One night in a cornfield — Part One

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, July 14, 2011

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Photo credit: Adam Block and Tim Puckett
In the deep dark of a summer night, leaves rustled in the trees, a slight breeze washed overhead, and bright, gemmy stars twinkled in a deep azure sky. It was a moonless night, so dark but for a brilliant curtain of Milky Way glistening above with the unresolved wash of light from far-off.

Surrounded by woods, a young boy lay on a sleeping bag, accompanied by his dog, which sat motionless except for moments of suspicion when some critter may have darted into a bush. A canopy of forest surrounded the horizon; fragrant aromas lifted flowery scents into the air, aided by a slightly humid atmosphere. Between a cornfield full of green and a subdivision peppered with houses, the boy had set up camp.

A strip of farmland behind the neighborhood, accessible over a dilapidated fence, hosted only a light blanket of stubble that enabled his presence. All that could be heard was Larry King, who chided callers on the Mutual Radio Network. As for the field, the subdivision — all seemed shut down. To the boy, southern Ohio had been all but abandoned, and he was the only soul awake in the universe.

Suddenly, the boy jumped up, giving his border collie a start. The boy, 15, walked a few feet to what looked like a dark, mortar-shaped contraption atop a tripod and aimed skyward. It was a telescope, a short-tube folded type with lenses and mirrors that housed a powerful instrument in a small, compact package. As he dropped in a new eyepiece, before he could lean over to look down and focus, a flash caught his eye.

The boy jerked his head up and saw a streak across the heavens so bright that it lit up the floor of the forest and the fields like a Full Moon. Moments later, it seemed like it may even have made a sound as it burned across the sky in yellow, green, and light blue, seeming to break apart in a spectacular display. It happened so quickly and flashed so brightly that it looked at first glance like ground fireworks. But it wasn’t.

No one to hear him, the boy nonetheless blurted, “God!” His heart raced, his breathing jumped, and it took a couple minutes for him to calm down. It was a brilliant meteor — maybe even satellite debris falling into Earth’s atmosphere — and on this lonely night the boy wondered if he had been the only one to see it. The dog, Oscar, simply looked at the boy with an odd shake of the head, as if to say, “Have you lost it?”

Back to the telescope. The boy peered into the eyepiece and saw a fuzzy smear of gray-green light surrounded by a diamond-like array of tiny white stars. The light, photons from the galaxy M31 in Andromeda, originated 2.5 million years ago and traveled through space continuously through nearly the whole existence of our human ancestors on Earth to reach the boy’s eyes that night. (This, at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second.) The light was a message from another part of the cosmos, a dim image of a galaxy spanning more than one million trillion miles across. It was the faint wisp of a vast disk of more than a trillion stars, seen as gauzy, unresolved light from this great distance.


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