Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bigger than the 2010 Election

Image credit:  NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
     With all the excitement of last week’s Republican electoral triumph, which jaded experience suggests owed more to unemployment than to ideological conversion, it is worth noting that NASA has announced something much, much bigger than a 67-seat swing in the House of Representatives. While here in the United States very little can compare to the welcome political shift, above and below the center of our Milky Way galaxy astronomers have identified stupendously large twin globes of bubbling energy that simply dwarf our entire planet.

     These energy globes redefine huge. Extending about 25,000 light years above and below the center of the Milky Way, they were completely unsuspected until their recent discovery. They appear to be composed of gamma ray radiation, the most energetic form of light we know. We don’t know what caused them, but plausible theories might include the consumption of whole stars by the galaxy’s central black hole. Black hole feeding is thought to be the cause of the quasars, the most energetic objects known to science. Perhaps the gamma bubbles are remnants of some messy eating as the black hole slurped down a few extra suns, like an afternoon snack. Science has no definitive answer—yet.

     The best news? The bubbles are too far away to do us any harm, but near enough to be interesting. It’s a little like watching a volcanic eruption from a safe distance—riveting, but harmless. And once more, we must agree with Hamlet that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

     Of no immediate practical value, the discovery nonetheless will sharpen humanity’s knowledge of nature. Who knows where that will lead? In the meantime, the sheer immensity of the objects might serve to blunt the political hyperbole by reminding some of us just how tiny our little world is, with its ebb and flow of political fortune. At the same time, the immense globes of energy are also sterile features of a nearly lifeless universe. We here on Earth, with our petty politics and culture wars and fast-food toys (except in San Francisco), are the only (arguably) intelligent life known to us. For religious skeptics, then, this latest discovery should help create the perspective necessary for sound judgment of our affairs and remind us how important it is to get things right. Too bad there are not more religious skeptics in power.


  1. Yes, it's a spectacular image. But I am always suspicious when pretty colors are inserted by human hands (gamma rays are invisible of course), and obviously it's not a photograph taken from outside our galaxy, so it's a constructed image based on a string of boring numbers! Or is my skepticism getting out of hand?

  2. A picture is worth a thousand...numbers?