Astronomy Imaging

June 9, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon for today's post.

In the Syntopicon (Astronomy and Cosmology chapter), Mortimer Adler notes that “Man has used astronomy to measure not only the passage of time or the course of a voyage, but also his position in the world, his power of knowing, his relation to God. When man first turns from himself and his immediate earthly surroundings to the larger universe of which he is a part, the object which presses on his vision is the overhanging firmament with its luminous bodies, moving with great basic regularity and, upon closer observation, with certain perplexing irregularities. Always abiding and always changing, the firmament, which provides man with the visible boundary of his universe, also becomes for him a basic, in fact, an inescapable, object of contemplation.” While this quote attempts to encapsulate stars' effect on the human imagination, it is still rather difficult to ascertain what exactly we feel when we gaze up at the heavens.

Astronomers are now able to gather data from such distances as boggle the mind. And at each turn, more questions arise. We wonder about human existence, about our fragility or stability, about life itself, and also about the supernatural. Somehow the vastness of space, the clarity of stars, and the unknowable processes of galaxies grab our imagination in a powerful way. This does not necessarily lead to questions of deities, but rather to our place among the vast and complex unknowns. For example, Lucretius invites contemplation of the heavens to inspire freedom from all constraints (such as religion). Ironically, for Lucretius, seeking vast unknowns can simultaneously turn our vision inward into a realm of peace.

However, in Plato, Timaeus says “Had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered.” For Timaeus, then, humans seek definitions. Words define our borders, which in turn, also allows us to approach the supernatural.

Imagining the non-existence of space is impossible for me. It would be as if the earth had no water. I am not sure if the stars exist solely to spark our imagination, or if they are meant to serve some higher purpose. All I know is that time spent looking at the heavens is never wasted.

Over the next few weeks, this blog will host a variety of astronomical images. All of the images and information come from Richard Johnson, amateur astronomer. We are indebted to Richard for compiling these wonderful images to further spark our imagination. A few textual citations from ancient astronomers will be sprinkled throughout. We hope you enjoy.

Andromeda Galaxy (M 31). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

Andromeda Galaxy (M 31). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).


- The Andromeda Galaxy (M 31) is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy being only 2.5 million light years (mly) from Earth. This nearby galaxy is a huge aggregation of stars, gas, and dust which allows us to study all the features of our own galaxy that we cannot observe because we are inside it. Although Andromeda is the largest galaxy of the local group, it may not be the most massive. Recent findings suggest that the Milky Way Galaxy contains more dark matter, implying that it is much denser than M 31. Observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006 revealed that M 31 contains one trillion stars, several times the number of our galaxy (estimated at 300 to 400 billion). The Andromeda Galaxy is approaching the Milky Way, and the two are expected to collide in about 2.5 billion years. A likely outcome of the collision is that the galaxies will merge to form a giant elliptical galaxy - a common event in large galaxy groups. The rate of star formation in the Milky Way is much higher than the Andromeda Galaxy. The rate of supernovae development in the Milky Way is also double that of the Andromeda Galaxy. This suggests that M 31 experienced a great star formation phase, but is now in a relative state of quiescence, whereas the Milky Way is experiencing more active star formation.


Pinwheel Galaxy (M 101). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson)

Pinwheel Galaxy (M 101). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson)

- M 101 Pinwheel Galaxy (NGC 5457) is a very large, relatively nearby, face-on spiral galaxy. M 101 is located in the constellation Ursa Major, at a distance of about 27 million light years from Earth as determined from the Hubble Space Telescope observations. M 101 is a large galaxy with a diameter of 170,000 ly, comparable in size to the Milky Way Galaxy. The galaxy is remarkably asymmetric due to the tidal forces from interactions with its companion galaxies, with its core considerably displaced from the center of its disk. Another remarkable property of this galaxy is its large number of star-forming H II regions. H II regions are enormous clouds of high density molecular hydrogen gas, ionized by large numbers of hot, bright, young stars forming within them.


Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51). (Photo credit: Richard Johnson).

- The Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51, NGC 5194) is one of the most conspicuous and best-known spiral galaxies in the sky. M 51 is located in the constellation Canes Venatici about 28 million light years (mly) from earth (distance estimates ranging from 15 and 35 mly). M 51 is interacting with its much smaller neighbor, NGC 5195. Visually, the two systems appear to be actually connected. However photographs of the system reveal that they are not connected as the dark dust lanes of the large spiral curve in front of the companion. It is thought that a black hole surrounded by a ring of dust exists at the heart of the spiral. The Whirlpool Galaxy reaches high altitudes throughout the northern hemisphere making it an accessible observing target from the early hours in the winter through the end of the spring season.

