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:
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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