Astronomy Class (It’s More Than Just Stars)

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Everybody should take an Astronomy course at some point in their lives. My professor told us this on the first day of class and, after having sat through 40 of his lectures, I could not agree more.

I grew up in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. I attended the same school and lived in the same house for my entire life, up until moving to mainland USA to attend the University of Iowa. Because of my background, I struggled to relate to people in Iowa City when I first arrived. A sense of ‘otherness’ nagged at me from the back of my mind. Even though people were overall good and kind, I kept coming back to thoughts about living in Trump’s America.

I convinced myself that I had to keep my guard up – to keep a safe distance between myself and others.

I’m sure almost everyone knows about General Education Requirements. Being an English and Creative Writing major, I needed to take a Natural Science with a Lab in order to complete mine. I wasn’t about to take any Chemistry or Biology; that was all the stuff I was forced to go through in high school already. So, I decided to take a class called Stars, Galaxies and the Universe, or, more formally, Modern Astronomy.

The professor for this class was the most likable guy on the planet. He explained things extremely well, made jokes often and you could tell that he knew what he was talking about. He doesn’t know it, but through this class he changed everything about the way I viewed life.

My parents kept me in a religious school for my entire life and so everything that I was learning, from science to art, was filtered in some way or another. No hearing about sex, evolution, non-Christian music, nothing. I would get put down by adults often for showing curiosity regarding these things. Going into college, I really wanted to take advantage of the access to knowledge and independence that the experience offered to me. I set out to learn about things greater than myself and take classes that really felt meaningful to me, like this one.

One of the first things that hit me during these Astronomy lectures was just how much I didn’t know. A whole universe exists out there just waiting to be explored. Quarks, pulsars, quasars… so many words that didn’t possess any concrete meaning before entering that classroom revealed themselves to me, like distant stars twinkling in the night sky.

I also had never fully grasped scale before this experience. Specifically, the teeny tiny scale at which we humans exist compared to everything else out there. I’ll never forget the day that the professor showed us “What a Billion Dots Looks Like”. The point of the video was to show that if you put 50,000 dots on a computer screen at a time, it would take over 2 hours to scroll enough times to have seen a billion dots. He used this to give us perspective when he told us that there were about 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe and about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. That is a ridiculous amount of scrolling. Hearing about all of this, every problem I’d ever had began to feel very small –  and I mean that in the best way.

But the most important thing I took away from that class was a feeling of unity, of connection to the rest of humanity. For the first time, I stopped feeling like an “other”, and I started seeing humans for what we really are. We are brothers and sisters, descended from the same bacterium, hurtling through space on this tiny rock that we share, just trying to understand our circumstances and our ultimate fate.

My professor told us, “we are all made of stardust,” and I will never forget it. He explained to us that the elements that run through all of our veins could only come from fusion within the cores of these flaming behemoths. Then they are scattered across planets and galaxies via supernovae, eventually creating us. Mind blowing stuff, huh?

What this means to me is that race doesn’t matter. Sex and gender don’t matter. There doesn’t need to be competition or animosity between us, as I once believed. We are all fundamentally the same. All that matters is for us to love and support each other throughout this shared journey.

You don’t need to take away the exact same things as me, but if you’re looking for a cool elective or gen-ed fulfilling course that will broaden your horizons and expand your point-of-view, I would strongly encourage you to give some Astronomy class a chance. I promise, you will not regret it.

Okay, unless you fail the lab section.

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