Tuesday, December 11, 2012

O holy night

Here's an image for this season of lights: the star-forming nebula NGC 6357, lit from within by new stars, and above it the young star cluster PISMIS 24, with at its center one of the most massive stars known, PIMIS-1, actually a triple star system, with each component perhaps 100 times as massive as our Sun. Such massive stars don't live long, compared, say, to the Sun. They burn fast and hot, turning hydrogen and helium into heavy elements, then blast their bounty into space. The nebula and the cluster lie about 8000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Scorpius, part of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The images spans a few tens of light-years from top to bottom. Click to enlarge.

Allow me to quote myself, from The Soul of the Night:
Stars build as they burn. In the workshops that are the cores of stars, gravity squeezes heavy elements into being. Here is work that would be envied by Cellini, more ravishing than Fabergé creations for a czar. Oxygen, sparkling with its six valence electrons, promiscuous in its rage for union, burning, rusting, rotting, building, no element on Earth is more common. Carbon, the wizard, now the black rider, now the diamond throne, the backbone of the butterfly, nylon, gasoline, shoe polish, dynamite, and DDT. Iron, industrious, core of the Earth, night flyer; Eskimos made tools of iron that fell from the sky. Palladium, zirconium, dysprosium, gadolinium, praseodymium, rare travelers, made in traces in supernovas and scattered to the Galaxy like bank notes tossed from a king's carriage.
Over the top? Did I really write that? That was almost thirty years ago, long before the Hubble Space Telescope began to make breathtaking images like the one above as common as dishrags. I was in thrall to the heavens, attached to my telescope, agog with the glory of a universe that is mostly hidden from our unaided view. I wrote The Soul of the Night on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 computer, with a tiny LCD screen that showed just a few lines of type. My fingers flew. They could hardly keep up with my ardor. I was in love. With words. With the stars, nebulas, galaxies.

Maybe a little abashed now with the 1980s gush of my prose, but still carrying a torch for a universe in which stardust flows like a Heraclitean river, never to be touched or stepped in twice. The book is still in print, an extended footnote to a universe that has never exhausted it power to astonish and surprise.