Sometimes, I'm just not productive. I'm sitting here, staring at Mr. William May Garland II, '55
, and his alpaca
, juggling stars and trees in my head and fidgeting more than a six-year-old listening to a two-hour lecture on Babylonian cuneiforms
. This is my fourth piece of paper; the prior three have been covered top to bottom in black and blue scribbles. And it's not like I don't know where I'm going. The hamburger
patty is there, I just can't find the top of the bun. I had it all figured out last night right before going to bed: the steadfastness of Keats
' bright star, the fallacy of that belief; the primordial Population III stars
, long dead and not constant at all, burning burning burning until...later, they are replaced by today's Population I and II stars, the second generation of twinkle lights in our galaxy; and how trees, too, have generations-one kind of tree gradually replaces another. I had it all figured out last night, but this afternoon, the meat remains elusively unserveable without its bun of an introduction.
I guess for Keats, the stars, or, at least, one particular star, bright Polaris of Ursa Minor, was constant, and it must have seemed one of the steadiest things in his world, separate from the ongoing death and birth happening in the terrestrial sphere around him. He wrote that he would like to be "stedfast as thou the star art...with eternal lids apart," ("Bright Star") only not alone and aloof like the star, which was in Keats' sonnet a cold, silver eremite, but together with his lover and constant and loyal to her. He wanted to be eternal, but only if he could have that eternity with her. He compared his desire to remain in that moment of happiness and harmony with her to the immutable nature of the star, a star that alone held its place in the sky while all the other stars and planets moved about it.
Yet even this seemingly immoveable star is never still. First of all, the North Star is not always Polaris. Every 26,000 years, the earth's rotational axis precesses, tracing an imaginary circle that will point in 12,000 years to Vega of Lyra and in 22,000 to Thuban of the constellation Draco. While the change has not yet been a significant one, the position of the North Star is slightly different today from what it was two-hundred-odd years ago. Secondly, a star is no more the cold watcher of snow of Keats' poem than an alpaca is a wrinkle dog (a shar-pei). A star is the hottest furnace you will ever imagine, and while the range of heat and the things in the furnace vary from star to star, they are all churning away, turning lighter elements (like helium and hydrogen) into heavier ones (like metals).
Not only do stars change within themselves, but they change relative to one another as well. We have all (all the stars, the galaxies, and the mostly-emptiness in between) been moving away from one another since the Big that jumpstarted our universe of the here and now. By observing the redshift of the stars' light, scientist can determine just how fast these stars are moving. What we observe today, however, are not the stars of today, at least not in their current states. Even light must make allowances for travel time, and space is wide enough that what we see of the stars in our skies are really the images of stars that departed from them years and years ago. We have never seen most of space in real-time, although we may think we have when we look up at the sky at night. Still, this remote, time-lapsed observation is enough for all the discoveries that have been made and all the theories that have been offered about the cosmos. For that is one of the wonders of astronomy, that its priests and priestesses are never close to the phenomena that are their gods.
What little they see is enough, and more than enough, for astronomers to learn about the stuff around us. Indeed, they are even capable of learning about that which they cannot see, from black holes to extrasolar planets to stars long dead, stars that, like our forefathers, settled our space long before we were conceived, when the resources at hand were less refined, when the place was still young, virginal, unpopulated. The first-generation stars, or Population III stars (Population II stars exist today near the high-mass center of the galaxy, while Population I stars are those that, like the sun, are found along the spiral arms) were massive, bright stars whose lives were generally ended by supernovae that left the materials incorporated into today's stars. They were mostly made of helium and maybe hydrogen, and had only miniscule amounts of metals. (Most of the metals found in today's stars came from the first generation stars.) Population III stars were not the family type; they had no planets. Eventually, these rugged, trailblazing stars made way for a new generation of stars, heavier, more refined, more diverse and life-giving.
The passing of the baton is not an unusual process in nature. Just as first-generation stars died to make way for second-generation stars, so a generation of trees gives way to another generation. Conditions in a given region change over time; a place that was once too cold may now be able to support a deciduous forest. New species come in, old species die out. This succession is happening in our own Hotchkiss School woods. Conifers that were successful in a colder New England now have to compete with the upstart deciduous trees that are coming in and stealing the sunlight. Take a walk, and you can see for yourself the mix of trees. In another twenty years the coniferous forest will have turned into a deciduous one, and the second-generation trees will have won (that is, unless the woods are torn down in favor of "landscaping").
It is not a pleasant thing to think about, but it is natural. A new generation replaces an old. Stars, trees, alpaca, people, none can remain constant and unchanging in the face of time. No matter how steadfast an old thing like a star may seem to us humans, with our short lifespans, it, too, will someday decay, with a supernova-hot bang or with a wormy whimper. One mode of life evolves into another, branched walnuts, instead of pines shall dot a forest, and new "branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain, instead of pines shall murmur..." ("Ode to Psyche") Everything, even my inability to be productive and get going on this paper, is subject to the undiscriminating god of all existence, Change.