Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Milky Way

I almost never read scientific articles unless I'm in a waiting room. That's a pretty desultory way of keeping up on stuff scientists are up to, but probably even they can't keep up. Recently I read an article about the Milky Way and the fact that it, too, would go the way of the dinosaurs at some point and disintegrate. It's not like this is going to happen next week, but nonetheless, the news made me a little sad.

According to the OED online, one of the earliest references to the Milky Way was Chaucer's, and Milton & Pope also referred to it in their poetry:

a. The irregular, faintly luminous band that circles the night sky, now recognized as composed of billions of stars and corresponding to the main disc of our galaxy, in which are located most of its stars, including the sun; =

GALAXY n. 1a.

c1450 (c1380) CHAUCER House of Fame 937 Se yonder, loo, the Galaxie, Which men clepeth the Milky Wey. 1556 R. RECORD Castle of Knowl. 105 The Milkye way in heauen, whiche many men in England do call Watlyng streete. 1615 H. CROOKE {Mu}{iota}{kappa}{rho}{omicron}{kappa}{omicron}{sigma}{mu}{omicron}{gamma}{rho}{alpha}{phi}{iota}{alpha} 455 As we thinke the via lactea or Milky Way in heauen is occasioned by an infinite number of small starres. 1667 MILTON Paradise Lost VII. 579 The Galaxie, that Milkie way Which nightly as a circling Zone thou seest Pouderd with Starrs. 1733 POPE Ess. Man I. 104 Far as the Solar walk, or Milky way.

I guess I see how someone might regard that luminous band of stars as a "way," but I probably wouldn't have described it in that manner. I don't have any bright, so to speak, ideas about what to replace "way" with, but the word just doesn't seem quite grand enough for that stellar spectacle.

To some degree, the phrase "billions of stars" means something to me. I understand it. But to a large extent, it's meaningless because I can't picture the immensity of that immensity--multiple billions of things that are like the sun.

Anyway, I wrote a poem about the impending demise of the Milky Way:

The Matter of the Milky Way

In a magazine
on astronomy
I read today that
the Milky Way
will also disintegrate.

Juxtaposed against
such change,
my experiences,
memories, and ambitions
are telescopically
less than microscopic.

Yet my life feels important
to me. --Habit,
I suppose. A person
goes on even as
it’s clear a powerful
case can be made
for the idea that nothing,
not even matter, matters.

But I’m not going to make
that case because I
have to go to work tomorrow,
and you never know—
I might have a few laughs,
feel the spirit.

I’ll see people I like
and one gray cat. I'll
view this bankless river they call
the Internet, which
must be observed with interest
in some parts of the Milky Way.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom
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