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.
Oh, and it’s my birthday today.
Hundred raging waters snare the lonely sigh
Hold your breath and clasp at Cassiopiea