I don’t believe in spirits, but I love the costumes, scary music and all that haunted stuff. I think it’s because Halloween was the ultimate kid holiday — one day a year when you could be wicked and get free candy. We all love a little mystery. It makes us wonder, sends chills up our spine. God knows, the world’s a mysterious place. The unknown fires our curiosity and motivates the scientifically minded to peel back the curtain for a look at what’s pulling the strings.
Some people think science takes the mystery out of life. Damn right it does! I like to board an airplane and know I’ll arrive at my destination with the least amount of mystery possible. But when it comes to say, photosynthesis, knowing that plants take nothing but sunshine, water and carbon dioxide to make a delicious peach evokes a sense of awe I find more spiritually and intellectually satisfying than a magical explanation. Science is cool because it provides a necessary underpinning of knowledge — derived from human curiosity — that fans the coals of the spirit. And it can surprise, too. Put us off guard. Every time I feel a little lost, I sense an educational moment in progress.
What am I going on about anyway? It’s Halloween, so let’s have some fun. Scary astronomy photos always pop up around this time, so I wanted to share a couple. The Screaming Skull Nebula — totally nuts. Or does it better resemble one of Stephen King’s clowns? What you’re really looking at is a photo of a distant cluster of thousands of galaxies taken by a specially designed orbiting telescope with x-ray vision. Instead of visible light, it sees everything in space by the x-rays the objects give off. The amazing thing about the image is that no galaxies are visible — surprise! They don’t emit enough x-rays to show up, but the hot gas circulating between the galaxies in the clusters releases copious amounts to create a vast, orange miasma of light.
Voids and glowing knots in just the right places give the photo a creepy vibe with two dark bubbles flanking a bright central source of x-ray emission that astronomers think is a supermassive black hole at the center of the cluster. Giant black holes like this one have now been found in nearly every galaxy we can study including our own Milky Way. Supermassive means that the amount of matter contained in the hole adds up to millions or even billions of solar masses.
Blasts of energized particles ejected from near the black hole expand into the cloud to create the dark bubbles that form the eyes and mouth. The nose is the weirdest past — it’s the x-ray shadow cast by one of the galaxies falling into the cluster’s center.
So does knowing what’s in the photo make it less amazing? More? Happy Halloween!
We’re about to uncover more mysteries soon when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft pulls up within 12 miles of the 1,600-foot (492-meter) asteroid Bennu on Dec. 3. Already, the spacecraft is close enough to show details that resemble those seen as the kilometer-wide Ryugu asteroid currently orbited by the Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft: a top-like shape and lots of boulders.