Friday, September 26, 2008

Six memos to myself

Early morning walk to college. The Sun, that votive candle lit each day at dawn, spills its light along the path. Autumn is in the air; one can almost feel the water molecules in the brook beneath the bridge slowing their jittery vibrations in preparation for a change of phase. The birds chatter their morning prayers.

Lightness. Quickness. Exactitude. The morning is distilled into its essence. Austere. As brittle as glass. Visibility. Multiplicity. Consistency. Sunlight spills along the path, collects in sandy pools.

Eight thousand light-years away a star is dying. Eta Carinae, in the southern sky, in the stream of the Milky Way. A big star, 100 times more massive than the Sun. Shuddering in its death throes. Since it was catalogued in 1677, Eta Carinae has been blazing up and dying down. In 1843 it outshone every star but Sirius, then faded to naked-eye invisibility. Then slowly brightened.

To the eye, a speck of light in a dark sky. The Hubble telescope reveals a star blasting off bubbles of its own substance in two great lobes -- the residue of the 1843 explosion racing outwards. In the 11 September issue of Nature, astronomer Nathan Smith reports previously undetected sheets of ejecta surging outwards even faster than the lobes (scroll down on the link and watch the animation). The bulk of the star is still intact. A supernova is in the offing. Today? Tomorrow? Ten thousand years from now?

A star dies, taking its planets with it. But look at the part of the sky around Eta Carinae in this spectacular Hubble panorama (or click to enlarge image below), 50 light-years wide, 8000 light-years away. A place of prodigious starbirth. Roiling with creation and destruction (Eta Carinae is the small, intensely bright oval at center left). Our little planet would be lost in this cauldron of gas, dust and stars -- a grain of sand flicked into the eye of a hurricane.


Lightness. Quickness. Exactitude. The Sun heaves itself above the highest branches of the trees. The day gathers itself into itself. Visibility. Multiplicity. Consistency. I gather the day into this simple thing I hold in my mind's eye. Somewhere afar off I hear a siren.