Jim took a piece of chalk from his pocket and started calculating. “The farthest stars are 840,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away,” he stated.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, November 28, 1936.

“What a night,” cried Jimmie Frise.

“Did you ever see the stars so bright,” I agreed. “They are fairly dripping with light. Millions of them.”

“Millions nothing,” laughed Jim. “Even if you had good eyesight, which you haven’t, you could only see 3,000.”

“What are you talking about?” I snorted. Three thousand?”

“That’s the most you can see at any one time with the naked eye,” declared Jim. “Of course, there’s another 3,000 hidden around the other side of the earth. But even if you sat up all night and watched the whole parade of them go round, you could, with the best sight in the world, only see 6,000.”

“Why, Jim,” I scoffed. “I can see millions of them without turning my head.”

“All right,” said Jim. “Cup your two hands around your eyes, like this, and look up at one spot. Count the number in that one small section. You can count them easy.”

“Well,” I said, “I seem to see millions, anyway.”

“That’s the funny part of it,” said Jim. We seem to see millions. And there really are millions. Billions. Every time they build a bigger and better telescope, they find another few million stars. See all those dark bits of night, in between the stars? Well, even through a little bit of an amateur telescope, you find that each one of those dark bits, in between the stars we can see with the naked eye, has just as many stars as the sky itself now appears to have in it, without a telescope.”

“Jim,” I said, “suppose we don’t talk about it. This star stuff always gets me feeling kind of woozy after a few minutes.”

“You’re what they call an infinity coward,” said Jim. “You reel back from the edge of thinking about vast space the way some people reel back from the edge of a cliff, or a tall building.”

“I see nothing to be gained by thinking about astronomy,” I declared. “There are much more important matters to solve here on earth before we start exploring out into space looking for other things to solve.”

“You’ve got the infantile mind, all right.” stated Jim. “Science is not interested in problems. It is only interested in facts. Science looks in all directions. One scientist is sitting humped over a bottle of ketchup in a factory laboratory. Another is sitting humped up under a giant telescope, looking at something so far away, it took the light from it a million years to reach his eye. Yet they are both after the same thing. Truth.”

“Now, there’s something worth talking about,” I agreed heartily. “Ketchup. Let’s talk about ketchup and decide whether we like home-made or store ketchup the best. And why.”

“The stars,” said Jimmie, “are a perfect example of the distance that now exists between the mass of the people and the scientists. The average person thinks about stars as something pretty up in the sky on a fine night. If you ask them to think more than that, and ask them how many stars they can see, they will say, like you, millions whereas they don’t even know they can only see 3,000. If you ask them to pause and think about the vast endless empty space out there, filled forever and ever, amen with stars – they reel back, the way you do, from it. Yet the scientists working on astronomy are now somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 million light years off into space. The distance the stars are away from us is only exceeded by the distance the scientists are away from the mass of the people.”

“That’s why I say let’s talk about ketchup,” I said, “Now, my grandmother used to put a lot of mustard…”

“Do you know what a light year is?” demanded Jim.

“Not the faintest,” I said.

“The astronomers,” said Jimmie, “got into such large figures in trying to tell how far the stars were away, that they were using up all their books just with 00000000. For example, a scientist once wrote a set of books about the stars. Volume I consisted of the introduction and the first sentence of his monumental work, and then he started to write how far away the farthest stars were, so the rest of Volume I consisted of just 000000000 for another 240 pages. Volumes II, III and IV each was nothing but 000000000, and then in Volume V, he got down to his thesis. It was one of the greatest works on astronomy ever published.”

“I can believe you,” I said. “Now, with this mustard as a base…”

“Pardon me,” said Jim, looking dreamily up at the starry sky. “I have to explain what a light year is. It was the invention by which scientists saved paper. Light travels at the rate of 11 million miles a minute. See?”

“You mean the light of an oil lantern,” I asked, “or the light of a car headlight?”

