The late professor M. T. Brackbill, a legend in his own time, has a planetarium named after him on the campus of nearby Eastern Mennonite University. He was an avid astronomer with an infectious love of the stars, and wrote the following piece a number of years prior to my being a student at what was then EMC. He retired after suffering a stroke in 1955, so I didn’t get to have him as teacher of his ever popular introductory class in astronomy, but I’ll never forget how that course, under the then very young instructor John L.Horst, expanded my view of the universe and gave me a new appreciation of how vast and how amazing that universe really is.
Here’s a slightly condensed version of Brackbill’s essay that I found recently while going through some of my old college folders:
Occasionally a nova flashes up in the sky, and newspaper headlines proclaim a new star! People go out in the night to find the newcomer, expecting to see something wonderful--and they do! But instead of finding one new star, they find thousands of the them, that, stars new to them; and they find the nova, if they find it all, no different from the other stars. So they go back to their homes disappointed. It is about as good as hearing that a new dandelion has opened on the lawn, adding another bloom to the dozens that are already there!
If there had never been any stars in the sky, and a star should appear, that would really be news. Everybody would be out to see it. But if several thousand stars would suddenly appear, that would be astounding news indeed! Some would say, “The world is coming to an end!”
Now let us suppose that the stars regularly shone only one night every thousand years. Let us say that today’s paper announced that, according to reliable predictions, the stars are to appear in exactly ten weeks from tonight. Everyone would be talking stars.
Meteorologists would study their cycles in earnest in order to predict the probable state of the weather on this night. The season would mark an all time high for tourists to those countries boasting sunny skies. Dirigibles, blimps and airplanes would be in readiness to take people above the weather if necessary.
Those working at night would plan to relieve each other in relays so that each would have a glance at the heavens on the night of the stars. Hospitals would arrange to wheel the sick out onto porches or balconies or to roll their beds close to windows. Prisoners in solitary confinement would be allowed at least a few minutes under guard in an open open courtyard. And those in death chambers doomed to die just a few days before the stars would be given a stay of sentence.
The night of the stars draws nearer. Expectancy becomes almost unbearable. The prospect is as entrancing as a hundred solar eclipses. Scientists make every preparation to study these strange and transient heavenly lights. Men and women die hoping against fate that they could have lived a few days longer to see the stars. People watch the empty sky each night for a possible premature appearance.
“Tonight the stars will come!” The exodus from the cities begins. The roads are rapidly lined with cars, mountains and hilltops are dotted with people. Housetops and roofs of skyscrapers are crowded with spectators. Excitement is intense. Anxious eyes watch the sun sink slowly to the horizon. “Will the stars come? Will they come?”
The west begins to glow. As twilight deepens, expectancy becomes almost overwhelming.
A shout! Someone catches the sight of Venus! All eyes strain to find the bright light in the west. Shout after shout arises as other eyes find it. And as the twilight edge creeps westward around the earth, new waves of shouts arise in other countries and in other tongues: “The stars!” “THE STARS!”
Another shout! Jupiter breaks though, then Saturn! And amid the “Ah’s” and Oh’s” and other exclamations from millions of throats along a pole-pole front, presently, in the east. Sirius shines out, palely at first, and then Rigel and Capella. Star after star after star breaks through, singly, then, by twos, by threes, soon by dozens, by fifties, by hundreds, bespangling the heavens in the deepening night. Oh, what a sight! What a ravishing vision of loveliness!
And now the Milky Way belts the starry dome, a hush comes over the earth, a gradual westward-bound subsiding of the exulting shouts of astonishment and praise. The sublime glory of the jewel studded skies slowly wheeling in quiet splendor brings a few hour of awe and universal peace to earth.
By and by the moon in its accustomed round lifts her face in the east, still the “Queen of the Night,” but now with six thousand subjects, the stars, heavenly subjects, and never so watched and adored by earth’s inhabitants.
What a night! The millennial pageant of the heavens!
Could we but see it every night!