The Helix Nebula is a popular pin-up for astronomy fans, thanks to clouds of gas and debris that make the planetary nebula look like the eye of God - or, for fans of "The Lord of the Rings," the eye of Sauron. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope have both taken turns producing glorious views of the Helix. Today, the Spitzer team released an even more dazzling infrared view - and as a result, there's a new dust-up over the old eye.
The reds and greens of the Helix's monstrous eye are color-coded to highlight a mystery: The infrared readings, made in 2004, have picked up the glow from a dusty disk surrounding the moribund white dwarf at the nebula's center. That's surprising to scientists, because they thought the dust surrounding the star should have been blown off in the stellar blast that created the nebula in the first place.
"The dust must be coming from comets that survived the death of their sun," the University of Arizona's Kate Su, the lead author of a research paper in the March 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, said in today's news release from the Spitzer team.
The Helix Nebula, which is about 700 light-years away from us in the constellation Aquarius, formed when a sunlike star blew off most of its outer layers. Most of the expelled gas and debris can be seen in the Spitzer image as a halo of blue-green streaks. The final layers of gas show up as the red "pupil" of the eye. The red ring at the center represents the dusty disk surrounding the nebula's parent star - something that astronomers hadn't picked up in previous images.
Su and her colleagues suggest that the dust now surrounding the star was churned up by comets smashing into each other in the chaotic aftermath of the stellar explosion. A similar phenomenon may well occur when our own sun blows up, billions of years from now.
The presence of all that material around the star may well explain yet another mystery surrounding the Helix Nebula. Past research has shown that the white dwarf was emitting surprisingly energetic X-rays - and scientists wondered where the oomph behind those X-rays was coming from.
You-Hua Chu, an astronomer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of Su's research team, said that material from the dusty disk might be falling onto the star and triggering the X-ray outbursts. "The high-energy X-rays were an unsolved mystery," Chu said in today's news release. "Now, we might have found an answer in the infrared."
For more about the mysterious Helix, read this archived Log item about the nebula's 3-D structure (including a very cool "Hubble Minute" video), as well as this one about a classic view of the eye. For more about planetary nebulae, click through this "Greatest Hits" slideshow. And if you're looking for more "Eye of God" candidates, check out the Hourglass Nebula and Fomalhaut's dusty disk.
"The scene, which spans 150 light-years, is about 17,000 light years away, so what we see now is how it actually looked 17,000 years ago."
How quaint. How wonderfully secular the measurements and the standard pop quotes around 'Hand.' Sort of like dropping the word 'allegedly' in front of the name of someone who was caught on tape boosting a fifth of Maker's Mark in the back of the store. I love the unremitting pressure to qualify the obvious in 21st century life. It's so high minded and sensitive. It's a pose that makes everyone who assumes it appear so advanced, so non-judgmental, especially when it comes to "the facts."
It's a funny thing about 'fact.' We've spun so far off center we've actually used fact to replace truth.
Indeed, there are whole industries dedicated to expunging truth with facts. This isn't really what the Enlightenment was hoping for when it set out to enlarge the edifice of fact in the search for truth, but facts are funny that way. Pile up enough into a "great complexity" and they can bury simple truths. Not that facts aren't an element of truth. They are. But they're not, as they say, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If you wish to see lies built of facts, you have only to look about you.
"We had the experience but missed the meaning." We look upon the lies of fact in order to miss the miracle. It's part of our disease, our Adam's Curse, that we can see the miracle and strive, immediately and with all our might, to shrink it down into "facts." Our tragedy is that this base struggle to evict the soul from its vessel does not avail us. We simply lack the power to disengage the soul and erase the miracle. Our struggle to do so only deforms us. It does not release us.
The miracle persists. It persists right in front of our eyes, in all that we see in every moment of life. It persists, infusing everything from the farthest roof beams spanning the vault of heaven deep down into the vibrating phase-changes of the atom, and deeper in still until, in either direction, the great chain of being seems to have no top and no bottom, but like the Ouroboros locked in a Möbius spin becomes a circle every returning in to the self-same spot.
Many of those who spend their lives studying cosmology, as well as many of those whose lives are spent studying subatomic particles, strings, charm, quarks and the ever expanding pantheon of mini-matter, have noted, sometimes only in passing and without pause, how close our most cutting-edge physics come to our most ancient metaphysics. And so, beneath all the vast drifts of data and the oceans of facts, we always seek, with instruments always more powerful, to look deeper in and further out. Suspecting, only sometimes and only in passing, that it is the same direction; that as Heraclitus knew, "The way up and the way down are one and the same."
We have always looked to the heavens for signs. It is what we do. And we have always sought to understand those signs to the best of our always limited ability;
"And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating...."
This photograph gleaned from one of our most powerful, modern, and oh-so-technical instruments is just the latest emblem out of a million years of signs from the heavens. And in the end it is seen, as it is seen here by me and by you, through the oldest of our instruments, the soul.
Do I, an exemplar of the most advanced culture in history, actually believe that this is the image, the manifestation, the fading photograph of the hand of God, the Supreme Being? Of course not. Not for a moment do I think that what I see in this image is that. I believe... no... I know for a fact that what I am seeing is merely gas and stars in a seemingly random arrangement shining in a narrow, very narrow, part of the spectrum so that, to my deeper mind and imagination, I pull together some vague shapes in the play of color on the void and relate it to what I have seen elsewhere, felt elsewhen -- and out of that produce a feeling, thought, in my mind that makes my eyes see what appears to be an impossible hand reaching across space long ago in exactly nowhere. It's a cosmic Rorschach image, a glowing gasblot somewhere in limitless space. That it is a 'hand' is impossible. It is even more impossible that it is even an image of a hand.
But that is not the most impossible thing about this image.
What is even more impossible than this utter impossibility is the fact that you see it too.
I know, from all the facts that I have learned, that if the Earth itself were positioned in relative space a few degrees this way or that, moving at a slightly different relative speed towards a slightly different point in the sky, with its local group of stars slightly tilted a bit this way or a bit that way, that the purely imaginary impression of this being a hand would disappear utterly. It might look like a dagger. It might look like a flower. It might look like nothing other than the random assortment of gas clouds that it most assuredly is. What it would not look like, given just a few minor (on the cosmic scale) variations is 'The Hand of God.'
And that's a stone cold fact. Note it. File it. Toss it to the top of the always rising mountain range of facts that we love to build as bulwarks against the dark.
But is it the truth?
Well, it is a true fact. But here's another.
After all the facts are filed, here I am and there you are. We're spinning about an immense ball of thermonuclear fire on the third stone out from the Sun. We're the end product, as of today, of a great chain of being stretching backwards in time for billions of years to a primordial spark that we do not know or understand. That spark created life here and began the long process to us. It began life that is -- as far as we know today for a fact -- the only life anywhere in the billions of light years we can see. (Yes, I know it is unlikely we are alone, but until we know differently for a fact, that's the fact.) We do not know the why of it all even though the persistence of the miracle whispers there must be a why. At the same time, it is highly likely that beings as limited as we obviously are will never know the why. The why is pretty much outside of science, barely within metaphysics, and above our evolution grade.
What we do know is that, because of how we are made and what we have become, through suffering, striving, effort and, yes, grace, that there are some six billion of us that can look at this strange image of gas and stars and somehow understand it as a hand. And that, at will, we can move our hands to write words such as these to reach across space and time and make others like us understand that although it looks like a hand it cannot possibly be one; that such a thing is utterly impossible.
If you don't think that's a miracle that surpasses all understanding, you simply don't have all the facts.