The story behind the song
Children of the Sun
One of the most extraordinary experiences any person can have is seeing the night sky the way it was meant to be seen — pitch black with more than a million stars shining down. Nowadays the pollution in the atmosphere is so great that on most nights it’s almost impossible to see anything except a dull haze with a handful of stars shining through it. As a result, to most of us the night sky looks like a dark gray dome with a few lights stuck in it. But if you happen to be in ideal viewing conditions — a long way from lights and pollution, in the desert, on a mountaintop or out at sea, on a perfectly clear, moonless night — the sight is overwhelming. The sky is pitch black, and literally millions of stars are visible. It’s like being out in the void on a starship. It gives you a very different perspective about our place in the universe.
Two of the most intense experiences of my life involved seeing the night sky under those conditions. The first time it happened was on a farm in Pennsylvania far from any cities, the night after a cold front brought an end to a two-week-long heat wave. The whole universe was laid out in front of me, and it seemed as if I was hanging in space … like I could reach out and grab the moon or one of those distant twinkling orbs.
The second time I had this experience, something even more amazing happened. I was on a boat in the ocean, and the same ideal viewing conditions occurred. I lay there on my back staring up at the black void and the millions of stars, all as clear as they could be, as if there was nothing between me and them. And I stared at what’s called the milky way – a strip of the sky running from horizon to horizon, passing directly overhead – with so many stars in it that it has a milky color (hence, its name).
When I was in college I had taken a class in astronomy. Now, staring up at the sky, I remembered learning about the shape of our galaxy (which is, of course, the milky way galaxy). Our galaxy is made up of countless billions of stars, and it’s shaped kind of like a pancake that’s fat near the middle. Our solar system is about halfway between the center of the pancake and the edge.
As I stared up at the sky, I remembered that the shape of our galaxy accounts for that strip of milky color that we see across the sky on a clear night, extending from horizon to horizon. When we look at that strip of light, we’re looking through the pancake—through so many stars that we can barely see black sky behind them. When we look in any other direction, we’re looking out through the nearby sides of the pancake, with far fewer stars between us and the edge of the galaxy. Hence, the sky looks much darker, with just a sprinkling of stars.
Then suddenly, as I thought about this, the enormous black star-filled void in front of my eyes snapped into 3-D. I wasn’t just looking at a sky full of stars; I saw the size and shape of our galaxy and where I was located in it. Suddenly the sky had depth; it stretched off into an almost unimaginable distance. The size of the galaxy, right there in front of me, was so enormous that it was overwhelming. For the first time in my life I really saw the star cluster in which we live, and it was huge and glorious beyond anything I had ever imagined.
That experience enlarged my sense of the universe and changed forever how I see my place in the grand scheme of things. And it got me thinking about other big issues: the countless generations of people who’ve lived on our planet, the huge expanse of time the universe has been expanding and evolving, and how our own star – the sun – has kept everything on our planet alive for so long.
That experience, and those thoughts, led me to write Children of the Sun.