I believe in constants. When I was in 5th grade I was a young boy with a lot of questions that didn’t yield easy answers: “Why am I here?” “How did I get here?” “Where am I going?” When my family and I went to Disney World for Christmas that year, I asked myself, “What’s the use? I’ll go there, experience it, then it will end and I’ll have nothing more than memories.” I was desperate to find something solid, some stable truth that would not slip out from under me and that I could return to indefinitely knowing that it would never change.
That same year I discovered astronomy and was dazzled by its scope and beauty. The scientific process fascinated me and I was taken with the notion of physical constants and immutable laws. I learned that the velocity of light is constant and that time itself bends to its will. I set out to calculate the distance of a light year and committed to memorizing it: 5,865,696,000,000 miles. My memory has always been decent, but I was so afraid that I would forget such an “important fact” as the distance of a light year that I repeated it in my head over and over for days on end—during class, at lunch, before school, after school, on the weekends, when I was watching TV, and at every other idle moment I had during an average day. Even years later the number would come to me randomly and I would say it to myself in a whisper, so that no one else would hear me: “5-PAUSE-8-6-5-PAUSE-6-9-6-PAUSE-0-0-0-PAUSE-0-0-0.” The only true use I ever got out of my knowledge was when my 8th grade science teacher, Mrs. Fairbairn, threw a question to the class: “How far is a light year?” I had the answer and shared it gladly. I don’t recall how Mrs. Fairbairn reacted, but I’m sure she said something like, “Umm, very good Nick,” and then moved on.
This whole endeavor to know the distance of something that I would never be able to visualize may seem trifling, yet what matters is not what I memorized but why I memorized it. My obsession with the distance light travels in a year was about finding permanence in the world. Light represented something firm and dependable that would not betray me. I was a confused little kid with a lot of questions for which I could find few solid answers. But I had my number, “5,865,696,000,000,” and I clung to it as a younger child might have clutched a favorite teddy bear. Even today it soothes me just to recite it rhythmically: 5,865,696,000,000. And after all these years, it remains the same. It is my constant.
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