“The Starry Night” was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in June 1889.
At the height of his popularity, Astronomer Carl Sagan was a guest presenter at an IBM sales recognition event in Bermuda, where I was writing speeches and continuity for the corporation’s executives.
During a break in the program one afternoon, Carl and his wife – holding hands -- trekked up a windy bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. When they reached the top, an immense grin shone on his face as he took in the expansive view of the sea below.
That image of Carl and his wife helps me understand what he meant when he wrote: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Of course, Carl was referring not only to the planet’s seven seas, but to the entire immensity of the universe.
He popularized his thinking in his famous television series, Cosmos. There he proclaimed:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
Now, many years after I met Carl, I travel back and forth between my homes on Cape Cod and Vieques -- both prime places in which to enjoy striking views of the night sky.
Truro, Cape Cod’s least-populated municipality, is more than a 50-mile-drive from mainland Massachusetts and has very little ambient light to obscure the night sky. The same is true of sparsely populated Vieques, the little island off Puerto Rico. In both places, it’s hard to be outside at night and ignore the irresistible temptation to stargaze.
Although these two tiny points on the planet are separated by nearly 2,000 miles, the view of the star canopy is virtually identical in both places, leading me to feel that I am “home” – no matter in which I happen to be.
I didn’t understand this feeling until I recently came across something written by American author and longshoreman Eric Hoffer. He suggested that our preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse. "We are drawn back to where we came from," he wrote.
As I take in the night sky, Carl’s words echo. “We are made of starstuff.”
Even Van Gogh, not one to be mistaken for a Sunday morning churchgoer, described his nighttime painting of stars as a religious experience.
God might have molded Adam from the mud of the earth. But first we were stardust.
In my next blog, "On Time"