The first time I saw a sky full of stars was in India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, when I was maybe 13. I had grown up in cities with light pollution, where you were lucky to see a handful. And all of a sudden here they were: infinite. Scattered as if by careless hand.
It’s a humbling feeling, seeing history in the sky and thinking about all the people who came before you and did the same. For as long as we’ve been around, we’ve looked up at the stars and pondered our place in the universe. And for most of that time, the common belief was that we were at the centre of it all: the universe was made for us. Of course with every new discovery we realise how incorrect that is.
Some people find looking out into the universe scary or isolating, but I never have. I feel kind of relieved. There's a lot of freedom in realising how temporary you are. I feel grateful for my improbable existence, and then I think, "isn't it crazy that I can even have these thoughts?" So many things drifting around in the universe aren't thinking about how impressive it is - we actually get the privilege of being able to wonder about it all. We're part of the grand design, but we're also the grand design come to life...
My brain, which registers all of this, is made of atoms, which in turn are made of quarks and electrons. These particles are virtually identical to the ones that make up the rest of the universe. Therefore, our brains are simple made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe. That means our brains are operating as part of the universe, not independent from it. For a poetic spin on things, consider this: we humans are literally a way the universe has not only come to life but gained the ability to know itself and understand its existence. Trippy. Remarkable.
I read a book once called "The Planet Factory". It's about exoplanets. After that, whenever I looked up into infinity I thought about all the weird and wonderful planets out there. There are planets that orbit two twinned stars, and planets with no sun at all. Worlds whose seasons swing between fireball and snowball, worlds where the sun never sets, worlds entirely under water, or with a ground of molten lava. It's all out there. But there's one, crucial thing that isn't.
I think looking up at the night sky is an important thing to do. Since that moment in India, there have still only been a few times that I’ve seen a night sky truly brimming with stars. This photo was taken in New Zealand. Every time I do, I feel very small and very curious. My problems don’t matter so much. And the planet I'm on becomes extra important, because in all that endless night: we are the only example of life we have.