Where are you? – Oak Park
“Where are you?” is a question my wife might ask when she calls to find out when I’ll be home from work or running errands and hoping she can add one more item to a list before I go. “Where are you from?” or “Where do you live?” are similar questions we often ask when meeting someone for the first time. The answers can be an address, street, city, state, or even another They give each of us a sense of place and are the first steps to ‘get to know you’.
So I work with John, a plumber I’ve never met before, who removes a bathtub and redo the plumbing so I can install a new shower.
“Where do you live, Jan?” I asked.
“Bellwood,” he replied. “And you?”
“So we’re neighbors,” he said.
“Yes. Right around the corner.” A sense of shared place established and business cards exchanged.
Then there’s Ed, a track star at Wheaton High School who’s so good he won six-count, six-first place medals at a single-track meeting. Set the state record for the high jump in 1906. A real star.
Where to do you live? Address, street, city, state. That’s where most of us stop. Do we really need to add “United States”? For John, the plumber, a city was good enough. For Ed, the Wheaton track star, the race had only just begun.
Now really take a moment and write down where you are: (address, street, city, etc.) until you stop expanding your space. Did you get North America? Planet Earth? The Milky Way Galaxy? Ed did, and yet he kept running.
While Ed was interested in physics, his father, an insurance company executive, wanted him to become a lawyer. So, a dutiful son, graduated from Oxford in 1913 as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Chicago, with a degree in jurisprudence. When his father died that same year, Ed found he could pursue his own dreams. In 1917 he received his doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago.
A hundred years ago, the basics of astronomy were that moons revolve around planets, planets revolve around stars, and all the stars we see are grouped together in one large cluster we call a galaxy. He knew we lived on the third planet of one of those stars. He also knew that our star, which we affectionately call the Sun, was just one of about 200 billion stars that make up a flat, disk-shaped galaxy we call the Milky Way.
A hundred years ago, these basic facts were just the starting blocks for that Wheaton High School track star. At that time, everyone assumed that our galaxy was the entire universe. And why not? Aren’t 200 billion (200,000,000,000) stars big enough for God’s creation?! But what gnawed at Ed was a few faint, fuzzy bits of something floating in the air around the edges of our galaxy. What were they? They didn’t look like stars. Were they just leftover “junk” from the creation of the galaxy? Answering that question turned out to be the race that would define his career.
After serving in the military during World War I, he landed a position at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California and, using the largest telescope of the day, answered that question, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of those “vague pieces indeed was another. galaxy, one we call Andromeda, 2.5 million light-years (15 trillion miles!) from Earth and containing a trillion — with a T — stars. Ed’s discovery instantly transformed the race of astronomy from a 100-meter sprint into a marathon.
Thanks to his interest in astronomy, we now have a more comprehensive answer to the question, “Where are we?” According to NASA, there are somewhere between 200 billion and a trillion galaxies in the observable universe. And each of those billions of galaxies has somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars, plus planets and moons of which there is no number. One planet, the one we call Earth, rolls east every morning and frames our local star until Earth rolls so far that our star on the western side disappears. Then, in the darkness that envelops us, we only get a glimpse of all that is out there – and where our address, our street, our city, etc. find their rightful place.
Ed died in 1953. Thirty-seven years later, NASA launched a telescope into space in his honor. Edwin Powell Hubble, a local boy from Wheaton, who chose the stars over stardom, who never saw a race run too long, took us all out of our immediate vicinity and opened our eyes to all of creation.
If you haven’t opened your mind and imagination to explore the wonders of a universe 92 billion light-years across, consider getting out more. It will be the most humbling, exciting and beautiful journey you have ever taken. And it is always there for a visit. Google “pictures from the Hubble telescope.” Or just look up. And on one of those planets for which there is no number, in one of those galaxies far, far away, another plumber named John can supply fresh water and hot showers to another astronomer named Ed who is overlooking our galaxy – and wondering or he and John are all alone.
What do you think?
Bill Sieck is a native of Berwyn, someone who sees life from strange angles, and for whom planet Earth is his ‘pied-a-terre’.