Why do the stars shine?
By Jamie Butcher
There once was a painter who lived in sleepy fishing village. All his life, the painter had painted the little harbour full of colourful fishing boats. He painted the beach, the sea and the cliffs, and the pretty little cobbled streets with all the people whole lived and holidayed there.
In recent years the old fishing village had become more popular with other painters. Many of them had fallen in love with the place and stayed and many of them were accomplished in the modern techniques. The painter admired their work, but the competition had slowed his sales. He began to worry. Adding to his problems, in the last couple of weeks, he seemed to have lost his old ‘brush magic’. He had to put extra time and effort into his canvases to produce work he was happy with.
At the end of each day, he walked home to his house overlooking the village and harbour, where he lived with his wife and young daughter. After tea he answered his daughter’s many questions until it was her bedtime. Some questions were easy to answer – ‘Daddy, why do you sell your nice paintings?’ and some not so easy, ‘Daddy, were do babies come from?’
He tucked her in and read her stories until she fell asleep.
One night, as he was lying in bed worrying about the winter fuel bill, he began thinking about a time long ago when he had his daughter’s sense of wonder. Then suddenly, there was a memory of himself, as a boy, looking up at the sky and wondering, ‘Why do the stars shine?’
The question kept repeating in his head. He searched for the answer through all his memories, but it was no good. He was unsure that he’d ever found an answer or if he’d even asked the question out loud.
He mulled his problem over and, sensing that the answer must have something to do with sight itself, he decided he’d speak with his old friend the school teacher. She had a degree in biology and would know the answer.
Now he had a plan, he relaxed and drifted off.
The next morning on his way to paint the harbour, the painter stopped off at the school to speak with his old friend.
She was happy to help and explained how the eye worked. She said that the light from the stars enters the eye through the cornea and then is focused through the lens in the eye which makes an upside-down image on the retina. Electrical signals then travel along the optic nerve and the image is flipped back round when the signals are interpreted by the brain. It was fascinating learning about the inner workings of the eye.
The painter thanked his friend and headed off to the beach to paint. Armed with this insight he felt he inspired.
But try as he might, he couldn’t concentrate and after an hour had barely laid brush to canvas. The question was still there, prodding at him, ‘Why do the stars shine?’ Maybe it was something else he was looking for, he didn’t know what…
It was obvious he wasn’t going to get any painting done that day, so he decided to go for a long walk instead.
As he walked across the clifftops, he remembered the old Victorian observatory nearby, where a professor of astrophysics lived. The professor had lectured in the city and had decided to retire by the coast after a long career. He’s bound to know the answer.
And sure enough, the professor did have a LOT to say about the subject with enthusiasm and energy. The painter learned that the stars were unimaginably huge balls of burning gas, burning at unimaginably hot temperatures and the particles of light, deep within these huge, roaring, nuclear furnaces, took thousands of years to reach the surface of the stars. Then the light from the stars travelled across unimaginable distances at unimaginable speed until after years the light would reach earth… and eventually our eyes.
It was amazing to the painter, all very fascinating and educational. The painter vigorously shook the professor’s hand and bid him farewell.
Well the painter strode back along the clifftops in a buoyant mood. He was just descending toward the little village when suddenly, he stopped. There it was again… insistent. ‘Why do the stars shine?’ Augh, hadn’t he learned enough? He shook his head, took a deep breath and carried on.
That night, when he went to tuck her up in bed, the painter found his daughter staring out of her window. He joined her there and looked out across the village. He noticed its dark cobbled streets edged silver in the starlight, the shadows of the cove and the cliffs framed by an endless blanket of stars… and their light reflected in the harbour’s gentle waters. A smile crept across his face.