I remember being a small boy looking up at the night sky in a state of awe. Awe at what I was looking at knowing what I was actually seeing. I was one of these geeky kids – quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, but above all curious. Whatever I saw I wanted to understand. I’m told by my father that as an even younger child I used to cry when the wind blew in my hair – I like to think that I wasn’t a wuss, I just didn’t understand what the wind was and didn’t like it. (I’m sticking to that excuse!).
When I looked at the night sky and saw twinkling stars I wanted to understand what they were. So I read books and learned that what I was looking at wasn’t the sky as it was, I was looking at history. The stars were so distant that the light from them could take millions of years to reach my eyes and I wondered what they looked like now – were they still there? Was somebody looking back at me? That’s when I started to understand the scale of the universe out there. Cycling to the next village seemed like a long way, yet I knew that the planet we were on was a tiny dot compared to the star we’re spinning around, which itself was pretty small as stars go and there I was looking at countless stars in the sky just like our sun impossibly far apart.
But my eyes were really opened when I looked up at the stars in a remote part of Scotland with no villages or towns nearby – so no light pollution – and for the first time in my life I could actually see the Milky Way. Far from being a chocolate bar, it’s actually a side-on view of the galaxy we’re a part of and there are so many stars in them you couldn’t count them (I couldn’t count up to a billion back then). The feeling of wonder I had just standing staring out into infinity is the sort of thing you can only experience as a child. I was open minded, full of imagination, wondering what the view was like from these far flung places and wishing I could travel between the stars exploring in a vaguely Star Trek way (but without the skin-tight uniforms). Realising the distances were so enormous I started to wonder how I might get there within my lifetime.
Being a child I could think without boundaries or limitations and this led me to wonder about the nature of space, time and gravity (I did say I was a geeky child). I remember explaining to my parents how I reckoned that if you could create enough gravity between two points you could travel from one to the other without going through the space in between and they had no idea what I was on about (many years later my mother watched a programme about just such a theory and thought I was a bit less crazy from then on). Staring at the night sky captured my imagination and I could stare for hours at pictures of galaxies and nebulae wondering at the vastness of the universe and how I was stuck on planet earth staring at it through a telescope rather than being out there experiencing it.
I’ve never lost that sense of wonder about the universe and whenever I see photos or video from space looking back at earth I always feel almost emotional to look at where we are. I’m of the opinion that if everybody could go into space just once and look down on our planet as the blue marble that it is – so fragile with a tiny, wafer-thin band of atmosphere that makes our life possible – then the world would be a better place for it. Maybe in that case the first world would stop exploiting and plundering the third world for resources and enable our civilisation to last long enough that we can get out and explore the incredible universe we inhabit rather than destroy the beautiful planet on which we live. As I grew from childhood into adulthood I could see that people’s perspectives change. Instead of looking out into the world and beyond with a sense of wonderment and awe people shuffle along looking at their feet, eyes and minds closed, sleepwalking their lives away. Maybe it’s human nature.
But I’ll always be that kid staring up at the night sky with my mouth wide open imagining what civilisations have risen and fallen in the time taken for the light to travel from the stars to my eyes. How tiny and insignificant we are, how short our lives are in the grand scheme of things and what a miracle it is that I’m standing here staring at all. And fortunately I’m not the only one who thinks that way.