Strange Clouds

Sometime during the late nineties, my father bought a telescope. It was for my benefit, for I had been learning about outer space in my first grade class and had developed a fascination for what existed beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Some nights, he and I would go out and point the obsidian black, tubular instrument at the sky. Our only guide was star-speckled sky maps that my father had printed off onto crinkling copy paper. One night stands out in particular. I know that it was winter because of the biting cold. My father had pointed our telescope towards the Orion the Hunter's mighty belt, and after some adjustment, told me to take a look at the Orion Nebula.

It didn't look like the hyper detailed pictures in Sky and Telescope Magazine at all. Instead, it appeared as if someone had tried to hastily wipe away a spilled blotch of cream from a piece of black fabric and couldn't help but leave a faint, white reminder behind. Nonetheless, I was overjoyed and I felt as if my father had imparted on me some secret scientific wisdom. This was my cosmic discovery, my Orion Nebula. Never mind that plenty of other people had seen it before me.

The word nebula itself comes from the Latin word for mist. This is a misnomer because nebulae are not clouds as we know them. Throughout the universe, between and around the stars, are great quantities of gasses and dust. They are not distributed in a uniform fashion, and when they clump together, they form a nebula. Just explaining the existence of these strange clouds is not enough for the typical human, however. We are organized beings who love to classify and analyze in order to make sense of our strange and vast universe.

Enter fifth grade me, standing before a tri-fold poster covered in dazzling photographs of nebulae. While making little rainbows with the plastic prism and flashlight that my father had given me for the occasion, I began to explain that nebulae are classified based on the specific way in which they are born.

The Supernova Remnant is a child born of violence. Stars die, eternal though they seem to short-lived creatures like us. When a star is particularly large, it will one day commit a sort of cosmic suicide by exploding. Outward from the site of the explosion blooms a flower of colorful, luminous gas. The Crab Nebula is an example of one of these. It was born of a supernova explosion that occurred in 1054, and looks more like a lopsided human iris than a crustacean.

Smaller, meeker stars choose to go quietly by expelling gas and shrinking down to a humble white dwarf. Their deaths are not in vain, however, for around their spent bodies form glowing rings called Planetary Nebulae. Perhaps the most famous Planetary Nebula is the Ring Nebula. This bizarre astronomical object always looked to me like a cosmic owl peering from a red and green ringed tree hole. Sometimes, I find myself wondering whether or not it can actually see.

Other varieties of nebulae are just clouds of gas and dust lucky enough to be lit by the bright objects around them. The hot gas clouds of Emission Nebulae tend to be the hungriest. They are energized when they devour the ultraviolet light of a star nearby. In spite of the generosity of said star, these nebulae wastefully spit their nourishment out in a lower energy state: visible light. The Lagoon Nebula, a graceful rosette of delicate magenta clouds, is an Emission Nebula that shows off its vain beauty from the constellation Sagittarius. Curiously, the owlish Ring Nebula is classified as not only a Planetary Nebula, but also an Emission Nebula.

In contrast to nebulae like these are Reflection Nebulae: the wallflowers of the nebula world. These humble clouds of dust are mimics who reflect the light of their neighbor stars, making them little more than beautiful copycats. The Iris Nebula is a purple and blue Reflection Nebula showing off its gracious petals in the constellation known as Cepheus.

Then there are Dark Nebulae. Astronomers used to believe that these were holes in heaven, but now the scientific community has grown far less naïve. These nebulae are globs of dust so desperate for attention that they prefer to stand in front of stars and other, more luminous nebulae. They are the cosmic equivalent to people who stand in movie theaters and leave perfect (and irritating) silhouettes against the screen. The Horsehead Nebula is one of these. It is named as such because it resembles the black silhouette of a mare swimming through a dark, steaming sea.

After reading about these classifications of nebulae, one would begin to understand that they are cosmic entities that are more complex than the tri-fold poster board that I created to explain them to other children. Humans, who often require the simplification of big things in order to fathom them, have opted to name and own nebulae. One of the first people to do this was Charles Messier, a French astronomer. Messier was searching the heavens for comets, and devised a simple cataloguing system for nebulae so that he wouldn't confuse them with his closer, more mobile prey. Their new names began with an M (which stands for Messier Object) and a number. The Ring Nebula mentioned earlier, for example, is called M57 under this system. Even still, people prefer more organic sounding names for nebulae and will base these on what earthly object the cloud in question resembles. This whimsical naming system proves problematic, however, because the resemblance to an Earth object can only be seen from our two-dimensional telescope view of them. My description of the Orion Nebula as a cream spill would not work if I had looked at it from the center of the Milky Way rather than our Solar System's quiet neighborhood in one of the galactic arms. What once looked like a splotch might change into a serpent or unicorn. It's a matter of perspective, really.

