Leaving the physics building at night, my neck hurts from hunching over a notebook for so long. Only a few stars in the sky peek out, the bright stadium lights battling for the attention of my eyes.
I’m about halfway through my studies at Princeton, and I declare astrophysics my major. I will spend the next two years studying quantum science and cosmology, hoping to understand how the universe works, from cosmic expansion to star formation.
It’s whimsical, almost indulgent, to tell people that I want to spend this period of my youth studying the stars. However, I think there is something fundamentally ingrained in the field – it seems considerably removed from concerns on a human scale. At least, that’s what I hope (I’m only a sophomore, so don’t count me as an expert).
Even though I’m only a few semesters into it, I already feel like I’m losing my footing sometimes taking classes here. I was fortunate enough to take courses in a variety of fields, from computer science to religion, and many of them were steeped in theory, which served wonderfully to broaden my critical thinking. Yet I have found that my mind is often caught in a web of equations and Greek words. Higher education serves to clarify my thoughts, but it also distorts my perspective, making me feel dizzy and disconnected from the reality of whatever I study. There’s something strange about sitting in a lecture hall learning how the slope of a line on the board implies the age of the universe when I’m not even sure of the phase of the moon last night. My head swirling with the abstract, sometimes I feel the need to ground myself with reminders of exactly what I’m studying.
Cole Meyer ’24, another future astrophysics major, sometimes feels the same need to take a step back, taking a break from problems and readings. For him, it helps to reflect on the night sky. “The study of astrophysics, there’s a lot of math, a lot of physics,” he told me. “It’s so many equations. Stargazing helps me take a step back.
Meyer is the president of the Princeton Astronomy Club (PAC), a new after-school program designed to spread the joy of stargazing and foster a community of students interested in astrophysics. Just before spring break, they held their first stargazing party in Forbes Garden, complete with games, pizza and, most importantly, a telescope loaned by a graduate student. In addition to admiring the constellations suspended above the golf course, attendees could peer through the telescope, looking for distant objects, unobservable with the naked eye.
This act of gazing at the night sky is what initially sparked Meyer’s academic trajectory. “The reason I chose to be an astrophysics student was not so I could solve second-order differential equations, it was because I like to look up at the sky and think about what’s there. -high,” he said.
The birth of PAC reminded me that I was drawn to astrophysics for the same reasons, even if I forget them in the frenzy of exams and approaching deadlines. I spent a few semesters focusing intensely on grades and worrying that I couldn’t keep up. Invited to look at the sky again, I am once again delighted to declare my major.
But even if your focus doesn’t directly involve the night sky, stargazing once in a while is still a refocusing experience. The act itself invites one to zoom out and contemplate a larger than usual plane of existence. Like standing at the edge of the ocean or the edge of a canyon, facing the vastness of space is good for the soul. And no matter what you’re studying, taking a moment to squint at the sky is a nice change from the blackboard or computer screen.
On April 8, PAC hosted another stargazing party at Peyton Hall, where students had the opportunity to observe the sky using the building’s large domed telescope. They hope to hold similar events next fall. As for the rest of spring, there are a few special celestial events to look forward to, like the Lyrids meteor shower in April and a total lunar eclipse in mid-May.
Of course, the sky is up there all night long, a hemisphere of fun with no admission cost. I’d suggest it whenever you need reassurance that while your head is constantly spinning with the theory, you’re well and truly planted on the ground – even if only for a moment between various obligations. I can’t promise you how many stars you’ll see on your way to your dorm or through that library window you’ve cowered in front of for hours, but it never hurts to take a look. a look.
Paige Cromley is a writer who enjoys writing about pop culture, campus life, and personal reflections. She can be reached at [email protected].
Self-essays at The Prospect give our guest writers and contributors the opportunity to share their insights. This essay reflects the opinions and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a personal essay, contact us at [email protected]