“All light,” said Jim. “It travels at the rate of 11 million miles a minute. Now the astronomers multiplied the number of minutes in a year by 11 million and got what they call a light year. A light year, therefore, which is like counting ‘one’ to an astronomer, is six million MILLION years.”

“That’s just ‘one’,” I said.

Yes, that’s just the figure 1 to an astronomer,” said Jim. “So now when I tell you that the farthest star they have been able to see so far is 140 million LIGHT YEARS away – try and write that down on a piece of paper!”

“I tell you, Jimmie,” I said, “you write that down on a piece of paper and I’ll write down that recipe of my grandmother’s for ketchup with an extra mustard in it. You can have no idea the tang…”

“Would you like to see,” said Jim, “how far away the farthest stars yet found really are?”

“It wouldn’t register, Jim,” I protested. “Once I get over about 1,000, I don’t believe it anyway.”

Jim Does Arithmetic

Jim, always the artist, took a piece of chalk from his pocket and under a street lamp, started to do his arithmetic. We went along multiplying under seven street lights across one intersection and half way to the grocery store before he finished it.

There you are,” said Jim, gazing far along the street, “that’s how far it is, in miles – 840,000,000,000,000,000,000!”

“The thing,” I assured Jim, “doesn’t interest me. They haven’t even a name for it. Skillions, whillions -there isn’t even a word for it, and even the guys who think they’ve got only a million discover it’s all gone flooie in the market before they can count it. Why worry about things like this, Jim, when there are all the troubles we need just on this little world? Hitler and Mussolini, and Reds and Fascists, and winter coming on with thousands of babies with nothing to eat and only an old shawl to put around them. And disease and pain and old people dying in agony of ills we can’t solve so why bother about the stars?”

“Would you deny science the right to study the stars?” asked Jim hotly.

And hotly I considered the question.

“Yes, by golly, I would,” I shouted, so that a policeman walking along the dark street coughed warningly. “Yes, I would deny science the right to fiddle with the stars.”

“What a dreadful idea,” cried Jim. “Why, you belong in the middle ages.”

“All right,” I agreed. “I belong in the middle ages. I am glad to go back to that time in the middle ages where we all took the wrong turn and where science got off on the wrong foot, with its silly wild-goose chases after all knowledge.”

“What wild goose chases?” inquired Jim sarcastically.

“All the wild goose chases,” I stated, “that led the human heart away from the real problems at hand. The problems of this one small world. The problems of liberty, and poverty and disease and unhappiness. For all they have discovered about the stars and mathematics and physics and the mysterious contents of everything from pitchblende to ketchup, how far have we got since the middle ages in solving hunger, tragedy, fear, and death? With all the cowardly brains of the world for the past five hundred years running and hiding from these real problems and chasing the stars instead? Or molecules? Or theories of relativity?”

“What would you have the scientists do?” demanded Jim.

“I tell you what I would do,” I assured him. “I would put a world-wide ban on all idle science. I would forbid any man to waste his time or his brains on anything but the essentials. Let the whole scientific brain power of the world, Europe, America, Asia, everywhere, be devoted at once to the problems of society in this world – wealth, poverty, hunger, justice, wrong, pain, unhappiness. Not until all these so-called intellects have solved the human problem will they be allowed to go fooling around with the stars.”

Cringing Intellects

“My poor friend,” said Jimmie, “with every widening are of human understanding of the universe around us, a fuller understanding of humanity is implied.”

“Utter,” I cried, “utter poppycock. The cowardly cringing intellects that have been ducking the real problems have been putting up that bluff for ages. It’s time we called that bluff. All we have to do is ask them, for heaven’s sake, to look at the world. To pull their heads out of the sand, or down from among the stars, and look at the world. A great bewildered mass of misunderstanding, hate, poverty, pain, fear. Those are the facts. To hell with their theories.”

“Have you ever,” asked Jimmie, “visited a modern observatory? Do you know what you are even talking about? Have you ever looked through a great modern telescope?”

