It may have been sometime in 1957 or maybe it was in '58, maybe it was many nights or maybe just a single one; who knows, and frankly it’s not very relevant. My brother and I – oh, and the dog, well of course, he was always around doing whatever dogs do... where was I?
Oh yes, we were walking down a lane in the forest, with a perfect line of adjacent oak and beech trees just outside the gardens but still well within the boundaries of my mother’s estate. God it was dark at night in that forest, but we knew our way around like no one else and we knew that just a little further, to our left there was the wide open space covered with coarse heather and a wooden bench where we could sit and look at the heavens above. Back in those days there was still little pollution and certainly no light pollution so I suppose the stars were bright enough for my first lessons of astronomy. You see, my brother was, and probably still is quite a bit older than me and he was familiar and on a first name basis with the stars above.
I must have asked, ‘What’s that hazy band of light there right next to Scorpio then?’
‘Ah, that’s the Milky Way galaxy… it goes all around us.’
‘Milky Way? That’s a funny name, eh.’
‘Well yes I suppose so; perhaps they called it like that because it looks like someone spilled a glass of milk along the sky.’
Children of course always ask extremely intelligent questions that can put more than one adult in a spot, but not my well-educated brother, and therefore I asked, ‘So what’s a galaxy? And why is it all around us… surely it can’t be in Holland and Australia at the same time now, can it?'
‘Ah well, yes it can, because you see, we are all part of the same galaxy together with millions, no with billions of other star systems just like ours.' I must have looked up at the heavens with a new curiosity and may well have asked, ‘So are there any more of those galaxies out there, or is that it?’
‘Yes, millions more, some of the stars we are looking at are not stars at all but in reality distant galaxies floating around in the Universe.’
Perplexed, I asked my big brother, since he seemed to have all the answers, ‘So what’s beyond the Universe? Does it go on for ever and ever?’
Little brothers, once a conversation is in full swing, are full of curiosity that not even big brothers have all the answers to, and so he wisely said, ‘Oh for Pete’s sake… let’s get back to Earth and walk the dog, shall we?’
Years later, my childhood friend and I were watching the wild thunderstorms illuminating the night all around us, a bit like being in the eye of a hurricane, somewhere between France and Corsica on the Mediterranean. We were sailing on a ketch, a two-mast chestnut coloured wooden ship we leased whenever we were back in old Europe. With the wind having dropped from scary to almost nothing, those tall masts were now lazily swinging from left to right following the tugging of the tormented sea. While the thunderstorms raged with lightning attacking one another or punching holes into the waves below, above us the stars shone with a brightness rarely seen by landlubbers; and there, right in the middle, there it was, the Milky Way strung out like a carpet along the heavens, self-illuminated like a road to, well, nowhere and everywhere really, and I remembered all those questions I had asked so long ago and needless to say, I was no further on. What’s beyond the beyond?
As the years passed by, my daughter always enjoyed a night time chit-chat about everything before going to bed, anything to delay the unavoidable bed time.
Then one night she said, ‘You know dad, we often look at the stars and I know there are planets, stars and galaxies, millions, billions of them floating around there in the universe… but does it ever stop? It nearly gives me a pain in my head when I try to imagine the vastness of it all… like what’s beyond the Universe? Another one, and then another one again, or just emptiness?’
Learned people like Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and numerous others who have looked up at the stars have pondered over this very same question, “What’s out there?” And now my daughter too was asking that same question – “What’s beyond the beyond?” She was only eight.
In the huge Messier 87 (M-87) galaxy, located a dizzying 55 million light-years from Earth, astronomers recently confirmed that somewhere out there, right in the centre of that far away galaxy, there really is a black hole, and it’s massive, a monster in cosmic terms, and for the first time ever, they even managed to take pictures of it.
This giant galaxy holds trillions of stars and helps anchor the roughly 2,000 galaxies — including the Milky Way — that make up our local cosmic neighbourhood. It’s dubbed the “Virgo Cluster”. In turn, the Virgo Cluster is a primary component of the much larger Virgo Super Cluster.
Yet in this Universe, without any doubt it is no more than a mere speck of dust lost among billions of other galaxies and black holes all busy guzzling up star dust… out there in the beyond.