I’m down here on Earth, like always, stargazing in the winter cold clearing of some forgotten forest, a retreat from the lights of civilization that even out here still pale the darkness of the horizon. I’m staring outward, but it’s hard to accept the scale of what I see. I lay back and gaze into the stars. I let my eyes drift out of focus so that the star at the center of my vision outshines all the others, but then suddenly recedes into the black. In its wake the rest of the sky returns to view and now I can sense the depth of space, stars beyond stars beyond stars. I can feel the impossibility of grasping the distances involved. The fact that it just about goes on forever out there.

I just saw Jupiter in person. I saw its moons arrayed around it in that casual, perfectly imperfect way that only time and physics and random chance can pull off. I saw all this from a considerable distance, mind you, but the light that bounced off of the Great Red Spot settled eventually into the back of my eyes, so yes, I saw it with my own eyes, and yes, I can tell the difference. The image in the telescope, though compressed by the scale of distance, was more full, more real, than any picture I’ve ever seen of any planet.

I suppose this is because I really was catching much more of the light reflecting off of Jupiter than a camera does. I could almost sense the gently accelerating curve of its surface. I could see the stripes and shapes of its clouds. The fact that the weather on this object, millions of miles away, can be observed so readily is humbling indeed. Just imagining the spirals and curls hidden in the light from these clouds was dizzying. I knew I couldn’t hope to perceive all the light my eyes received, but my brain somehow knew it was all there. My brain wasn’t fooled, it was well aware that it was receiving far more information than it could use. Surely most of the light was bouncing or burying itself in the gaps between the rods and cones of my retina, but the sheer bounty of light was still noted.

After looking at it up there, I’m still not 100% convinced that a place like Jupiter is real, that it’s actually been spinning like that out in space for so long just because that’s the way things happened to turn out. To accept the existence of Jupiter (much less, gasp, that every point of light in the Hubble deep field is a galaxy of stars) is to be forced to admit that you aren’t much of anything, and maybe you should be thankful that you are even aware of the sky, much less the bodies beyond it. That’s why it’s so important to see things like Jupiter for yourself. It puts things into the proper perspective, and seeing makes that perspective easier to accept.

This all happened, this submersion in the mysteries of Jupiter, while I was crouched over, peering through the eyepiece. I spent less than a minute watching the most awe inspiring little globule I’ve ever seen slowly drift across my vision with the kind of massive, steady motion that could only be the movement of a planet. This was repeated time after time, Mars, the Moon, and a sky full of stars (and that’s not getting into the nebula and galaxies). Seeing is believing but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, because once you’ve seen something the work has only just begun: now you have to make sense of it. Now you have to lay back, bear the cold, and think.

I know the science of space, well, the more accessible principles at least. But that doesn’t mean I know what to do with that knowledge. When I look up through the telescope to watch some massive world spin silently, the facts of its mass, size and composition mean little to me. The “what” is easy, you just need to look hard enough. Knowing what is just a matter of time and patience. The harder part is “why”, because there’s no method there, no system for developing an answer. Why is a personal matter and, if you’re honest about it, a total guess. All the factual information in the world cannot come to your aid in the search for purpose.

Purpose does not come from God or Jupiter or the Crab Nebula. Purpose is what happens when you stare into what you cannot understand, God, space, time, whatever, and, free to roam a region yet to be colonized by understanding, you search until you find something to keep you from collapsing in terror. Something that brings a semblance of order to the endless mystery in the universe. We may be intelligent enough to gaze into the stars and understand what they are, but we are still animals.To seek the meaning of the stars is dangerous. This kind of obstacle to successful survival must be neutralized, this need is hard wired into the more primitive portions of our brain. We are, after all, merely large hairless monkeys with delusions of grandeur. When we look beyond Earth, we see our humble place illustrated so clearly, and it scares us. The stars suggest what we have always feared: that we are not important, not special, we have no purpose. Our existence, on the scale of the stars, is effectively meaningless.

But when you’ve been stargazing for 8 hours and you can’t feel your toes, when even the animals have stopped rustling in the darkness around you, you realize that this meaninglessness is not a detriment, it is a gift. We are not vital to the universe and we should be thankful, for there is so little about it we understand. We are not slaves to a universe of responsibility, we are free to explore a universe of possibility. We are free to concern ourselves with the pettiest minutia of being human, like learning and building and creating. We are free to sculpt our own lives and the lives of those around us. The whole time we scurry about on our little missions, the stars continue to slowly rotate, just as they will after we die, after our planet is swallowed up, just as they will until they at last burn out and nothing remains of the world but darkness.