On starry nights, far from the technicolor of cities, when no responsibilities are boring into the mind and dulling the senses, it’s easy to romanticize the heavens. The stuff above and the stuff below seem radically different. We are earthly; they are ethereal.

We are made of dust; they are made of stardust.

But what is stardust? The word seems Shakespearean, but it’s not, having arisen less than 200 years ago. It first described the cloudlike look of masses of stars, as seen through telescopes. Then, less than 100 years ago, the word began to refer to a hopelessly romantic quality of mind.

These are very different definitions: one describes the visual semblance of objects far away, the other an intimate feeling close to home. Alan Lightman, however, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, links these ideas together—the distant stars and human dreaminess—by pointing out that earthling dust and ethereal stardust are one and the same:

“It is astonishing but true that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find that those atoms originated in particular stars in the sky. Those exact atoms.”

And so . . . science and romanticism meet again.

It’s a match made in heaven!

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