Because I'm writing this in the last hours of the Trump presidency, and my other alternative is to become so anxious about what his followers might still do to fuck things up that I chew my fingernails till they bleed, today I'm going to focus on things that are very, very far from planet Earth.
Let's begin with the closest-to-home, three thousand light years away, which seems like it might be almost far enough for safety.
A new study of planetary nebulae -- gas and dust clouds that are what's left of stars that went supernova -- was the subject of a talk at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society last Friday. Using the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera, astronomers were able to photograph these amazing stellar remnants panchromatically (across the frequency spectrum of light). And what they're learning is changing a lot of what we thought we understood.
Take, for example, NGC 6302, better known as the Butterfly Nebula. It got its name because of symmetrical "wings" of debris that were thrown out when the central star blew up. Why it has this strange symmetry is probably due to the magnetic field of the central star, but what's most surprising is that what astronomers thought was the central star doesn't seem to be, but is simply a white dwarf much closer to the Earth that happens to lie between us and the nebula. Wherever the actual central star is, it's a doozy; from the spectral lines of the nebula, created when light from the star is absorbed and then re-emitted by the dust plumes, its surface is one of the hottest known, at a staggering 250,000 C. (By comparison, the surface of our own Sun is a paltry 6,000 C or so.)
Then there's NGC 7027, the Jewel Bug Nebula, which is also remarkable because of its symmetry -- depending on what feature you're looking at, it shows spherical symmetry (symmetry around the center, like a basketball), axis symmetry (symmetry around a line, like the letter T), or point symmetry (symmetry across a central point, like the letter N). It's simultaneously one of the brightest planetary nebulae and one of the smallest, and the new study confirms that it's a recently-formed object -- it's only six hundred years old. (Of course, since it's three thousand light years away, the structure is actually 3,600 years old; but what we're seeing is what it looked like when it was a mere six hundred.)"We're dissecting [planetary nebulae]," said Joel Kastner, a professor in the Rochester Institute of Technology's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and School of Physics and Astronomy. "We're able to see the effect of the dying central star in how it's shedding and shredding its ejected material. We're able to see that material that the central star has tossed away is being dominated by ionized gas, where it's dominated by cooler dust, and even how the hot gas is being ionized, whether by the star's UV or by collisions caused by its present, fast winds."
I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show. Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.
In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day. But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement. He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.
But Jordan refused to give up. After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty. Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.
She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life. If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read. You won't be able to put it down.
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