Thursday, June 13, 2013

ATOD -- Astronomy thrill of the day

This stunning image of the Orion Nebula was an Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) last week. It reminded me of my long and continuing relationship with this cosmic object.

"Object"? Is that the right word for a swirling maelstrom of gas, dust and stars, 40 light-years wide, 1500 light-years away? A stellar nursery! "Object" seems so passive, so final, so -- so, uh, blah. We need another term, something more Blakeian, more incendiary, more theological.

It was my father who first pointed out the Orion Nebula to me, as we stood on the badminton court in the back yard of our house in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was teaching me to recognize the constellation, and helped me to see that the middle "star" in Orion's sword was fuzzy, not a star at all but a bit of hazy luminosity. A nebula! A new word. A new concept. What we saw was just the brightest region of the cloud you see here.

Later, much later, when I finally gained access to a good amateur telescope, it was my turn to share the nebula with students. Through a scope the blur becomes a distinct mass of greenish gas, with four infant stars cradled in the nebula's center like eggs in a nest. "Like eggs in a nest"! How many times did I use that metaphor! How many times did I try to instill a sense of cosmic consciousness. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who grasp, even dimly, the dimensions of cosmic space and time, and those who don't.

My first book, 365 Starry Nights, was rather prosaic. "There is enough hydrogen, helium, and other materials in the cloud to form at least 10,000 stars similar to our Sun," I wrote, hoping to impress by sheer numbers.

In The Soul of the Night I waxed more poetic, perhaps purple, evoking Moby Dick no less. The nebula was "the face of Leviathan, wrenching us into a space as deep and as terrible as the bowels of the sea. It is God's sturdy hand, the fist that grips us in its clenched infinities. This is the power that hides in the colorless night like the rocks in foaming breakers that crack a ship, or the white whale that drags all who seek him to black oblivion." Whew!

I calmed down for An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, but Orion is on the cover with its winking nebula. It won't leave me alone.