I urge you and your family to go outside, point your eyes to the southwest sky and behold something no human has seen since the year 1226, and none will see again until 2080. Jupiter and Saturn will be so close together, as wide as a toothpick held at arm’s length, that they’ll look like a single planet.
Not to view it as a star of wonder shining bright on this, the longest night of the shortest day of the worst year, suggests a shocking decline in your belief in miracles, or at least your sense of irony.
The fact that the sun will shine longer every day from tomorrow on, until the summer solstice on June 21st when the whole cosmic cycle of light and darkness repeats itself, parallels our hope that the vaccine will reach us before the coronavirus does.
We live in a gigantic country, the second largest on earth. So while the sun rose in Toronto at 7:48 this morning and will set at 4:44 this afternoon, in Canada’s northernmost community of Grise Fiord (population 148), located on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island 3,645 kilometres north of Bay and Bloor, the sun rises at 11:57 a.m. today and sets at 1:43 p.m.
“Rises” in this case means “peers briefly above the horizon, then disappears.” As one report said: “It’s a place where the sun sets at Halloween and won’t really rise again until Feb. 10 next year.”
Even when it’s basically dark all the time, and no cases of COVID have been reported, Grise Fiord has lockdown rules tighter than Toronto’s. This could be because the nearest hospital is a 25-hour flight by commercial air.
But as a New York Times headline said on the cosmic coincidence of Jupiter and Saturn aligning exactly at the Winter Solstice, it’s “a reminder that there is more to the universe than just ourselves.”
So when we’re looking out onto the southwest sky later this afternoon (no telescopes or even binoculars required), let’s spare a moment for where we humans really fit into the scheme of things.
The final scene of the original movie Men in Black, first screened in 1997, has the camera pull away from Manhattan, where agent Will Smith has just saved the world from a total intergalactic disaster. Soon, we see the entire United States below, then the world, then the solar system, then the Milky Way, then the universe, then — all of this appears as a single tiny marble that a giant creature picks up and puts into an entire bag of them to play with his (or her?) friends.
That’s how much we humans count in the grand scheme of things.
But because we may be the only ones counting, let’s not forget that the entire eight billion of us roaming the Earth today have been brought low for the first time since long before the year 1226 by a particle that stretches just 120 billionths of a metre in diameter.
Here we all are, looking up to the infinity of the universe, and brought low by its tiniest part.
So even if the sky’s clouded over at 4:44 p.m. today, even if it’s impossible to see anything special in the sky, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.
As the Times concludes: “Odds are, whoever or whatever lives out there will never know that we were here at all, nor will we know them. But we know who we are. We know that we are alive now. We know whom we loved and whom we lost. Maybe that’s enough to ask of any universe.”