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  • Surfing the nebulae

    2011 - 01.09

    Today I was checking out some hubble images at spacetelescope.org. This website just… boggles my brain every time I go. If the writings on this blog interest you at all, you owe it to yourself to go look at the 100 best images. Each one of them is worthy of poring over intensely.
    The Hubble telescope captured a display of starlight, glowing gas, and silhouetted dark clouds of interstellar dust in this 4-foot-by-8-foot image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300. NGC 1300 is considered to be prototypical of barred spiral galaxies. Barred spirals differ from normal spiral galaxies in that the arms of the galaxy do not spiral all the way into the center, but are connected to the two ends of a straight bar of stars containing the nucleus at its center.

    While looking at the above image of this barred spiral galaxy, I was daydreaming about what might be there. Even with the great detail in the picture, it’s quite difficult to make out individual stars. Most of the ones that do shine bright enough to distinguish are not likely the most interesting stars in this galaxy–it’s the sun-like yellow stars which blend into the background, invisible to our eye, which probably have the most planets, the densely populated orbits, and timescales conducive to the arising of intelligent life.

    When I look at a picture like that, there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt, that this galaxy, like our own, must certainly be chock full of interstellar travelers. Highly evolved forms of life plying the minerals of barren moons, trading with other species. Vibrant commerce. Nuanced cultures. Storied histories. As I stare into the clouds of stars swirling around, a multitude of emotions arises thinking about what might be there. Lament, knowing that I’ll never get to know or explore these places, even if only from the glow of a computer screen. Humility, at the fraction of an iota that is our world. Bewilderment, at the inconceivable scale of this one picture.

    Frustration at my fellow man, that we haven’t made exploration a priority, or for the many centuries that we slacked on science while imbibing the drug of religion. Or for the perennial refrain of ‘we need to fix our problems here first’.  I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that is a day which shall never come.  And besides, some of the answers to our problems will be discovered along the way into space.

    But I also feel more optimistic trains of thought when I look at these pictures. Wonder, at the vast unknown of what might be. Wild and deep wonder. Pride, that we have discovered this much, that we have these images to inspire us in the first place. And hope that someday our distant, distant descendants will someday begin their charting of the stars, drawing new maps of what’s out there and filling endless encyclopedias with their discoveries. And it’s also a bit reassuring to think that there are surely many races and civilizations out there already doing it. Surfing the nebulae. Circumnavigating the Milky Way. Having races, just for fun, around the obstacle courses of our cosmos.

    Oh how great it would be to join in such voyages.

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