Sunday, June 5, 2011

Murder ISN'T Everywhere

This is my week for going cosmic.

(Check out the Galactic Rose -- a beautiful configuration of colliding galaxies -- over at

What we have above is the whole star cycle: birth, youth, old age, and death.  It's Galactic Emissions Nebula NGC 3603.  A Galactic Emissions Nebula is one that has been identified by its "noise" -- extremely strong emissions of radiation.  Astronomers scan vast swaths of sky with radio telescopes and then point the Hubble at the noisiest areas.  Once in a while, they see something like this.

A "nebula" just means something shapeless, apparently disorganized, and sometimes fuzzy.  The word was first used prior to the installation of the Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar to describe what looked like pale patches of stars.  Seen through a stronger instrument, they turned out to be galaxies.  Millions and millions of them.

Today, the word is used to describe something like NGC 3606.  It's shapeless to the untrained eye because most of it is just gigantic clouds of glowing gas.  It's "noisy," in terms of radiation, because enormous transformations, both creative and destructive, are taking place there.

The dark areas so unspectacularly surrounding the nebula are "Bok globules" -- relatively cold, relatively dense areas of hydrogen and helium that have not yet achieved enough gravity to begin to spin and then collapse into stars.  At one point in cosmic history -- back before there was light in the universe -- Bok globules were the densest aggregations of matter.  In a sense, they're stars-in-waiting.

The bright clouds of gas and the brighter pillars they contain are nurseries.  They're lighted up by the ignition of brand new stars, Bok globules that have been squeezed by gravity until a thermonuclear reaction took place and they began to shine.  There are millions of them inside those yellowish clouds.

The brilliant blue objects in the middle are maturing stars of considerable size and brilliance. They're visible because their "solar wind" -- a nonstop flow of protons, electrons, and photons that can weigh billions of tons lost each hour -- has literally blown the gas of the clouds away.  So there they shine, pristine in the empty space they've cleared for themselves.  They may or may not have young planets or proto-planets around them at this stage in their development.

The ultra-bright star with the glowing circle around it just above and to the left of the blue stars is the supergiant Sher 25, which is probably just thousands of years (not even a blink in star-time) from a colossal supernova, when it will blow itself into smithereens, sending iron, lead, and all the heavier elements far into space, possibly to conglomerate into new planets.  Sher 25 is already ejecting its mass as its structure breaks down.  In a very short period of time, it will be gone.

So there is death here, but it's not murder. It's suicide.


  1. Wow, what can I say, man. You're a star! And you even saw Clayton Moore without his mask! Double WOW!


  2. Suicide is the process by which someone purposefully ends their life. It is a choice.

    The stars are designed to undergo a process of change during which they create,or re-create. You use the term "nursery" which, whether in the human sense or in the gardening sense, are places of nurturing, protecting and nourishing new life.

    So, not suicide but incredible, mind-blowing change. The picture on the other blog is amazing in its beauty, a word unlikely to be used in relation to destruction.

    Both blog posts strike me as a very good argument for a purposeful Creator. Great post for a Sunday morning.

  3. Hi, Jeff, hi, Anon -- bet I know who you are.

    I've been intrigued by astronomy since I was about thirteen, when I read THE MYSTERIOUS UNIVERSE by the British astronomer Sir James Jeans. Jeans was one of those scientists with a strain of poetry, and he seduced me instantly into working for weeks and weeks to understand a model of the universe I immediately learned had been discarded decades before. So it's been catch-up all my life, hampered by the fact that I'm a mathematical illiterate.

    But it's easy to see the majesty and the beauty there, not to mention the poetry. I think it's interesting, Anon, that you quibbled with "suicide" but bought wholeheartedly into "nursery," although they're both certainly figurative, as opposed to scientific language.

    I like the Bok globules, and it's amazing for me to try to imagine the universe before there was light, just expanding darkness and these almost gelatinous masses of simple gases, on their way to becoming stars. Whole dark galaxies, of them, pinwheel arms of darkness.

    Knocks me right out. Good for a Sunday indeed, whether you believe in anything approaching God or not.

  4. Sorry, I forgot to sign my name. If I don't use anonymous, my posts get erased.

    I keep forgetting to ask my technical adviser, my son, how to fix it.

    Since you figured out my identity, it shouldn't be a surprise that "nursery" registers. Mother of three and teacher of more than I can count, nurture registers far faster than the opposite of it, figurative or otherwise.