Across the Universe

Astronomer Kenneth Lang looks to the stars for insights into our life on earth
Kenneth Lang
“There are new stars born out of the ashes of old stars all the time,” Kenneth Lang says. “There is a metaphor you start to see, especially as you grow older, since that’s exactly what’s happening to humans. There is a perpetual process of birth, growth,
February 5, 2013

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I am able to recognize only three constellations: the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Orion, shown to me on a clear night by my father many years ago. To me, stars are beautiful, shining spheres, but mysterious to the point that I long ago stopped wondering about them. Kenneth Lang would have me take another look.

A longtime professor of astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences, Lang has a simple message: open your eyes to see the world around you, whether a flock of birds suddenly taking off from a tree, a bubbling stream or the stars in the sky. Take the time, he says, to look and listen to the natural world.

In his daily life and through his travels and scholarship, Lang takes his own advice and pays attention both to what we can see and what we can’t. He has been observing nature for most of his life, and invites his students, as well as the readers of his many books, to wake up to the magnificence and poetry of the natural world.

That’s part of the message of his latest book, The Life and Death of Stars, published in late January by Cambridge University Press. It is geared toward the educated layperson who is curious about the universe. As its title indicates, the focus is on the formation of stars and their life cycles, but of course there is much more: gravity and motion, subatomic particles, radioactivity and what gives stars their enormous power. Not to mention the Big Bang and how long our Sun is going to be around—not to worry, we’ve got another 7 billion years of light.

Interspersed are some fascinating digressions: a brief accounting of the life of Joseph von Fraunhofer, an astronomer who had a miserable childhood; playful turns of phrase (“Stars that move rapidly are like children running away from home”); a poem by Pablo Neruda; the lyrics to a pop song. Who knew, for instance, that the title of a song popularized by Bobby Vee in the 1960s was borrowed from a poem written in 1852 about the stars by Francis William Bourdillon?

The night has a thousand eyes,
And the Day but one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.

Seeing the Unseen

When Lang started graduate school to study electrical engineering at Stanford University, his advisor turned out to be a radio astronomer. Lang began reading astronomy books and was quickly enthralled, teaching himself enough to embark on a new and different Ph.D. program—in astronomy.

“It intrigued me,” he says. “Astronomy opens your vistas to something larger and beyond the normal; it spoke to me.” He hopes his new book will do the same for others. “It’s for anyone who is curious and wants to know about the stars and their lives, and the analogies between the celestial sphere and the Earth and the life of humans on it.”

Stars, explains Lang, change: like humans, they are born and then they die. Even more interesting is when they are reborn. “There are new stars born out of the ashes of old stars all the time,” Lang says. “There is a metaphor you start to see, especially as you grow older, since that’s exactly what’s happening to humans. There is a perpetual process of birth, growth, decay and rebirth.”

“Most of the natural world is unseen and invisible,” says Kenneth Lang. “The progress of astronomy, in particular, has been about seeing the previously unseen.” 

Lang’s book serves as the foundation for a course offered next year called Written in the Stars, in which he will explore not only astronomy, but religion, faith and the human condition. His hope is to use the observable universe as a stepping stone to suggest new perspectives on life. He’ll employ “poetry, art, history and philosophy—as long as it’s not too pompous,” he says.

One of his ongoing goals is to use images and stories to keep the interest of his students and readers. His books are filled with photographs and drawings. One image in the book Parting the Cosmic Veil (Springer) is from a series of paintings called Constellations by the Spanish artist Joan Miró. “He created other worlds,” says Lang, “which remove us from our immediate surroundings.”

A photograph in his book The Cambridge Guide to the Solar System (Cambridge University Press, second edition) shows Mount Kailash, a sacred site in the Himalayas. Many Buddhists and Hindus hold a lifelong ambition to circumambulate the mountain, but the month-long trip is brutal, with extreme temperatures, little oxygen and no food or water readily available. Lang took on that challenge himself a decade ago. He points out that when one has reached the halfway point around the mountain, one is considered reborn. “So I’m 10 years old now,” he says with a chuckle.

The photo of Mount Kailash helps Lang illustrate for his students and readers the notion that everything is always in flux, out in the universe and here on Earth. The Himalayas, after all, were formed by the collision of two continents. “Everything changes,” he says, “including the continents. Places change, collide and make mountains”—just like the way stars form out of the swirling dust of former stars by eventually collapsing on themselves under the weight of gravity.

“A really important part of the new course is that most of the natural world is unseen and invisible,” says Lang. “The progress of astronomy, in particular, has been about seeing the previously unseen.” He points to an X-ray of the Sun on his office wall. While we on Earth see a smooth, featureless disk, the X-ray image shows swirling gases that are millions of degrees hot, but invisible to us.

“The observable universe,” Lang continues, “has a history and is changing as time goes on. And it has a future, which no one knows for sure, just as no one knows the destiny of humans.” In his book, he writes, “At some moment in the future, the Big Dipper will tip out its imaginary contents.”

I now think about that dipper and the few other constellations I know a little differently. On a clear winter night, I will look up.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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