The Frontal Cortex

Old Light

This makes me feel very lonely:

The “Pillars of Creation” may be the most iconic Hubble photograph ever taken. “Located in the Eagle Nebula, the pillars are clouds of molecular hydrogen, light years in length, where new stars are being born,” says Aguilar. “However, recent discoveries indicate these pillars were destroyed by a massive nearby super nova some 6,000 years ago. This is a ghost image of a past cosmic disaster that we won’t see here on Earth for another thousand years or so-and a perfect example of the fact that everything we see in the universe is history.”

Isn’t that bleak? There’s the sheer, unfeeling vastness of the cosmos, which is always existentially depressing. But then there’s the idea that a humongous supernova can explode – and obliterate an insane amount of space – and I won’t even know about it for several thousand years. In memoriam:


Via kottke


  1. #1 bigTom
    June 30, 2008

    Some of the cultural icons of eternity are a bit disconcerting to the scientifically literate. “Unchanging like the rocks”, has got to be a bit disturbing to geologists. “Constant like the Northern Star”, Polaris is in fact a Cephid variable star, and there is evidence it may have a least doubled in brightness since ancient-Greek times.

  2. #2 PStryder
    June 30, 2008

    “There’s the sheer, unfeeling vastness of the cosmos, which is always existentially depressing.”

    I have never once felt existentially depressed when contemplating the sheer, unfeeling vastness of the cosmos. I do feel awe, wonder, and curiosity, but never depression. Mayhaps your feeling of existential depression has more to with you than with the sheer, unfeeling vastness of the cosmos.

  3. #3 Brian
    June 30, 2008

    Forgive me for seeming ignorant, but how could anyone know that these were destroyed 6000 years ago? What with the light taking another 1000 years to reach here and all.

  4. #4 Alex
    June 30, 2008

    yea i second that question

  5. #5 Alex Young
    June 30, 2008

    If the supernova happened between us and them, we’d see the supernova first, and the destruction second.

  6. #6 Seth Wilson
    June 30, 2008

    It is sad that this beautiful picture has “now” passed away, but no more sad than the passing of a beautiful sunset, whose colors and radiance we expect to be ephemeral. To me it’s an amazing and beautiful reflection of two truths: One, that this world, and our lives, are but passing fancies, and all our glory is like the flowers of the field that wither and fade away; and Two, that despite its ephemerality, the beauty, glory, and awesomeness of creation is an amazing reflection of its Creator, who, far from being ephemeral, is the very essence of eternal existence. Both the beauty and the ephemerality, then, point us to God–the beauty in its reflection of God, and the ephemerality in its contrast to the Eternal.

  7. #7 josh
    June 30, 2008

    @ Seth Wilson:

    Beauty doesn’t require god.

  8. #8 Jeremy
    June 30, 2008

    Hey, at least we got to see them.

  9. #9 flywheel
    June 30, 2008

    @ Seth Wilson.

    You meant “point us to The Mystery” didn’t you?

    Surely you did.

  10. #10 Neil Fiertel
    July 1, 2008

    I saw an Imax film on the powers of 2 and in it one travels away from the earth and out into the universe doubling distances every second and in no time at all we are out of the galaxy and moving out and it is that very feeling one gets in this wondrous film of calm and beauty and the context that all of our human worries, wars, existence itself is a figment, a temporary glitch in the entropy that will engulf everything eventually and rather than this making me feel depressed it does the opposite as I can say truthfully that my worries and that of all of us in this context is trivial to the extreme. The Universe is so vast and so complex and yet simple in its direction towards expansion and final dissolution and all things within it will be as nothing in a thousand thousand billion years. No one will remember, no one will be there to see it and no life and no stars will wink in this future. It will be perfect entropy and black and near zero Kelvin. So where is that religion and where is that bank account and where is that new car that one must have and where is well..where is that great belief in OUR importance? All gone. Does that depress? Not is joy to know that we are just a mote in all of this gigantic dance to the end of time.

  11. #11 yogi-one
    July 1, 2008

    What’s depressing about it?

    Ever try the expansion meditation – a mental exercise where you expand out the limits of your perceptions beyond your body, then your room, your home, your town, your district, your country, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, and all of space and it’s dimensions?

    Granted, it is an imagination-based mental exercise, but the feeling is one of great calmness, acceptance, joy, and a hint of what it must be like to experience vast time scales.

    No, I think contemplating the vastness of the cosmos is definitely a spiritual experience, whether or not a god is part of that for you.

    What a release it is to know that all the piddly stuff I occupy my feeble brain with is not, in the final analysis, all that important.

    It lightens up life considerably and enhances my appreciation and sense of humor.

    Not taking all my little miseries so seriously, and all that, fully applies.

  12. #12 Tim
    July 1, 2008

    The reason they know it’s now gone is that they can see that the temperature of the gas is (or, rather, was) rising in such a way that it was almost certainly due to a supernova in the nebula that blew about 8000 years ago. The shock wave from that explosion, now (from our pov) heating the gas will blow most of it away in another 1000 years (from our pov: it already happened 6000 years ago).

  13. #13 website design
    July 2, 2008

    A more unnerving thing is that if some cosmic event or shockwave was heading our way, we wouldn’t know about until it was to late.

  14. #14 Tim
    July 2, 2008

    Not necessarily true, website design. Electromagnetic radiation travels much faster than a compression wave through gas. This is why it’ll take the supernova in the Eagle Nebula about 2000 years to expand and blow away the nebula, but only 7000 years for the light from it to get from there to here, although that distance is many, many, many times greater than 3.5 times the size of the nebula.

    So we might be warned of an encroaching compression wave if we first see the electromagnetic signs of gas being heated by it (which travel faster than the compression does).

  15. #15 Candy Day
    July 3, 2008

    Tim’s right! We’ll have warning! We’ll have plenty of time to–well, to . . . umm, pack, or to, um . . . Well, we’ll have plenty of time.

  16. #16 Steve Silberman
    July 6, 2008

    There’s a beautiful moment in Laurie Anderson’s new show Homeland, which I highly recommend you see if you can, when she sings, “Ah, dead stars… their light trapped in time.”

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    November 8, 2011

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