Thursday, February 07, 2013

In the beginning

Here is a recent Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), a detail of the Great Orion Nebula, a magnificent star-birthing region in the sword of Orion. You can see a huge mosaic of the nebula here.

These winter evenings, Orion is well placed for viewing, and the nebula is visible to the unaided eye as what appears to be the fuzzy middle star of the Hunter's sword. A good amateur telescope reveals four tiny stars in a cloud of greenish gas (I always imagined four eggs in a nest), the brightest core of the far most extensive nebula.

But, ah, what the largest telescopes reveal! The black-and-white sky explodes into color -– the pinks of hydrogen, the greens of oxygen –- a glorious, mind-numbing extravaganza of creation. Lord knows I have written about it often enough, in a dozen venues, and did my best to evoke its grandeur while standing in cold winter nights with students. The Orion Nebula is our nebula, one of the grandest and closest -- our galaxy, our spiral arm -- our best and most accessible glimpse of our own beginning, page zero-minus-one of the Book of Genesis.

"What can we gain by sailing to the moon," asked Thomas Merton (in Thoughts in Solitude), "if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves." Yes, of course, we know what he meant, but we will not fully know ourselves unless we cross (in our knowledge and imagination) the abyss that separates us from those churning furnaces –- light-years wide -- in which stars are born, and in their burning create the elements of which conscious life is made.