I remember, back in 1970-something, Star Wars hit the theater for the first time. I was – well – young, not even a teenager yet, but my dad took my sister and I out to see that movie during opening week. It hadn’t really caught on yet, but within a week the lines to see the movie were stretching around the block.
At the time, nothing like that was available. Sure, you look back now and it’s no big deal, even the special effects were pretty sucky compared to today, but at the time it was really something. That movie filled me with a sense of wonder I can hardly describe. Coming home from that movie I felt like anything was possible, like the galaxy was my oyster and the stars were filled with untold wonders. Afterwards, when I would sleep outside during the hot summer months and stare up at the stars, I imagined epic space battles being waged among the lights. Handsome heroes and scary black-clad villains, aliens and robots and frosted glasses filled with frothy blue drinks served in exotic bars.
When I was younger, my sisters and I would often sleep in the back yard. We’d lay there staring up at the night sky, just gazing at the stars in wonder, and that wonder would only increase as the night drew on. Have you done that? Have you laid down at night and looked up, and just stared?
At first, you see millions of stars. Some are brighter than others, some twinkle, maybe you can identify a few of the clusters, maybe not. Perhaps like me, you were satisfied if you could pick out the big and little dipper.
But the more you looked, the more you saw. If you kept staring, kept looking up there, you came to realize there weren’t millions of stars, there weren’t even billions of stars, there were – in fact – more stars than your mind could comprehend. I found the longer I stared, the more my mind was filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer number of stars in the night sky. And that was only the portion of the sky that I could see!
After college, when I moved into the city to live and work, I couldn’t see the stars at night because the city lights were too bright. But by then, I had a new wonder to amaze me. One of the many tasks in veterinary medicine is laboratory work – it was one of my favorite things. After drawing blood, there are many tests you can run using fancy machines and quirky little dip sticks, but the best one – the one that fascinated the crap out of me – was making a slide and counting white blood cells.
See, you take a drop of red blood, put it on the end of a glass slide, then tilt a second glass slide against it at just the right angle, then draw that blood drop over the surface of the slide very carefully and quickly – and if you’re good, like I was – you end up with a perfectly feathered end, where the red cells are laid out on a single-cell level.
Then you wave it in the air to dry, and dip it in a series of 3 colored stains, making a gram stain of your slide. After that dries, you put the slide on the microscope, add one drop of oil, then flip around your maximum magnification lens and take a look.
At this level, you’re seeing individual cells. Red and white, spread out in that perfectly feathered edge. You can see the dimple in the red cells, judge the level of hemoglobin and examine the shape. And you can see the white blood cells, which come in several types. An excess of one type over the other are indicators of various health problems, as is an overabundance or undercount of them as a whole. Once you have a good focus, you put your hand on an old fashioned button counter with 5 keys, already pre-labeled with the particular white cell type, and you count – clicking your fingers down on the appropriate key whenever that particular white cell is found. Then you count in a grid pattern, to get a general percentage of white cells in the animal’s body.
When you find a slide that has an overabundance of white cells, to the point where it would be impossible to count them off in your grid, you enter TNTC in the lab report. Too Numerous To Count.
It was microscopic work such as this that turned me on to medicine as a career when I was in college. Dissecting a live frog under a microscope, I could see the exchange of gasses in his lungs. Pink lungs were sparkling with microscopic flashes of white, like a massive fourth of July sparkler contained in that tiny little space. I was hooked that very moment. I was seeing lungs exchanging gas for air ! I was watching something that’s too minuscule for the human eye to witness, and there it was taking place before my very eyes. Or eye, actually, it was a monoscope.
That’s what the stars are. Too Numerous To Count.
What I loved then – and still love now – about lying on the grass staring up at the plethora of stars in the night sky, is the scope of them. The hugeness. The way they make me feel like that single cell underneath a microscope, so tiny it takes a drop of mineral oil and a special lens to see.
I sometimes feel that way inside Barnes & Noble, or any large bookstore. I feel like that tiny little white blood cell in an ocean of reds, and that the chance of my being published are the same as that one specific white cell having been sucked out of the body, into a syringe, then placed in a tube with anticoagulant, then sucked back out of the big tube filled with 3cc’s-worth of my compatriots, to be dropped onto a slide, then make it to the outer feathered edge, then land inside that grid, and still be Too Numerous To Count.
But I figure that’s how it works. For every sky full of stars, someone’s lying on the grass, staring up at one of them in wonder.