‘Where are you?” is a question my wife may ask when she’s calling to find out when I’ll be home from work or running errands and hoping she can add one more item to a list before I get to the last store. “Where are you from?” or “Where do you live?” are similar questions we often ask when meeting someone for the first time. The answers may be an address, street, town, state, or even another country. They give each of us a sense of place and are the first steps in “getting to know you.”
So I find myself working with John, a plumber I have never met before, who’s removing a tub and redoing the plumbing so I can install a new shower.
“Where do you live, John?” I asked.
“Bellwood,” he replied. “What about you?”
“So we’re neighbors,” he said.
“Yep. Right around the corner.” Sense of shared place established and business cards exchanged.
Then there’s Ed, a Wheaton High School track star so good he won six — count ’em, six — first place medals at a single track meet. Set the state record for the high jump in 1906. A real star.
Where do you live? Address, street, town, state. That’s where most of us stop. Do we really need to add “United States”? For John, the plumber, a town was good enough. For Ed, the track star from Wheaton, the race was just getting started.
Take a moment right now, really, and write down where you’re at: (address, street, city, etc.) until you stop expanding your space. Did you get North America? Planet Earth? The Milky Way galaxy? Ed did, and still he kept on running.
While Ed was interested in physics, his insurance executive father wanted him to be a lawyer. So, a dutiful son, he graduated from Oxford in 1913, as a Rhodes scholar from the University of Chicago, with a degree in jurisprudence. When his father died that same year, Ed found himself able to pursue his own dreams. In 1917 he received his PhD in astronomy from the University of Chicago.
A hundred years ago, the basics of astronomy were that moons orbit planets, planets orbit stars, and all the stars we see are grouped into one large cluster we call a galaxy. He knew we lived on the third planet from one of those stars. He also knew that our star, which we affectionately call the sun, was just one of some 200 billion stars that make up a flat, disc-shaped galaxy we call the Milky Way.
A hundred years ago, these basic facts were just the starting blocks for that track star from Wheaton High School. At that time, everyone assumed our galaxy was the entire universe. And why not? Aren’t 200 billion (200,000,000,000) stars big enough for God’s creation?! But what gnawed at Ed were some fuzzy, nebulous bits of something floating around in the sky around the edges of our galaxy. What were they? They didn’t look like stars. Were they just leftover “junk” from the creation of the Milky Way? Answering that question turned out to be the race that would define his career.
After serving in the Army during WWI, he got a position at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California and, using the largest telescope of the day, he answered that question, proving beyond a doubt that one of those “fuzzy bits” was indeed another galaxy, one we call Andromeda, 2.5 million light years (15 trillion miles!) from earth and containing a trillion — with a T — stars. Ed’s discovery instantly changed astronomy’s race from a 100-yard dash to a marathon.
Thanks to his interest in Astronomy, we now have a more expansive answer to the question, “Where are we?” According to NASA, there are somewhere between 200 billion to a trillion galaxies in the observable universe. And each one of those billions of galaxies has somewhere between 100 to 400 billion stars, plus planets and moons for which there is no number. One planet, the one we call Earth, rolls eastward every morning, bringing our local star into view until Earth rolls so far that our star disappears on the western side. Then in the darkness that envelops, we get just a glimpse of all that is out there — and where our address, street, city, etc. find their rightful place.
Ed died in 1953. Thirty-seven years later, NASA launched a telescope into space in his honor. Edwin Powell Hubble, a local boy from Wheaton, who preferred the stars over stardom, who never saw a race too long to run, took all of us out of our immediate neighborhoods and opened our eyes to the whole of creation.
If you have not yet opened your mind and imagination to explore the wonders of a universe 92 billion light years across, you might want to consider getting out more. It will be the most humbling, thrilling, and beautiful trip you ever take. And it’s always there for a visit. Google “pictures from the Hubble telescope.” Or just look up. And on one of those planets for which there is no number, in one of those galaxies far, far away, another plumber named John may be providing fresh water and hot showers to another astronomer named Ed who’s looking out at our galaxy — and wondering if he and John are all alone.
What do you think?
Bill Sieck is a Berwyn resident, someone who looks at life from odd angles, and one for whom planet Earth is his “pied-a-terre.”