“No, and I most certainly don’t want to,” I assured him. “If I saw the Milky Way, all I would think about was the need of milk in a hundred poor streets not five miles, much less a million miles, from where we stand at this minute.”

“If I were you,” said Jim, “I would at least inform myself of the activities of science before turning myself into a street corner orator like this. I am willing to bet you anything you like that if I once got you into the new observatory up Yonge St., and had you set your eye to that wonderful reflector lens that will send your poor little soul sizzling out through infinite space for a brief journey, you would not be so free in condemning the intellect that has ventured into infinite space.”

“I could look through that telescope,” I stated loudly, “and say pooh!”

“Heh, heh,” laughed Jimmie sinisterly. “What time is it?”

“It’s 8.15,” I said, “and the second show doesn’t start until 9.”

“How,” said Jim, “would you like to come with me up to the observatory on Yonge St. instead of going to the show? I can drive you there in thirty minutes.”

“It’s a swell night for it,” I admitted, looking up at the glorious heavens.

“Come on,” said Jim. “I dare you. I dare you to risk one look at infinite space. If it doesn’t alter your notions!”

So we went. And up Yonge St. we drove, with all the myriads of traffic, and all the people just going along having fun, and being in love and going to shows and visiting the little fruit stores for beans and oranges, and at last we came out on to the big highway.

“It’s up here,” said Jim, “north of the prison farm, somewhere. You just turn off on to a side road.”

“Nice idea,” I agreed “Prison farm right here and a telescope for looking 140 whillion skillion miles somewhere else.”

We slowed down and watched for the turn.

“If I recollect,” I said, “I saw a sign somewhere along here.”

“We’re getting pretty far north,” said Jim. “Maybe this is it.”

Jim slowed down the car. Traffic behind us horned and hooted angrily.

“This will be it, I guess,” said Jim, making the turn into the side road.

But it wasn’t the turn. And we crept slowly along, looking for a lane. It was a clay road. A bad, holey, rutty road. With puddles.

“You’d better turn the first chance,” I warned Jimmie.

“I’ll turn,” he said.

But he didn’t turn and we came to a large clay bog hole and as Jim tried to negotiate the edge of it, I felt the wheels on my side slide easily and gooily in. Jim gave her the gas. A splurge, a surge and we backed splendidly right into the middle of it.

So we went and got garage men and lanterns and tow trucks and so forth, walking along under the stars.

“If those stars, Jim.” I said, as we walked, are as you say a hundred million light years away, how do we know they are there?”

“They aren’t there,” said Jimmie. “That’s the point. That’s where they were when the light we are getting now from them left them, a hundred million years ago.”

“So that at the moment,” I asked, “they might be right underneath us, or off to the side somewhere. or anywhere but where they appear to be?”

“The chances of them being where they appear to be,” stated Jim, “are very remote, considering the vast ages and ages and millions of years this light now striking our eyes left them.”

“Then,” I said, triumphantly, “maybe they aren’t there at all. Maybe they have died and blown up fifty million years ago. Maybe there are no stars by now!”

“That is quite possible,” admitted Jim.

“Then won’t it be a swell joke on your scientists if,” I cried, “just when they have discovered all there is to know about stars, they find there aren’t any stars?”

“That would be ironic,” said Jim.

“Very well,” I concluded, for now we were out where the bright glare of traffic on Yonge St. made the stars a little dim, “very well, I much prefer to think about starving babies wrapped in old shawls, who are with us to-day, than muddle my poor head about a lot of things that used to be where we think they are a billion years ago.”

“I give in,” said Jim.

And the garage man only charged us 75 cents.


Editor’s Notes: When Greg refers to “pitchblende”, is is the old term for Uraninite, a radioactive, uranium-rich mineral and ore.

The observatory they are referring to is the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill. When an observatory in downtown Toronto could no longer function due to light pollution, this observatory was constructed in 1935 (a year before this story). At the time, the main telescope was the second largest in the world and the largest in Canada. It operated from 1935 to 2007.