Science

Hold your breath and clasp at Cassiopiea

The Astronomy Picture of the Day for October 18, 2006 is a hauntingly beautiful bubble suspended in space, at the heart of which beats a star whose violent winds and radiation have expanded the shell. The photo was taken by French astrophotographer Eric Mouquet using a long exposure with hydrogen alpha light, useful in these instances since nebulae consist primarily of hydrogen.

You can see the Bubble Nebula with a telescope if you look near Cassiopeia, an Ethiopian queen cast into the sky as punishment for her vanity after she claimed her beauty surpassed that of the sea nymphs. Her attempts to appease Poseidon and his hungry sea monster (by chaining her daughter Andromeda to a rock) were foiled, so her punishment was to spend eternity chained to her throne circling the North Pole, dangling upside down six months of the year. Her husband Cepheus follows her. Both are visible from the northern hemisphere year-round, but late autumn is the best time to see them. Check around 9pm, when the sky is good and dark, and you can see the upended queen and her husband slowly passing through space, biding time by blowing bubbles until she finally understands the meaning of humility. I’ve included a drawing at the right to help you recognize them.

I hear some believers of pseudoscience talk of how scientists and skeptics have no wonder, and I hear some scientists and skeptics deride the value of myth. I think they’re all wrong. When I was young, I would pick up my dad’s astronomy magazines and page through them, skipping most of the long technical articles in favor of the photos. I liked to read about Venus because as a Libra, it was “my” planet. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the sky, whether I was seeing it up-close in the magazines or as a diamond pinprick in the early morning. I liked the constellation Lyra, the harp, which my dad pointed out to me while talking about the easily identifiable, fiery Vega. I liked Orion, visible in the deep black winter night. I’d think of him simultaneously chasing and being chased by Scorpio, hidden on the other side of the world.

These days, I’m just as fascinated by what is really out there, beyond the things we can imagine. This winter, I’ll look at Orion in the sky and first see the myth, the man holding a sword ready to kill. This rich fantasy that has grown throughout two millennia is a testament to the human mind’s ability to create its own worlds.

And then I’ll look more closely at just the sword Orion carries and I’ll see the reality: the Orion Nebula, the actual birthplace of new worlds. It’s a testament to the human mind’s will to explore and discover, and a constant reminder that no matter what we can come up with, no matter what stories we spin to pass the time, the Universe is always just one step ahead.

How humbling.

Oh, and it’s my birthday today.

Hundred raging waters snare the lonely sigh
Hold your breath and clasp at Cassiopiea

(Joanna Newsom)

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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16 Comments

  1. I'm certain I'm paraphrasing someone more important than myself when I say; Anyone that isn't awed by the very nature of the universe hasn't sufficiently studied it. I'm a skeptic not because I want to remove the wonder from the universe, but because I want to bask in it. Nothing is more wonderful in this world than coming one small step closer to understanding the true nature of how things work. Our bodies, Earth, our star system, our whole universe, each are filled with so many wonderful things to discover we could spend a whole lifetime studying just one small facet of one small part of our universe and still never learn every thing there is to know about it. To me nothing is more wonderful than this, and no one will convince me that studying nature takes the wonder out of it. To study nature doesn't take the wonder out, it finds the wonder already within.

    And happy birthday!

  2. Awe is a HUGE part of my skepticism. Thinking about Deep Time or the size of the universe takes my breath away. Humility is how I characterize my response — I like how it feels. It is a good argument to those who accuse science nerds and skeptics of behaving as if we feel superior to those whose humility is linked to their belief in the supernatural.

    Thank you for the Birthday present :-)

    Eat more cake; life is short!

  3. Happy Birthday, hope you have a fun time.

    Myth can be really important, stories can resonate with such power when infused with myth, and common cultural references can deepen any story. I think many skeptics find a joy in stories of ancient gods, or of ghosts and the paranormal, but just get irked when people believe it's true. I can enjoy a Batman cartoon without believing it to be truth, can't I enjoy the bible too?

    BTW, Rebecca was on top form on the Skeptic's Guide last week (but Steve, we don't have time to test the theory!) and I do get a laugh from imagining the creationists with their Helium balloons. Everyone should check it out!

  4. Happy birthday Rebecca. I'm baking Anzac cookies tonight (co-incidentally for a friends birthday tomorrow) and I'll eat one in your name. And maybe have a drink because a don't like to let a chance pass me by.

    Have a great day.

  5. Happy birthday

    I'm sorry to admit that a girl is on her way who could never understand what you've written, or why I would read it.

    I do, and it was really sweat and intellegent and beautiful and great.

    I'm sure I'lll have to be hammered, to do her, before she arrives, I'm equally sure I'll manage…

    If it was MY birthday, I MAY just have an excuse, but it isn't and I don't.

    She's really, really cute though…(The only excuse most boys need, I re-iterate, boys…)

    I suck, I guess,

    Monkey sex? I guess so…

    That may just be an insult to monkeys.

    rod

  6. Happy birthday, Rebecca! And wonderful words about the necessity of wonder itself, from you, Anthony and slashnul. Stories don't have to be seen as literally true to get value from them. Books I read as a child still make me resonate with emotions, that seem scarcely dimmed from nearly forty years ago.

    From an early age I was taught that the world is brimming with wonder: plants, animals, the surge of the sea, the slow dance of clouds, other human beings. One's degree of skepticism has nothing to do with embracing wonder…

  7. Happy Birthday. Good post. Reality is cool. Imagination often produces seemingly reasonable theories that are applied in the form of pseudoscience, but reading about some of the science and maths breakthroughs it seems as if it's also important for creative rational thought. I guess the best rule of thumb is bet your life on science but don't bet your life on your imagination.

  8. As I'm reading this and watching TV (A rerun of the Colbert Report with Richard Dawkins), a commercial came on for Comcast which involved a monkey with a sledgehammer. It must be fate or god or some planetary alignment… oh wait, it's just the wonderful universe coming together. Neat.

  9. Well, maybe ignorance is bliss, but I'll never understand how ignorance can also be seen as a better mental state in which to view the world and be awed. The more you understand things around you, the more interesting it gets …

    I suppose ignorant people don't realize this because, … well … they're ignorant and haven't got a clue.

  10. Hiya Rebecca. I only just found you via Life of a Lab Rat and would have lurked for longer before commenting, but you share a birthday with my daughter so I had to offer you (belated) felicitations. Hope you had a great day.

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