Speed Freak

The night is very clear and dark; the stars burn with icy clarity. I look up, my eyes sweeping across the star fields as I try to understand what it is I am seeing. The tendency of course is to see it all flat, like a planetarium dome, with the stars either projected upon it, or punched through it to a brilliant world beyond. But the reality is more marvelous than either of these - each dot is in fact a immense globule of light, floating in nothing at all; each at a different, vast, and unknowable distance. When I trace the figure of a familiar constellation, I am perceiving a relationship visible only from this particular location in the universe. While a few constellations such as the Big Dipper are truly an association of stars, the great majority are only chance alignments. The stars which we see as Orion, for example, are at widely different distances. Some are more than four times as far away as others. This means that to an observer in many positions, our sun would be one of the stars in Orion, for we are closer to some of them than they are to each other.

Although the scale of distance will always remain inconceivable to us, it is possible to see the stars as fellow wanderers through space. When you start to feel the patterns of the stars as three-dimensional, the sky becomes a more vast and wonderful place, and an emptier. Isn't it strange that many people will get a thrill of fear, even revulsion, when peering downward for a few hundred feet; yet anyone can look upward, literally forever, without a qualm? How implicitly we trust in gravity - we are so sure in our very cells that we cannot fall upward into the infinite emptiness that the thought never occurs. Gravity is such a gentle tug on our bodies that we pay it little attention, and yet it is all that suspends us above that bottomless abyss.

But don't imagine that this planet to which we are so precariously stuck is such a fixed and stable platform. The whole countryside is hurtling eastward at over a thousand miles an hour. I gaze east across the valley at the San Rafael Ridge and see it speeding away from me, bound for New York at twice the speed of the jets. It gives me some sense of the vast bulk of the Earth to see how slowly the stars rise above the ridge, even at that tremendous speed. How massive the great round breast of the Earth as it lumbers through space.

What a sight it must be from space! As it is now evening, I know that I am on the dark side of the globe, just beyond the sunset terminator. The half toward the sun, roughly the Pacific Ocean, must be blue and shining in the brilliant light. On the dark side the cities of America and Europe glow like fireflies in the region near the terminator. The cities dim toward the right half of the dark side, as the people of Asia sleep. Further east the line of dawn rushes toward Japan. And the north-south ring that is the terminator glows like hot wire in the combined light of all the sunsets and all the sunrises in the world.

But this spinning world is not drifting serenely along in its orbit, either. It is in fact speeding recklessly, careening along at nearly 67,000 miles per hour as it spirals around the Sun. The motions combine to make our speed and direction vary with the day. At sunset we accelerated as we came around the trailing side of the Earth. Now we're swinging around toward the side away from the sun. At midnight we'll be traveling the fastest, the two speeds adding together as we hurtle eastward. At dawn we'll be on the nose of the Earth, traveling head first. At noon, we'll be going the slowest, the rotation slowing our rush toward the west. And at sunset again we are orbiting downward, feet first.

Nor is this dizzying carnival ride the worst of it. The sun and all its planets, asteroids, and comets is orbiting the center of the galaxy, some obsquatamajillion miles away toward the south. And even though it takes a quarter billion years to make just one orbit, the distance is so vast that the speed is breathtaking. The Earth, the sun, and all the stars in that peaceful sky above, are streaking through space at almost a half a million miles per hour. This should be enough for even the most avid speed freak.

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford