Sir Arthur Eddington said this of our cos­mos: “Not only is the uni­verse stranger than we imag­ine; it is stranger than we can imag­ine.” I was reminded today of that fact by an image I’d forgotten.

In an effort to reduce the bare­ness of the walls in Yoshi’s bed­room (as well as in an effort to lay the foun­da­tions for his ulti­mate nerdi­fi­ca­tion), I went on an image hunt, aim­ing for some good plan­e­tary graph­ics that I could turn into tabloid-​​sized posters. I googled Mars, the Moon, Venus and so on, and went look­ing for some Hubble shots as well.

I found some great art­work, includ­ing cylindrical-​​projection topo maps of Mars and Venus. This page yielded some great pics par­tic­u­larly, sug­gest­ing what Mars would have looked like if it still had water on its sur­face. Most of the con­ti­nen­tal mass would have been in the south­ern hemi­sphere, with the ocean a more or less solid body of water utterly dom­i­nat­ing the north­ern half of the planet.1

But I also came across this page from ESA, and specif­i­cally this image on that page:

Light Moves

What this ani­mated GIF is show­ing is the prop­a­ga­tion of light through con­cen­tric lay­ers of dust and gas sur­round­ing a dis­tant star. You are not see­ing motion from the actual dust or gas; what you’re see­ing is a burst of radi­ance — light itself — trav­el­ing through the mate­r­ial sur­round­ing the star.

I was amazed when I’d first encoun­tered these images a few years ago, and amazed all over again when I reflected on the fact that, in its 80-​​year his­tory, ani­ma­tion has never done this. What I mean is that no one, ever, in the his­tory of ani­ma­tion — cel, CGI or even flip­book — has once tried to ani­mate the motion of light through the cos­mos. Why would any­one even think of it? Light prop­a­gates in vac­uum at 300,000 Km/​sec, fast enough that (as Douglas Adams pointed out) it takes most civ­i­liza­tions mil­len­nia to real­ize light moves at all.

And yet, there the uni­verse is, calmly and qui­etly show­ing some­thing to us that no one on Earth had ever even imag­ined.

If this is what’s hap­pen­ing in ran­dom parts of the sky just when we hap­pen to be look­ing, think what else is going on out there that we just haven’t noticed yet.

You can have your angels and dev­ils. You can have your sto­ries of out-​​of-​​body travel. You can have your invis­i­ble pink uni­corns. When real­ity is suf­fi­cient to out­shine the most cre­ative fan­tasy, the only and cor­rect response is one of silent, appre­cia­tive awe, along with the thrill of under­stand­ing what you’re see­ing — and thus being able to appre­ci­ate it even more.


1. Looking at the ter­rain maps I real­ized that the Hellas impact basin is almost 180 degrees in oppo­si­tion to the Syria Planum fea­ture, which is a rel­a­tively large promon­tory from which both the Mariner Valleys and the Tharsis Montes and Olympus Mons fea­tures all spring. Since we know Hellas is an aster­oid impact, I have to won­der if the bulge on Mars’ oppo­site face isn’t a direct result of that impact — if, indeed, the Valles Marineris or the vol­ca­noes would have even existed if not for the Hellas event.


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