Gold foil illustration of stars


The Feeling of Being Stuck on Earth

It’s hard not to look at the ground as you walk. To set your sights low, and keep the world spinning, just trying to stay present wherever you are. But every so often you remember to look up at the stars, and imagine what’s out there. Before long, you find yourself grounded once again—grounded in the sense of being housebound, stuck on the planet Earth.

The more you look to the sky, the more you find yourself back on Earth, confronting certain possibilities. It’s possible there are other names for our planet that we will never know. That there are constellations that feature our sun, from an angle we’ll never get to see. That there are many other civilizations hidden beyond the veil of time, too far away for their light to ever reach us.

We dream of other worlds and name them after old discarded gods, and they seem almost as distant—too far to be seen with the naked eye. Too far even to be seen with our sharpest telescopes, leaning out over the far edge of our atmosphere. They exist only in probabilistic blips in the data, hinting that something must be blocking the starlight at certain intervals. Somehow that’s enough to extrapolate entire worlds out there, as if they were ripe for the taking, but many of these distant galaxies and exoplanets will only ever exist in artists’ renditions, with the colors tweaked to add a bit of flair.

Even our own solar system is eerily sparse. In textbooks, we tend to print all the planets nested tightly together, because if we tried to draw them to scale, they’d be so small and far apart, they wouldn’t even fit in the same room. Even our own moon, which seems to hang so close to Earth, is so far away that all the other planets could fit in the empty space between them. And of all the billions of people on Earth, only twelve of them have ever pushed free and set foot on alien soil.

It’s possible that our spacesuits won’t need treaded boots ever again. That one day soon we’ll tire of exploring and move back home for good. And we’ll get used to watching our feet as we walk, occasionally stopping to hurl a single probe into the abyss, like a message in a bottle.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter if anyone ever finds it. If nobody’s there to know we once lived here on Earth. Maybe it should be like skipping a stone across the surface of a lake. It doesn’t matter where it ends up. All that matters is that we’re here on the shore—trying to have fun and pass the time, and see how far it goes.

Ancient Greek ᾰ̓́στρον (ástron), star + ἀτροφία (atrophía), a wasting away due to lack of use. Pronounced “as-truh-fee.”





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