Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eye in the sky

"Knowledge has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas with spots," wrote D. H. Lawrence in one of his crankier moments. "The world of reason and science...this is the dry and sterile world the abstract mind inhabits."

Well, David, whatever you say. But before you fold on science, take a look at the pics from the TRACE satellite telescope.

What you'll see is not a god, not Helios's golden chariot, not the yellow circle with smiling face we see in a child's drawing. Here in the TRACE photographs is the seething hearth of life, the roiling, boiling dynamo of creation. Not merely a ball of gas with spots, but a dancing, flickering furnace of unquenchable energy.

Loops of blazing gas -- plasma is the technical term -- soaring tens of thousands of miles out from the surface of the Sun. On the scale of these firestorms, the planet Earth shrinks to physical insignificance -- like a pea flicked into the flames of a roaring campfire.

The TRACE satellite orbits the Earth a few hundred miles above the surface, north to south, staying pretty much above the dawn-dusk line between day and night, with its eye fixed permanently on the Sun. The telescope is about as tall as a man, with mirrors the size of dinner plates. Forty million bucks worth of human ingenuity. An extension of human scientific curiosity, it catches knowledge by the bucketful.

"The power of the visible is the invisible," wrote the poet Marianne Moore. The TRACE satellite makes the invisible visible, reveals the Sun's power to the mind's eye, lets us feel the fire.

Dancing loops of roiling gas, hurled outward by powerful magnetic fields. Millions of tons of the sun's substance hurled into space like a wet dog shaking off sheets of water, sweeping the Earth with the energy that lights the green fuse of life.

A gassy ball with spots, indeed! Knowledge may threaten our human-centered sense of self-importance. Knowledge may shatter our consoling myths. But take my word for it, David: Knowledge is better than ignorance.