Nebulae may be far-flung interstellar objects, but that doesn't stop people from claiming to have "discovered" and therefore, own them. The explosion that brought forth the Crab Nebula was viewed as a curious, bright object in the sky by Chinese astronomers in 1054. In 1731, however, John Bevin first observed the nebula and decided that it was his discovery in spite of the fact that the Chinese astronomers before him had been there at the time of the Crab Nebula's birth. Another nebula of disputed "ownership" is the Horsehead Nebula. Williamina Fleming, a Scottish astronomer who worked in the Harvard College Observatory for Professor Edward Charles Pickering, discovered it during the nineteenth century. Of course, being a woman, she was not credited with its discovery until recent decades. Sometimes, I wonder if she cried at night while pondering the discovery's attribution to "Pickering". Did she sit on her bed, head in her hands, lamenting the theft of her cosmic discovery? Victorian gender politics had stolen the interstellar swimming mare away from her.

Today, nebulae have become even more of a commodity than they were in the past. NASA's photograph of a portion of the Eagle Nebula, aptly titled "The Pillars of Creation", graces desktop backgrounds and posters everywhere. The green, billowing pillars, which have been described as stellar nurseries due to their ability to form stars, have been reduced to a flat, two-dimensional collection of pixels on a screen. People have seen them so many times, often out of context, that they have become desensitized to their beauty and importance.

Pictures of nebulae in general have become public domain, and are often used as pre-packaged sources of shallow wonder. There was an oft mocked and parodied trend among the "hipster" subculture on the internet that sprang fourth from this commodification of the nebula. A simple image, perhaps of a bunch of girls in high-wasted shorts molding their lips into duck bills, would have been covered by rapid, flashing images of nebulae. Pretentious text written in Helvetica ("in that moment, I swear we were infinite") would have topped it off. Clearly, cheapening profound pieces of astrophotography into flashing fashion statements got you "indie cred" on the internet for a while.

What the people who overuse and abuse these photographs don't understand is the fact that they do not show the whole truth. The pictured nebulae appear to be shiny and luminous, like glitter spilled in irregular patterns on a black piece of paper. Like the Orion Nebula that I saw versus the picture in Sky and Telescope, the real thing is not as bright as the copy. The apparent luminosity of these nebulae comes from long exposure on the part of the camera, making the picture more marketable. Pictures like these also shrink the nebulae down a great deal. If I were to go into space, visit the Orion Nebula and hold up the magazine page that I mentioned earlier, then the photo would appear microscopic next to the Orion Nebula, which is an object much larger than our Solar System.

It is sad, but we humans have a difficult time understanding the importance of nebulae. It is likely that they are the raw material used to build our Sun, our Solar System, and even our bodies. We might be all that's left of a nebula that disappeared long before the appearance of the first life on Earth. We may be composed of once gaseous atoms that condensed into proteins, amino acids, cells, flesh, and bones. Nebulae may, in fact, be both our mothers and brethren, floating by our sides through the vast sea of stars that is our universe. We can name, classify and simplify them, but like parents whose college years remain hidden from their children, there is much more to them than what we see.

When I entered High School, I began to leave my little earth bubble and understand just how vast and complicated the cosmos is. I had developed higher knowledge that wasn't present when I was a kid, and began to understand just how mammoth and interconnected the universe is. In one of my English classes, I was introduced to the concept of the Sublime in Romanticism. The Sublime is the idea that nature can inspire awe and even terror when one thinks hard enough about its beauty and implications. This is a literary term, but I have found that it does a great job of describing the universe, and yes, nebulae. We, as humans, have learned that the universe itself is infinitely big. Yet, despite this knowledge, we are unable to fathom infinity itself. Even objects that are large rather than infinite, such as nebulae the size of trillions of Solar Systems, remain out of our mental reach. It is this realization that makes us feel so tiny and helpless. We are puny creatures living on a small rock orbiting a medium sized star. It seems that every other astronomical object or event is out to kill us: from asteroids to solar storms. Everything, nebulae included, lives for billions of years, whereas we are lucky if we reach nine decades of life. To make matters worse, all of this knowledge was thrust upon us not long ago. In fact, it took us centuries to learn that we on Earth are not at the center of the universe. But we still hold onto our arrogance and choose to ignore the awful power of our cosmic neighbors. As a species, we believe that we are the most important thing in the universe because we can walk upright and use tools. For us, simple is good because we cannot control that which is complex. We would rather look at photographs of a section of a nebula than study the entire object. We want to name, own, and simplify these distant clouds from the time that we are small to the time that we grow old and ragged. Indeed, our treatment of nebulae speaks volumes of our naïve cowardice. In order to grow more as a species, we must stop thinking of nebulae as sterile, pre-packaged photographs that we can print off and glue to a tri-fold poster. No, nebulae are massive, creative forces.

It has taken me 26 years to begin to notice the scale and importance of the little, white smudge in Orion's Belt, and I can't thank my father enough for showing it to me. The Orion Nebula will never belong to me or to anybody else. In some ways, however, we may belong to it. That's profound.