A Simple Question

In all seriousness, I’m curious. And I have a question that I invite astronomers, physicists, or mathematicians, none of which I am — beyond that of a lay person’s dabbling, — to answer. By way of preface, I watched a number of you tube explanations of an expanding universe in hopes of finding an answer to the question I’m about to ask. Some were  fascinating, some were boring. But two different approaches to explaining what scientists think we know, while effectively demonstrating expansion, clearly illustrated the nature of the problem the question addresses.

The expansion of the universe is at the heart of the inquiry. One of the explanations invites us to consider the universe as a balloon. Dots on the balloon represent the galaxies. As the air fills the balloon, it expands and the dots move farther and farther apart. The other explanation, which I like better because it illustrates the same principle in a more realistic, complex way, compares the universe to a loaf of raisin bread baking in the oven. As the bread rises, the raisins separate and move farther apart throughout the loaf.

So now to the question. We know for a fact that galaxies collide. The Hubble Space Telescope, named for the astronomer who gave us the concept of an expanding universe, has captured images of it  happening.

 

The collisions are dramatic, chaotic, beautiful, frightening, and at the heart of both endings and beginnings. We also know by witnessing the phenomenon of the red shift that the universe is not only expanding but doing so at a continuously increasing rate. All of which brings us to the question.

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Comets

Comet Hale Bopp

Comet Hale Bopp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the next few weeks, if it doesn’t destroy itself and the sun doesn’t burn it up, Comet ISON just may put on one hell of a show. Enthusiasts have already called it a “comet of the century” and dubbed it a “Great Comet.” Within just a few days, this very small space rock — only about three miles across — will slingshot around the sun, traveling at .2 the speed of light and passing within 730,000 miles of the sun’s surface. Using only gravity as a propellant, it will dance across our sky with a show that, if the predictions are even remotely accurate, will dazzle, amaze, and stay with you for a very long time.

Perhaps you’re already watching. Some people who rise early enough — at least an hour before dawn — and have a clear view of the lower eastern sky and have been tracking the comet with the aid of binoculars or a telescope have already formed a bond with this visitor from the outer reaches of our solar system. I know I’ve seen several comets in my life. But the one I most clearly remember and feel connected to is Hale-Bopp, the Great Comet  of 1997 that followed me half way around the world.

Hale-Bopp

We saw the comet Hale-Bopp stand still
Above the ocean at Ka’anapali Beach,
Just like the crow we saw one morning rise
In Boston, a black knight errant, holding still
Against the wind, and flapping its wings to stay
In place while others watched then rode the wind
Up through the sky — first one, then three, while the first
Held still, then dipped, then rose along their arc.

Again in Atlanta, we saw Hale-Bopp
And watched its tail that arced above Stone Mountain,
As stony as the frieze on the mountain’s face,
The infamous past held lifeless there until
A laser called it back and thundering hooves
Like in a page from Faulkner roared inside
The head of a thousand Hightowers then died
When floodlights splashed against the granite wall.

I once saw black Ogunquit sea birds skate
Across the water’s surface with their wings
Outstretched and necks pushed forward like a horse
Gaining speed to rise up from the waves,
A white spray arcing from their tails beneath
The granite cliffs and slate New England sky.

© Joseph Saling and The New Word Mechanic, 2004, 2013.

Our encounter with the visitor from afar, may be closer than we think.