Reflections on Arcturus, The Sun and the Changing Seasons

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Arcturus, as it appeared low in the northwest at deep twilight at the close of summer, last year. The star’s natural color enhances this composite view produced via Stellarium and the author.

Looking up at the shimmering sapphire ascending the northeast sky at twilight, Arcturus, reminds us that the seasons are changing, that spring is emerging from what seemed to be an intolerably long winter; it is a reminder that everything is changing and growing; it is solace in an uncertain world and allows one, at least for a moment, to regain their center, to be in tune with the greater world and universe above and beyond us. Looking at the simple beauty of this star, in contrast and set against the dark azure of the clear spring twilight and, if only for a moment, connect with it and humanity, all of us born of the raw materials forged in the nuclear cauldrons of long-dead stars with Arcturus’ evolved state just a bit further along than our sun.

As the seasons pass, one and then the next, the lesson is change, the one unequivocal constant in nature. With the passage of time, one truth is clear, we are aging, growing, living out our lives, that everything is evolving and we are passengers on this fantastic voyage, albeit unwilling and powerless to alter its course, yes but this is the best part as this knowledge will give us peace and the humility to stand in awe of nature and appreciate her gift of life given to each of us each day; we should thank her, the one from whence we came and that to which is our final destiny. This view provides a sobering respite and in humility, I give thanks that I still have my reason and faculties to appreciate these simple yet profound truths.

Realizing this, we are compelled to treat each other as we would be treated, not for the promise of a reward at the end of our days but because it is the right thing to do. The late, great Carl Sagan reminded us that we all live on a tiny, pale blue dot and that it is astronomy and the internalization of the knowledge gained and lessons learned through its study, the enormity of the universe and the awesome power of nature, that it is a profoundly humbling and character-building experience that gives us pause.

The red-giant star Arcturus with the sun, to scale

The scale of even our small, diminutive planet is enormous compared to us and the life that has evolved on her. From low earth orbit, we’re invisible and we believe we are really all that important. By scale compared to the earth, we are as a red blood cell set on the back of a 30 meter blue whale.

We are changing, growing, aging and Arcturus provides yet another great lesson in this regard; it is an evolved, red-giant star, a star very much like what our sun will be with an age of 7.1 billion years. By contrast our sun has an age of 4.6 billion years, a star separated in time from Arcturus by only 2.5 billion years. It has the equivalent mass of the sun but 170 times its luminosity, a result of its expansion to 25 solar radii, a natural consequence of the transition to helium burning in its core, a process that is producing carbon and oxygen, the raw materials for new life and new worlds.

Arcturus, one of the five brightest stars in the sky and the principal star in Bootes the Herdsman (it looks more like a giant kite rather than a man-like figure in the sky), beckons red-orange, bright and friendly in our sky because it is a mere 37 light years distant; it is these stars, the evolved, red-giant stars that populate globular clusters, objects such as Terzan 5, that allows us to see them at staggering distances. Astronomically speaking, Arcturus is close in time and in space, it is also close to us in a profoundly deeper sense; as we look it, we are looking at a reflection of ourselves, our destiny, our own sun in a mere 2.5 billion years. This should give us pause to reflect on our humanity and future together, one race on this tiny, pale blue dot.



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