BY JAKE DOCKTER
A few weeks ago an astronomy class in England made a surprising, and accidental, discovery. In a distant, but not so distant, galaxy called M82 (not to be confused with M83, which is another galaxy, and an amazing band), in a celestial object some 12,000,000 light years* away, a star was exploding. A supernova had begun.
The class had caught it quite by accident. Astronomers all over the world turned their telescopes towards M82 as the news spread. The event was so close (relatively speaking) and so bright that even a pair of binoculars turned to the right spot could catch a faint glimpse. Who knows... if you read this soon enough, it could still be there.
A friend and I found a local astronomy club that runs a big telescope and we went to see it. I had my fingers crossed that the clouds would cooperate. Portland doesn’t always have the best skies for stargazing, but it was a clear night and gorgeous.
While we waited for a chance to visit the big telescope in the observatory, we met some fellows in the parking lot. One gentleman came up quickly and asked, “Have any of you seen the GRS before?”
“What is the GRS?” I asked. “The Great Red Spot, on Jupiter.” He replied and guided us to his telescope. As I looked inside the scope and my eyes focused on an object 365 million miles away, I saw the bands on the planet, three of its moons, and ever so faintly, the giant storm on the planet! From a parking lot in Portland, through a telescope, I saw the surface of the planet Jupiter and the famous feature swirling around it.
Next, we walked to another scope and an intelligent old man showed us the Orion Nebula, the birthplace of stars. He swung his scope from nebula to nebula, pointing out gas clouds and stars millions of light years away. Finally, he focused his scope on the Cigar Galaxy – M82, the very place where the supernova was occurring.
12 million light years away, 12 million years in the past, a star gathered gasses and exploded into a massively wide ball of fire. And I saw it. It was a faint glimmer but it was there in a faint shimmer of its galaxy. Light from the past: an event that few will ever see. It was something massive, marvelous and giant. In one night, I saw two amazing phenomena of nature, a nebula where clouds are born, and a star exploding into a supernova. It was an experience that was humbling and powerful and beautiful.
Before I went to the observatory, I watched an amazing little movie on Netflix. The Painting is an animated film from France that tells the story of paintings that are waiting to be finished by the artist. For some reason he has left them unfinished. There are some finished subjects that lord their completion over the half-done paintings and sketches, but the unfinished subjects have faith that the artist will come soon and complete them. As the drama increases and the “Alldunns” (the complete subjects) lord their colors and wholeness over those that are less done, a few leave the paintings in search of the painter to ask him to finish them.
I won’t spoil the film. You really need to watch it. It profoundly and gorgeously illustrates our varied needs for the creator. Some of us need to be reminded of our value, while others need to help others see their own value. The film reminds us of our place as created beings, but it reminds us that we are empowered to pass on the beauty of creation through our own actions.
We can choose to see either the brokenness or the marvels of the painting all around us. We can choose to seek out observatories and stare into 12,000,000 light years of space to marvel at nature, or we can choose to look closely at those around us. These are both miracles that speak of creation. The marvel of exploding stars and creation of galaxies is vast and incredible. It reminds me of how huge the universe is and how small I am. But at the same time, the relationships all around us are huge things for our lives. These relationships have more of an impact on our lives than a supernova does. Both of these things are incredible parts of the painting of nature. Both of them are evidence of the Painter’s hand on ourselves and on the universe around us.
We have to seek out wonder. In The Painting, the unfinished people have a choice. They can stay in their brokenness or they can seek out ways to fix their problem. They can either stay under the oppression of the “Alldunns” or they can find a way to change. The journey they find themselves on is out of the norm, something new and dangerous. They find themselves confronted with new images, new ideas and new ways to see each other and their world. In the same way, I had never seen the heavens in such a simple way. We all know that telescopes exist and that observatories are around us, but how many of us take the time to look through them. How many of us seek out chances to look up?
So look up.
Look at your painting in a new way.
Find a telescope or an astronomy club and peer into the night sky at marvelous things millions of miles away.
Or look at the broken people around you and ask how you can help complete them.
Both ways of seeing are a way of marvelling at a painting that is giant and cosmic and marvelous and also personal and small and about ourselves. We can paint ourselves in new ways and we can sit in wonder at the skies above. All of it is marvelous, and all of it is a painting we are a part of. See it.
Bio: Jake Dockter is a writer (greatwhitewhales.wordpress.com) and husband, and soon to be Dad in Portland, OR.
[*A lightyear is the distance light travels in a year and is a measurement of length and not time. 12,000,000 lightyears is equal to 70,543,506,494,980,920,000 miles.]