A First Image from the Herschel Telescope

22 June 2009

Monday


M51

Above is the just released photo of Galaxy M51 taken by the recently orbited Herschel telescope operated by the European Space Agency (ESA). We have become so accustomed to beautiful photographs of the cosmos like this that we scarcely pay any attention to them. We know by now that the universe is vast. We know that we are very small. We know that there any many surprising things out there, and probably many, many more surprising things to find.

An image is a special thing. Recently someone said to me, “Everyone loves pictures.” It is a simple statement, but very true. It has been remarked that the work of Benoit Mandelbrot with fractals made the use of illustrations once again legitimate in mathematics. After the nineteenth century revolution in rigor and the rapid growth of mathematical knowledge since then, illustrations as in Euclid came to be seen as an impediment to accurate understanding. And sometimes pictures obscure more than they enlighten. But there is something to the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.

I found myself looking closely at this new image from the new Herschel telescope, fascinated by it. Earlier pictures of M51 reveal little more than a rough spiral. In this new image, we can pick out individual stars. Indeed, we can easily count the largest, brightest stars along the spiral arms, as they clearly stand out and there are few enough that one doesn’t get confused and lose count. If there are civilizations in that galaxy, they must have marvelous constellations defined by these presumably enormous stars, and that one star at the top of the image seems to be brighter than any other in that galaxy. It would have a special place in the mythologies of the peoples of that galaxy. And the peoples of that galaxy, even if they do not know of each other, would nevertheless have something in common in virtue of their relation to this enormous star. We could, in this context, speak of a “family” of civilizations in this galaxy all influenced by the most prominent stellar feature of the galaxy of which they are a part.

The Herschel telescope is made to capture infrared and the far infrared, so we are primarily seeing heat in these images and not visible spectrum light, but there is a known correlation between stellar mass and luminosity, and these must be massive stars indeed, these couple of dozen giants that dot the spiral arms of M51.

If there are civilizations in M51 we won’t be hearing from them any time soon. While the publicity materials that accompany the image speak of this being a relatively “close” galaxy at about 35 million lights years away, which is close by cosmological standards, this is a distance that must be measured in geological time scales. The light that is reaching us now from M51 was emitted from its stars in the Oligocene Epoch in the late Paleogene Period. That’s a little more than half the time that has elapsed since the K-T extinction event that spelled the doom of the dinosaurs.

While this is not an inconceivable period of time — contemporary science provides our minds with the tools to stretch them to this extent, if only we will make the effort — it is nevertheless a very long period of time. Many species can emerge, flourish, and become extinct in this period of time. In fact, we emerged late during this past 35 million years, and many other species with us.

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2 Responses to “A First Image from the Herschel Telescope”

  1. bwinwnbwi said

    Reading your cosmology blogs brought back an entire lifetime of pleasurable memories. Self-studies, (and most of my studies have been in the pursuit of my own interests) tend to fade from memory until some specific event triggers a synapse or two. Let’s just say, I experienced a plethora of stimulation just now (my memories of reading the series of books Bertrand Russell published late in life were especially satisfying). Thanks for that!

    • geopolicraticus said

      I’m very pleased to know that something that I’ve written should be the occasion for the triggering of welcome memories.

      Best,

      Nick

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