Bad Astronomy

Beauty in violence

The European Southern Observatory just released a very pretty picture of the nebula NGC 346. Check this out:

I strongly urge you to click that to ennebulanate to the higher-res version; I had to shrink and compress it quite a bit to fit it here.

The picture is lovely, showing a star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own. The nebula’s about 200 light years across, and 200,000 light years away.

I won’t go into details; you can go to the ESO site for that. But there’s something I want to point out. The sharp wisps you see strewn this way and that inside the gas are due to vast and powerful winds of subatomic particles blowing from the surfaces of massive stars that are newly-born from that very gas. These streams slam into the gas, compressing it across trillions of kilometers, producing storm fronts that are thinner than a laboratory vacuum but are still so voluminous that the mass adds up to many times that of the Sun’s. Added to that is a flood of high-energy ultraviolet light from these massive stars, energy blasting out as they furiously churn out energy in their cores, leading ultimately to their demise in supernovae explosions.

So while you gaze at this nebula and wonder at its beauty, remember that in our Universe, beauty is borne by great violence. If there’s a life lesson in there I’m unaware of it. But it is worth pondering.