Thursday, August 02, 2012

Fruit and flowers, bread and meat

In the days when I used to entertain students in the college observatory, the Orion Nebula was one of the showpieces. On a clear, dark night one can just make out with the unaided eye a patch of blurry white light in the sword of the Hunter. In a moderate-sized instrument the nebula glows with a faint green light and the eye can discern a hint of shape -- a knarly fist clutching a few white stars.

The art of viewing the universe through a telescope is 10 percent vision and 90 percent imagination. Which means I would stand at the side of the clutch of students patiently waiting their turn at the eyepiece and tell them what they were looking at: a seething cauldron of gas and dust in which stars are even now being born, enough gas and dust to make 10,000 stars like the Sun, with attendant planets; the four stars you see -– like newly-hatched chicks in a nest -- may be less than half-a-million years old, making them among the youngest stars we view in our universe.

Here is the Hubble Space Telescope's composite view of the Orion Nebula (click to enlarge), the sharpest view yet. Squint at your computer screen with almost-closed eyes and you'll get an idea what we saw through the scope. Now walk to the other side of the room and look again with almost closed eyes and you'll get an idea what you can see with the unaided eye on the best of nights.

"The night does not come with fruits and flowers and bread and meat," said the naturalist John Burroughs; "it comes with stars and stardust, with mystery and nirvana." Just as well, he said. "To have it ever present…in all its naked grandeur would perhaps be more than we could bear."

Fill your screen with the image above. Here is the tiniest corner of our Milky Way galaxy in all of its naked grandeur. No, not "all." Only the best we have yet. There will be better images to come, more revealing glimpses into infinity, more nakedness, more grandeur. We have learned –- achingly, haltingly -- to bear it. There is more yet to learn.

"To know is not all, it is only half," said Burroughs. "To love is the other half."