals, with all the limitations that implies. Our basic unit of time is the day, and our basic unit of distance is probably how far we can throw a rock. Being caught in the whirlpool of arrogance that calls itself Modern Civilization, it is easy for us to lose track of our truly insignificant place in the grander scheme of things. So it can be a very beneficial antidote to go outside on a dark night and immerse ourselves in the incomprehensible and healing vastness of outer space.

And where does this outer space really begin? Well, it’s closer than you might think—the sky starts, after all, at our own feet. We are already standing in the sky. We are already skywalkers.


Blogger Jacques Conejo said...


Way cool! I do a meditative exercise that gives me daily, a sense of where we earth dwellers (in all our importance) fit into the Milky Way scale of perspective. Almost without fail, that moment of realization, that brief glimpse of physical space reality, causes at least a smile to cross my face, if not an outright chuckle. Certainly offers a way to keep one in touch, at least fleetingly with genuine humility.. I mean, how important could we really be? How serious can we really take ourselves? Thanks for sharing your process........ Your friend Jacqes

6:26 AM  

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