Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope
Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
I often find myself in idle contemplation of the universe. Looking up on a clear night, I can see about 10,000 stars, each one demonstrating to me the finite and the infinite that lies beyond our tiny planet. I think this is one of the common experiences of all humans, to look and wonder.
My interest has inspired an ongoing quest for knowledge about what lies Out There, and that knowledge has continually fed my imagination. But in the contemplation of that universe, I have also been able to frame answers to some of my more earth-bound concerns.
The universe has no fixed reference point. Everything is in motion, and the only accurate thing we can measure is how far we are from a certain object, and how fast we are approaching or receding. For people whose life is a constant measure of movement to or from a point in space or time, this is truly a difficult thing to understand. For example, in the time it takes for earth to complete one orbit of the sun, the solar system, which is also in motion, has traveled about 24 billion miles through space. When we take two weeks off from work and do the "stay-cation," we actually have traveled some 910 million miles. Too bad we can't get frequent flyer credits for that.
But the universe, and all the objects within, is not in a static condition. It's not just that stars and galaxies are in motion, they are constantly changing. With an inexpensive telescope, one can point it at the constellation of Orion the Hunter and see in the "sword" portion of that group a place that glows in molecular gases.
Within the dark cloud of the well-known Horsehead Nebula, gas and dust is being compressed and heated. Eventually, stars will form here. If you had the patience, and the lifespan, to watch this cloud, you would be witness to stellar creation.
This is barred spiral galaxy M95, about 38 million light years from earth, one of billions of such collections of stars and planets. If you look to the lower right side in the middle of that outlying spiral arm, you can see a bright point of light. This object has been named Supernova 2012AW. This was a massive, unstable star that blew itself up, in a titanic blast that outshines the rest of its parent galaxy. Throughout the known universe, hundreds of stars blow up every day in titanic, catastrophic explosions so energetic they can be detected millions, sometimes billions of light years away. We can assume that when that happens, any planets that the star would have would also be destroyed, including any beings that might live there. One cannot conceive of a more terrible disaster. Yet, as the remnants of that dead star expand out into space, that energy encounters gasses and dust. When the blast wave hits, the gas and dust are compressed into objects which compress to the point where nuclear ignition takes place. The death of one star can give birth to tens of new stars, and thus the cycle of creation starts anew.
This is Westerlund two, the remains of several destroyed stars, a relatively close twenty thousand light years away. But up here, you see this bright cluster, these are new stars that were born out of the debris of the old ones. And down to the lower left, if you look carefully, you can see signs in the telltale columns that the dust and gasses are beginning to compress into new stars.
This picture is generally agreed to be one of the most dramatic images ever produced by the Hubble Space Telescope. Here in this magnificent close-up we see what have been called the Pillars of Creation. The tallest one on the left is just over 4 light years tall. To give you some perspective, that’s the same as the distance between earth and the nearest other star to us, Alpha Centauri. You can see now clearly these nodules of dust where new stars are being born. And if these new stars are the right kind, long-lived main sequence stars like our Sun, then the leftover dust could form planets. And maybe – just maybe – life. This is a magnificent image, and the knowledge of the titanic forces at work here only enhances our appreciation of its undeniable beauty. But remember that stars can only form from the gas, dust, and molecular elements that are left over from previous dead stars. Despite this inconceivable energy of destruction, something new has taken its place.
Humans go through tough times. Those challenges can be physical, mental, and emotional. In our lives we will all experience some kind of personal disaster. Inside, we feel like a star has exploded. And we are left drifting in the debris. In the wake of our tragedies, we try to gather the debris of our old life and use it to start a new life. In that critical mass, our light shines once more.
The Appalachian Trail has two endpoints, Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and Springer Mountain in Georgia, separated by some 2,200 miles of often arduous trails. But in between are hundreds of places where you can park your car, walk a couple hundred yards, and access the trail. The great thing is that wherever that point is, that's where the trail begins for you.
New Years is traditionally a point in time when people decide to make changes in their lives. The arrival of the New Year has become a time of reflection and hope for many. It is a moment when people make the effort to put the past behind and dwell on the unspoiled hope of the future.
The turning of the calendar has always been seen as a time of renewal and rebirth; a convenient chronological waypoint where we can rid ourselves of the accumulated baggage of old attitudes and bad habits. But as convenient as January 1st is, nobody really needs that kind of marker to start anew. Like the AT, you can start wherever or whenever you are motivated to do so. All humans go through tough times, whether imposed or self-generated. But we have the power and the freedom to decide to take a new path.
The pain of our past doesn't necessarily have to be the pain of our future. We cannot ignore what has happened to us before. After all, that experience has shaped us. But we can purposefully decide to take a new direction, change those things about us that fed that dark time, and firmly face the potential glow of a positive future.
The raw material for stars is the debris left over from the destruction of what existed before. We can use the debris of our past lives in a positive way to shape a better tomorrow. It will take effort and commitment; after all, the easiest thing in life is to coast. But we all have a new life inside of us. All we have to do is call it forth and make it shine.
Don't wait for a square on a calendar. Seize the moment, the "now" that each of us has available. Author Mary Shelley wrote, "The beginning is always today." If you doubt that, just look up into the night sky and know that out there from the debris of destruction, tens of thousands of stars are just beginning to shine.
For you as well, it is time to rise, shine, and light your world with hope.