The stuff stars are made of

A few evenings ago, the Petchary watched a TV documentary, “Journey to the Edge of the Universe“.  But this was no run-of-the-mill science doc, with technicolor images and a cliche-ridden commentary.  This was a real journey of the mind, as well as the senses.

The film literally takes off from the homely, familiar and beautiful surface of the Earth into space.  We find Neil Armstrong‘s footprints unchanged on the Moon.  We sail past the planets, one by one – the seething, acidic Venus, the hostile Mars with its secrets not yet fully revealed, and so on.  Still familiar territory.  Then we take a giant leap into hyperspace. Asteroids loom ominously, then pass, empty rocks in the darkness; comets with their searing power cut sharp tracks in the stars; we plunge into exquisite nebulae, frozen dust hanging in space; and there are those distant, lonely stars that we can see at night, fitfully blinking their past lives at us.

The Sun (still from the film Journey to the Edge of the Universe)
The gold-ribbed surface of the Sun with its glittering fountains

We go on, and on.  Here is a star that is burning itself out, consuming itself.  Here is one that is already dead, dark.  There, a black hole sucks on the surface of a glittering star.  A galaxy is destroyed, another is being put together.  A moon heaves with geysers and endless eruptions. The shining core of a star strengthens.  The revolving life and death, birth and destruction (and sometimes rebirth) that is at the core of it all… And the further away we travel, the closer to the beginning of it all we get.

Triton, a moon of Neptune (still from the film Journey to the Edge of the Universe)
Ghostly blue Neptune hangs behind the erupting geysers of its moon, Triton

The Petchary and family became frozen in our seats.  I even sat through the (thankfully brief) commercial breaks – I usually have no tolerance for those at all – as I was still under the film’s spell.  At times I felt I was holding my breath; at other times, I felt tears in my eyes.  Somehow, the universe became a living thing again, breathing and sighing and bursting with energy – no longer just pretty pictures, a spectacular backdrop, or those odd little models on pieces of wire I remember from school.

We became a part of it.  We felt it.  We were in it.

The universe is fear; it is dread; it is mystery; it is chaos.  It is also dazzling beauty and symmetry.  This film was emotional.  And it got us wondering.  What, why… will we ever know? Are we all alone?  Will we ever meet?  We are so tiny.

The narrator is, surprisingly, Mr. Alec Baldwin – he of the wry humor, the twinkle in the eye, the Saturday Night Live sketches, the tough-guy jaw.  His narration – his husky voice is easily recognizable – is intimate, almost quiet, as if he was a knowledgeable friend with a lot to tell you, who doesn’t want to show off.  No dramatic flourishes – his subject matter is dramatic enough by itself.  And no false reverence for the subject matter either, although sometimes notes of awe and wonder are unavoidable.  He is effective, and he invites us to stretch our consciousness as the universe draws us in.

I will have to watch it again, and probably purchase a copy.  It’s a National Geographic film.  There is so much to take away from it.  Probably absorbing it in small sips would help – the entire film at one gulp is overwhelming.  Trains of thought start, and there’s no stopping them.  You get carried away.  (You can also find it in twelve chunks on YouTube, and watch it on the Discovery Channel website.  Try to find it).

One thought strayed in the Petchary’s mind though, and still haunts me.

We human beings – tiny creatures that we are – are made of the same stuff as the universe. Water, and chemicals, and atoms, and dust.

We are the universe.  It is within us.

In this world of burning cars, catwalking models, babies with flies on their faces, marble-floored mansions, zinc fences, gilded churches and graffiti… somehow that thought is reassuring.

We should know where our place is, and be reminded of it.

A black hole consumes a star (still from the film Journey to the Edge of the Universe)
A black hole, that most disturbing of phenomena, will pull this star into its darkness

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4 thoughts on “The stuff stars are made of

  1. Sounds good, hopefully I will catch this on TV. I think National Geographic puts out a lot of great documentaries, much more informative viewing than a lot of the junk on tv nowadays. Good commentary.

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    1. This one was not only incredibly informative, but profound. Mind-blowing, even! Yes, I think the standard of Nat Geo remains high. It actually aired on Discovery Channel though, but do look out for it. Thanks for your kind comment.

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