2006.01.16 Chasing the Cosmic Jellyfish

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Space Telescopes Capture a Cosmic Jellyfish.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of headline that grabs my attention. You know it’s not going to be as good as it sounds—there isn’t really a giant jellyfish in outer space—but it still makes me want to take a closer look.

What actually happened is this: Astronomers have taken multi-wavelength images of the Cartwheel galaxy and it looks like a cosmic jellyfish pulsing with light. It shows concentric rings and each ring represents a wave of star birth. The Cartwheel galaxy is about two and a half times larger than our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Is this when I begin to lose you? Too confusing? Don’t give up yet.

Sure, it’s baffling to look up at the night sky and see thousands of stars, and know there are actually at least 250 billion stars in our galaxy—and then learn there are a few other galaxies out there. An international team of astronomers is joining efforts to study the 300 closest galaxies, but an estimate from a few years ago says there are at least 125 billion galaxies.

To summarize, our sun is one of at least 250 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of at least 125 billion.

All right, you can go now if you wish, but you might want to stick around for other baffling stuff.

Here’s a roundup of some of the latest from Out There:

• A neutron star near the center of the Milky Way is spinning 716 times a second. That not only sets a record, but it exceeds what was thought to be physically possible.

• The fringes of the Milky Way ruffle like a tablecloth in the breeze.

• The Milky Way continues to grow by cannibalizing its neighbors. Currently, we’re eating a dwarf galaxy.

• Scientists are watching the collision of two galaxies that might show how the Milky Way will end. In fact, they think in about 5 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with our neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

“This is quite scary,” said British astronomer Ian Robson. The light show is fantastic, he says, but “it sends shivers down my spine. Glad to say I won’t be around when the fireball happens.”

• The Milky Way isn’t being pulled toward the Great Attractor after all. We’re streaming to an even more massive point beyond. How did we make such a foolish mistake? There’s a lot of dust from a big cluster of galaxies that gets in the way. Scientists call it the Zone of Avoidance.

• The Milky Way appears to be made up of four spiraling arms that curve around the center like a pinwheel. Another tendril was found a couple of years ago, but it might be a few million stars broken off one of the main arms.

For years people have talked about how art precedes reality. In this case, ideas presented in science fiction later become part of mainstream science. There are a couple of well-respected physicists who are looking for some sort of signature left behind by a creator of the universe.

“If you could create a universe in your laboratory, wouldn’t you want to leave a message inside?” asks Steven Hsu of the University of Oregon.

If there were such a thing, says Hsu and colleague Tony Zee, it would probably be located in the cosmic microwave background radiation, a leftover from the Big Bang when matter and energy became distinct. They’re hoping for a “cosmic decoder ring” to answer the big questions in physics.

  Similar ideas have appeared in science fiction over the years. Some people see the creator of the universe in the usual comprehension of God. Others see the creator as some excellent engineer who was assigned to this galaxy and programmed the universal constants to create life. Others pooh-pooh the entire notion as humans’ desperate need to find some meaning to their existence.

A thought by the late writer Douglas Adams serves as a good closing to spinning neutron stars and feasting galaxies:

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

– Jan. 18, 2006

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