How It All Began: “To Infinity and Beyond”

Orion Nebula

From Nebulae to Stars to Galaxies and Beyond!


Mysteries galaxies cover,

Restlessness stars show,

Beauty planets exhibit,

In the infinity and beyond!

From minuscule neutrinos to the expanding Universe, astronomy rules the Fabric of the Cosmos. But in my birthplace, the sky is hidden by a mask of light pollution and fossil fuel wastes. I often pondered what lay above those hazy clouds. After emigrating from Shenyang, I saw for the first time a sky clearer than water and stars brighter than Zeus’ bolt. Thus began my fascination with astronomy. And like the constellations of the zodiac that appear in certain months, I had occasional close encounters with astronomy. There was a lesson in a 6th grade outdoor education class and a telescope viewing session in Pasadena. I even took an astronomy course at the community college. All of these transient, astronomical sparks ultimately culminated in my unforgettable COSMOS experience. My high school barely covers astronomy, so I rely on my home telescope, where all I can see is the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. But in a university setting, I discovered and utilized the infinite, incredible resources for research and learning.

As the sun sank beneath the golden horizon, I waited patiently for the TAs to finish calibrating the 24-inch telescope inside the UCI observatory dome. After Dr. Smecker-Hane explained how to use a sky map, I mastered the technique and shouted out constellations: “Orion! Big Dipper!” Inside the observatory dome, I ascended the creaky steel ladder and gazed into the telescope’s eyepiece, seeing one area concentrated with stars, the open cluster M11. Though light years away, M11 seemed so impossibly close that I could reach up and snatch its stars out of the sky, as though I was a scientist observing stars on an ebony Petri dish through a microscope. On the 8-inch telescope, Mars shone like ancient blood-stained battlefields, while Saturn’s ice rings revolved as magnificently as clockwork.

The professors enlightened me with intriguing astronomy stories, such as the irony of Einstein’s obstinacy. Though he rejected Friedmann’s theory of an expanding universe, Einstein’s cosmological constant, when reversed, actually supports the theory of Universe acceleration. The program’s CLEA1 exercises prepared me for group projects as I learned some of the math behind astronomy― calculating the mass of Jupiter using its moons’ orbits and “blinking” to determine asteroids’ velocities. In one CLEA simulation, I found not galaxies, but portraits of scientists floating in space instead! For my group research project, “Stellar Spectra,” we observed the night sky, recorded images of Arcturus and Vega, reduced them with Linux software, and designed a poster board decorated with colored dots depicting the stars of the H-R Diagram. We presented our “findings” to parents, students, and professors at a science fair convention. During this research process, I imagined myself as the modern Galileo voyaging through territory few had traversed.

COSMOS was the launch pad in expanding my astronomy blog, coincidentally named “The Cosmos.”I blog actively, and have discovered kindred spirits with minds eager to learn, inquire, and comment. Originating globally across six continents in countries like Germany and India, the feedback I receive increases my fascination. COSMOS confirmed my desire to study astronomy, conduct research, and become a part of the scientific community. Astronomy is the oldest science, yet each discovery raises more questions. In every astronomical encounter I travel on an unforgettable journey invoked by imagination.

1 CLEA is an acronym for Contemporary Lab Experiences in Astronomy.

~ Tianjia Liu, 2012 ~


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