The Center of our Galaxy


Just this morning I was lecturing about the history of the big bang theory and (by way of a tangent) mentioned how technology has allowed us see things that we could not have imagined – I specifically used a contrast between Messier’s view of his deep sky objects and the views we now have because of the HST and other systems. Above (by way of Phil Plaitt) is a composite image of the center of our galaxy – near-infrared from the HST, infrared from Spitzer, and X-ray from Chandra. Wander over to Phil’s place to read his (as always) wonderful explanation of the image. I’d like the highlight the following which very much encapsulates what I wanted my students to realize:

But this is home for us. It’s a place of unimaginable fury but also astonishing beauty… and we see it now as we do because we have dared to examine the world around us, to use tools we invent to peer closer, to magnify the tiny, to extend our eyes into realms we once didn’t even know existed. And every time we do — every single time — we find more questions, more puzzles, more things to examine.

It’s at times like this you truly see the wonder of science.


3 thoughts on “The Center of our Galaxy

  1. Wonder, hmm? Why not nausea, M. Roquentin? Or Angst?

    What is the object of your wonderment? Is it the image itself and the technical system and sophistication required to produce the image? Or is it the object depicted? Is it that some things in the universe like galactic centers have a particular nature? Or belong to a particular natural kind? Suppose I’m a philistine (well, you don’t have to pretend really): What exactly is so striking about the image? Is it the fact that there are things of such-and-such a kind? Is your wonder then directed to existence in general? To the sheer existence of anything at all? But doesn’t the thing which prompts this wonder (or nausea, or angst) hide itself from the scientist qua scientist all the time?

  2. The picture is important as well as beautiful, Joel. To some, like me, it contains both a powerful incentive and a welcome confirmation.

    It used to be, long ago, that a person would climb a hill or a tree in order to see further and to get a better idea of the lay of the land so as to plan a course from here to there. Along the way unexpected places are discovered.

    Later on, men started building tall structures which provided a wide field of view over many miles. Unexpected things, suspected things and surprising things are discovered.

    Balloons became a way to ascend quickly to even greater heights, exposing the landscape below from an uncommon perspective. The arrangements of forests and fields and water ways became evident and surprising relationships were observed.

    You know where I’m going; next to airplanes providing a higher vantage with the extra feature of being able to travel across a landscape which reveals even more of the nature of the land around us. Then rockets carrying cameras and rockets putting cameras in orbit that have expanded our visual horizons to mind stretching proportions. Finally we keep making these great eyes to peer out from here to the places we can’t yet go.

    Each of these elevations of human point of view has challenged our bravery as well as our ability to understand what we are looking at. And each of these stages can be said to have influenced human development by revealing new places to explore, new foods, new materials, new neighbors, new challenges and rewards.

    I’ve had the pleasure to become intimately familiar with several small and quite different areas of this planet. The commonality that unites their differences is that each place is made up of smaller places each occupied and exploited by distinct ecosystems. These smaller places are in turn made up of even smaller regions that are even more specific. Some of the most astounding places I’ve ever seen would fit inside a modest two story home; a couple would be comfortable in a bread box. Yet the complexity of the larger regions is not necessarily greater than that of the lesser. Only the scale is different.

    Finding such places is a great pleasure and source of insight for me. When I see this picture it confirms to me that the universe at large reflects this nested hierarchy of places. It is an amazing and puzzling image, to be sure. So was the other side of the mountain the first time someone went up to peer over the top. But it is not an unexpected view. By continually peering over the top humanity, you and I included, has learned to expect what might be seen from a slightly higher vantage, with slightly sharper eyes.

    This gives me great satisfaction. It gives another bit of authority to human knowledge and to our sense of place within an infinity of places. Knowing this, I am absolutely delighted to be human and part of an epic journey of discovery.

    I’ll admit that the experience can be a bit vertiginous at times, but I’ve never been nauseated by it. Perhaps you should take some Dramamine and look at the picture again. 8^)

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