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The World Upside Down

October 14, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“So come out of your cave walking on your hands/ And see the world hanging upside down/ You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land” - Mumford and Sons, “The Cave”
“Without pride or delusion,/ the fault of attachment overcome,/ intent on the self within,/ their desires extinguished,/ freed from dualities,/ from joy and suffering,/ undeluded men/ reach that realm beyond change.” (The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna's Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man")

The Bhagavad Gita is written as a dialogue between the great warrior, Arjuna, and his spiritual leader, Krishna. Yet, the Fifteenth Teaching: "The True Spirit of Man", involves no true dialogue. Instead, Krishna explains man's spirit to Arjuna. Krishna begins the chapter with:

“Roots in the air, branches below,/ the tree of life is unchanging,/ they say, its leaves are hymns,/ and he who knows it knows sacred lore.
“Its branches/ stretch below and above,/ nourished by nature's qualities,/ budding with sense objects;/ aerial roots/ tangled in actions/ reach downward/ into the world of men.
“Its form is unknown here in the world/ unknown are its end,/ its beginning, its extent;/ cut down this tree/ that has such deep roots/ with the sharp ax/ of detachment.”

This idea of branches above and below, as if nurturing two different aspects of the world, is vital to this view of detachment. I am drawn to images that reflect this inner/outer phenomenon and the relevance of detaching. There is a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End in which Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) realizes the literal difference between sunset and sundown. Once he realizes that sundown is a direction, then he gets the crew to flip the ship. The next image is a switch of ocean and sky. This creates a new world, or at least, a new perspective on the world. It also mimics the idea presented in Plato's "Allegory of a Cave". The Allegory is one of the most widely read and discussed pieces of philosophy. It has numerous elements of interest, but for today's purpose, I wonder about the idea of human nature as set in his initial premise. Is it possible for the chained being to realize that there is more than what he can physically see and/or experience? Could the chained man realize a simpler answer without the physical removal of the cave? Could he instead, rise out of himself without ever having left the cave? Plato notes that these men in the cave would see shadows only and not reality. He writes, “[W]ould they not suppose they were naming what was actually before them?” While it is certainly true that we only know of a thing by its dimensions and sensory details, or by our experience of them, it is also true that the importance of names is important to the self. Therefore, the self is intrinsically involved in the naming of a thing. In other words, would the man in the cave be able to find that inner self which enables him to create names?

Action is vital in The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps because it is written to a warrior who is saddened by the current battle. Action, however, does not reflect the self so much as Krishna himself who physically leads the body towards a true destiny. In the Thirteenth Teaching of The Bhagavad Gita: “Knowing the Field”, Krishna states, “He who really sees/ that all actions are performed/ by nature alone and that the self/ is not an actor./ When he perceives the unity/ existing in separate creatures/ and how they expand from unity,/ he attains the infinite spirit.” The field is our current circumstance, or current existence and environment, whatever that may be. Action may not necessarily be physical, but in thinking, we also prepare.

The image of an upside-down world is all about changing perspective. About looking into a new place for answers, in some cases, perhaps the simplest of places. I suggest the interior self as the simplest, but also, ironically, the most complex, place to reach. In the introductory quote (“You can understand dependence when you know the maker's land”), then, the “maker's land” is understood to be the self, not the landscape. In this sense, the landscape merely offers a reflection of ourselves. And it claims that we gain an understanding of dependence, which I assume means on our need to continually find and understand our interior being. What we become dependent upon might depend upon the person. In The Bhagavad Gita, one becomes dependent upon seeking Krishna, who also represents things like knowledge, spirit, self and unity.

Perhaps another way of looking at this is through the idea of a vessel. Plato writes, “And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels”. These vessels are only visual objects for the chained men. However, if they have noticed the jars at all, then they have a reason for identifying it as separate from other things. Either the vessel contains intrinsic meaning or the chained men have located a meaning within themselves. We perceive, separate, and seek to know our world as best we can. Plato's allegory is only one attempt at perception. Knowing that there are many others, I end with this quote from “The Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens:

“The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild./ The jar was round upon the ground/ And tall and of a port in air.”


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