Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The face in the cloud

The photo above, made in 2008, shows the famous Horsehead Nebula, a vast star-spawning cloud of gas and dust in the constellation Orion. The nebula is about 1500 light years from Earth, in our own spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. It is a wispy projection of an even larger cloud known as the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. I once calculated that 10,000 Solar Systems, imagined as spheres, would fit comfortably in the horse's snout.

When I was teaching astronomy, a similar photo, projected on a big screen at the front of the classroom, was always a pleaser. Why? Because of the "horse," of course. The universe is almost unimaginably vast. We love to see something familiar among the gassy chaos. It cuts the light-years down to size, helps us feel at home, reinforces a fading sense that we may be important after all. Giddy-ap! Hi-ho Silver!

We need all the reassurance we can get.

And now comes this, a new photo of the Horsehead, made in infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope (click to enlarge). I've been looking at photographs of the Horsehead for fifty years, and this one took my breath away.

In The Soul of the Night I wrote: "The Greeks believed that the eye has a double role in vision. They believed that a pale light went out from the eye to the world and returned again to the eye as a traveler returns bearing gifts. For the Greeks, the eye was both illuminator and receiver. Modern science has rejected the Greek theory of vision. We are told that the eye is a passive agent, a mere collector of whatever light comes its way. Seeing, in the new dispensation, means turning toward the light and nothing more."

Nothing more! The Soul of the Night was itself a refutation of "nothing more." Seeing may be all on the receiving end, but it is a cerebral activity of interpretation and assimilation. We look into the Horsehead and try to understand ourselves. We want to believe -- we were taught to believe -- that the universe was made for us, that we are the reason for it all, for those myriad stars, those billowing clouds. We stumble, like the blind giant Orion himself, into a darkness so vast, so rich and deep, as to make us tremble. And like Orion, we will learn to see again only by bravely confronting the light.

O, what a mighty work is vision!