Tuesday morning, I rose at 2 A.M. and stood for an hour in the freezing cold to watch a total eclipse of the full moon, occurring on a solstice: a conjunction that last occurred in 1638, and won’t occur again until 2094. Standing there, I wondered if this exceptional moonglow would give me a superpower — nothing to report yet. The sense of awe I felt right away.
The more astronomers look out into the universe, the more vast and majestic it is understood to be. As the holidays arrive, and the year comes to a close, it is well to ponder this.
Many generations ago, our ancestors gazing up at constellations and eclipses believed the cosmos bounded by such stars as could be seen unaided by the eye. Just a century ago, even after people considered themselves advanced owing to developments like powered flight, it was not known that any other galaxies existed. Our Milky Way was considered the totality of creation.
In 1923, the existence of galaxies beyond the Milky Way was proven. Initial estimates were that there might be as many as a few dozen additional galaxies — a number then viewed as stunning. The latest estimate, from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, is 100 billion galaxies. The count is expected to rise.
Star estimates have risen in concert. A century ago, even the best-informed believed the Milky Way contained perhaps a few million stars. By the 1960s, astronomers contended the Milky Way held a billion stars, a number many found hard to believe. By the 1980s, the estimate had grown to 40 billion stars. Today it’s thought the Milky Way contains at least 90 billion stars and perhaps as many as 400 billion. Many other galaxies are likely to contain similar numbers.