Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Orion Nebula

Orion emerges as the nights grow cold. Nestled in his sword lies a stellar nursery, newborn stars so brilliantly blue-white I expect to hear noise as I gaze in the eyepiece.

The Great Nebula in Orion, a fantastic cloud of glowing hydrogen, lies 1500 light years away; hydrogen atoms excited by the ultraviolet light of infant stars, spitting photons as the hydrogen molecules relax. For over a millennium the photons travel through the emptiness, finally piercing through our atmosphere, then bouncing off my mirror.

1500 years going one direction, an instant in reverse.

The fantastic greenish structure, a green spidery web, a puff of smoke, crosses the eyepiece, moving with the deliberation of an aging ocean-liner, a reminder that I am on a planet that insists on spinning. I feel dizzy, break away from the eyepiece, steadying my gaze on the warm glow of a neighbor's window, trying not to fog up my eyepiece with my breath. It is cold tonight.

You can see it naked eye--a blush in Orion's sword, a little cloud, a nebula. Orion rules the wintry skies in the Northern hemisphere. Betelgeuse, the single biggest object I will see as I breathe, lies in the same constellation, a glowing red eye, complemented by the fiery blue of Rigel.

I went to elementary school in the States; I did not know the Great Nebula existed.
I went to high school in the United States, I never looked for the Great Nebula.
In college, I never talked to anyone about the Great Nebula.

Science gets a little funny about this, but we are all made of stardust. The Earth formed from the remnants of star formation. Man is of the dust, the dust from the stars.

(Ah, the crusty words of a cranky Christian? A pagan myth? No, the creation story of modern science...the pieces fit almost too well--the ancients preceding us were wiser than we know.)

Those of you who have gazed upon the Great Nebula know how words fail its description, the haunting glow of unexpected energy, mirroring the source of our creation. For those of you, particularly the young, who have missed the eerie glow, find someone to show it to you.

For all the marvel of words and videos and music and cell phones, some things, though visible, remain beyond our comprehension.

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