The universe is big. Roomy, even. Because of the age of universe (about 13-and-a-half billion years) and the speed of light, we should be in a big expanding bubble about 27 billion lights years across (13.5 billion x 2 = 27 billion). There’s more math to the whole thing, so they tell me. But it’s bigger than that still, due to something about the speed limit of light only applying within the universe. More math. Hawking could explain it and it would sound better because of the iconic robot voice.
There’s a point to pondering the total acreage of known space, and it becomes clear when you sit beneath the dome of the region’s largest planetarium, Morehead, on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill. Entering the planetarium is reminiscent of visiting a cathedral, just with more awkward teens in Boy Scout uniforms. It’s very quiet and the circular room glows softly in pink-orange dusk-between hues. In that warm near-light, Amy Sayle’s voice is comforting – a little like being called in for dinner at the end of the day. She brings the lights down and fires up a network of digital projectors, the technology for which is possibly reverse-engineered from the Roswell wreckage. The control panels running the program are some serious Picard-era transporter room readouts.
Far above her head, the white paneled dome drifts into black and a thousand stars spiral overhead. Amy strides through constellations and planets, explaining the sky’s geography as if it were the streets in her own neighborhood. Glowing lines connect stars, forming ancient pictographs left to us by dead guys in togas. Comets appear and disappear. A flick across her screen, and the stars reel to the west and new stars rise in the east; Amy has whirled our perspective so we face the constellations of the southern hemisphere. The night sky is Amy’s playground for the next 45 minutes.
Amy Sayle, Ph.D is not some hobbyist. She’s a scientist and knows her stuff. Yet, she’s not an ivory tower lecturer. Her shows at Morehead Planetarium are unscripted. “Every civilization has looked at the night sky and tried to make sense of it. We want to understand nature – the sun, moon and stars.” She tells the folktale of a dog who spilled cornmeal across the sky and how the Cherokee named the band of the Milky Way, The Way the Dog Ran. “I love storytelling. It’s a way for people to understand their place in the universe.”
The program’s second act is humbling. Our perspective shifts again, only now it seems the Earth has broken free from the hold of the Sun, and we’re barreling away from our seven neighbor planets, out beyond the expanding bubble of radio waves mankind has been sending into the cosmos for the last century, past the stars closest to us, and out through the borders of our home galaxy. Peering back toward the spiral of the Milky Way, it becomes clear we’re adrift in a sea of other glowing galaxies. Eventually, our own home is a distant speck, indistinguishable in a vast web of light.
Amy is telling a story, albeit disguised as education. It’s a story about where we belong – a story about home. As she said, our “place in the universe.” Remember, the universe is big and (I think science bears this out) except for Earth, it’s sort of a death trap. She’s telling us something fundamental when she pans digital images across the dome. The show excels at shifting perspective (in the physical sense if not in other ways). Looking out from the ground and then back in from the void subconsciously communicates a sense of place, that we’re all in this together. A trip to the planetarium might teach you something surprising: that we’re not quite so alone in our aloneness. For better or for worse, we’re all stuck with each other.