Friday, May 01, 2009

The spooky hand

What do we make of this? A cosmic hand, vast and nebulous, reaching out to quench a fiery inferno. Or is it hurling a luminous discus, a universe in the making? Or conjuring the primeval fire? (Click to enlarge.)

Well, actually, none of that. In fact, this is not something you could see at all, at least not with the eye. It is an image made with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory of the region of space around a pulsar known as B1509. The invisible X-rays have been artificially colored according to their energy -- coolest red, hottest blue.

At the center of the brightest spot is a star more massive than the Sun that has gobbled up all of its nuclear fuel and collapsed upon itself. Gravity has squeezed it down to the size of a smallish city, so dense that electrons have been squeezed into protons to create neutrons. The star is as dense as the nucleus of an atom. A neutron star.

As the star was crushed smaller, its original modest rotation sped faster and faster, like an ice skater who pulls in his outstretched arms. As it furiously whirls, it spews out energy in our direction in thousands of bursts per second -- a pulsar. It is 17,000 light-years away.

Still, we see a hand. Maybe even the hand of God.

It is human nature to see ourselves in the non-human world. Faces in clouds. The Virgin Mary on a water-stained wall. Canals and pyramids on Mars. When the Hubble team published the famous Pillars of Creation photograph, hundreds of people reported seeing the face of Jesus.

Nothing strange about any of this. We necessarily explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, and what is more familiar than ourselves? The gods of all peoples everywhere have generally taken human form. The gods may have multiple arms, or wings, or thrones of gold, or infinite powers, but they are all projections of ourselves. Address God as Father, or Mother, and we are indulging in the same anthropomorphizing as the person who sees a spooky hand in the Chandra image.

By doing so we shrink an infinite mystery to our own dimensions.