The night owns nothing prouder than its desert sky.
I’m standing here among the White Desert’s fantastic calcite forms at 1am, a klom from the two 4wds that make up camp. I can hear my nine campmates laughing as they settle into their sleeping bags; sound carries here. (Earlier an enterprising fox stole someone’s shoe, perhaps PO’d he wasn’t thrown the campfire chickenbones, and the group’s been giggling ever since.)
I’ve trekked out here to watch the stars.
I’ve been lying on my back on the still-warm sand. Gazing up I see a sky unlike any other. In the total absence of surface light I’m not just seeing stars; I’m seeing galaxies. Not a single canopy studded with cookie-cutter sparkles, but onion layers of thousands of suns each, wrapping tiny Earth in a millefeuille of tissues, its infinity of possibilities reassuring that whatever’s out there, we are not alone. It’s just statistically impossible.
Watch the skies.
The Milky Way coruscates along a quarter of the sky over Egypt, its vast white fold encasing ten million suns. The first onion layer is just the pre-match show; looking beyond I see reds, yellows, in the far distance patches of fuzz that I know are whole galaxies, with millions of suns of their own Every few minutes, some pebble in the stratosphere becomes a shooting star.
I decide on impulse to strip off. Naked in the blackness, the contrast between the sand on my back and the infinity above is poetic.
Does it really go on forever? Whichever version of string theory turns out right, the universe is close enough to forever for me. I’m easily pleased. Maybe it’ll end the way it began, an inflationary fireburst in reverse. Oe maybe a slow crashing collapse that’ll give us a billion-year warning. Or – my personal favourite – a phase transition, some infinitely improbable quantum event (but probable, given infinite time) that converts a dying universe into a new one, waves of vacuum energy rolling over ancient space in another big bang, for planets and life to evolve afresh.
Or maybe we’ll gain the powers to choose which way happens.
Lights closer to ground level. Giggles. Five of the camp, including the ultracute Taiwanese, are following my footprints and have been doing so for hours. (I made several large circuits of the area in the darkness.) I toy with the idea of remaining as I am and inviting them to join me naked, then think better of it and pull on my clothes. I walk into the small pools of light from their torches and re-enter the human realm.
*Dave Bowman’s line, from 2001: A Space Odyssey