There is magic in a sunset.

We’ve always known it. We watch. We sing. We dance. We try to understand. And we hope that the Sun will return.

I live in Central Ohio. It’s January. If that isn’t depressing enough, the local paper ran an article in the Sunday travel section about just about my favorite place in the world, the Gulf Coast of Florida. I had to read it, just as you have to touch that sore spot in your mouth with your tongue. You just can’t help yourself.

The writer tells of a drum band and a dancer on Casey Key, celebrating the setting Sun with music and dance. Take a look, and you’ll see why they were celebrating.

The author describes musicians sitting in the sand, “drums wedged between their legs. In the center of the circle, a shaman dressed in a white sleeveless shirt and a fancy topper blessed the circle with two feathers from a great blue heron. A belly dancer swung her hips and snaked her arms toward the reddening sky.”

What is this but a question, thrown toward the setting Sun? What are you? Why do you set each evening, and return each morn? From where does your incredible power arise – the power to conquer death, to melt the winter and bring on the spring, to come again, day after day after day? How long have you been, and how long will you be? Were you, like me, born, and will you, like me, someday die?

This same scene must have played out millions of times on beaches all over the world in the hundred or so millennia since humans first found themselves awake and aware in this wondrous and surprising universe. I believe I am a member of the luckiest generation of all those millennia, because we can answer some of the questions. Far from destroying the magic, the answers open new wonders never before dreamed and reveal mysteries never before imagined.

The Sun is a star, only close up. The stars are Suns, only very far away. Within the Sun an element called hydrogen smashes together, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, the ancient rhythm, to create helium, and with it energy, prodigious energy, energy enough to bring the Earth to life. It does so because a single helium atom, plus the other particles produced in the collision, weigh a tiny bit less than the four original hydrogens. That tiny bit of mass turns into enormous amounts of energy. And there was light. And it was good.

But the light will not last forever. Billions of years from now, when its hydrogen runs low, our Sun will swell and cool, a red giant filling the inner solar system with its girth. Then helium will come together to form carbon, the same carbon of which you are made. When the Sun finally dies, it will spray this carbon and other elements out from itself, filling the universe with its seed. In the same way, billions of years ago, through violent death throes and quiet fadeaways, other stars filled the universe with the carbon and other elements that would one day form your very own cells. Ancient stars live within you.

And still the mystery. Why should helium weigh a little less than four hydrogens? Why should carbon form from helium (it almost doesn’t, and its formation is one of the most amazing stories the universe has to tell)? Why should stars exist at all? Energy only passes through stars – it is not created by them. Thirteen billion years ago, the cosmic fireball filled the universe with usable energy – why? What caused this first cause? What came before? Was there a before?

And what is all this, too, but a question thrown at the universe. What are you? And what are we who ask?

Science is a song and a dance. I do not wish to replace the shaman and the belly dancer. I wish to add to their questions with my own. I wish for science to take its rightful place alongside music, alongside art, alongside dance and love and life and rhythm, as a way for us to celebrate the Sun.

Someday I will be there. And I will join the belly dancers and the drummers. And I will tell the story science tells.

In the meantime, I’ll watch the sunset.

 

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