Levels of amazement

We’re into astronomy to be wowed. I’ll do my best.
By | Published: June 2, 2022 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
This Hubble image of spiral galaxy NGC 1300 is stunning — and all in your head.
NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: P. Knezek (WIYN)

Amazement may be the top reason people are into astronomy. This amazement takes different forms. For example, telescopes open the door to visions that are visceral — but also mysterious. Why should a round, concentrated collection of white dots against a dark background inspire gasps as globular clusters do? Who can explain why Albireo never disappoints, though its contrasting star hues are mere pastels when compared to the saturated colors that nature provides in abundance elsewhere?

Beauty certainly generates amazement. But beauty is also difficult to quantify and, in our case, often telescopically obtainable only via dollar signs, with larger apertures resolving globulars that cheaper models see as mere blurry blobs. So instead, let’s focus on mental amazement, arguably astronomy’s specialty. I cannot know what you find most astounding in the astrophysics realm, so I’ll share what has most melted my mind over the past several decades.

A recently found box of yellowing astronomy columns and radio scripts published since 1974 shows that I’ve often repeated ideas and concepts I find astounding. I’ll bet we all shared many of these: In the ’70s it was relativity, especially anything involving light-speed. Even now, who among us can picture how each photon in a light beam aimed at a fast-departing rocket hits it at exactly the same speed as it did when the rocket wasn’t moving? How can light live in a realm independent of everything else?

In the ’80s, my focus when writing for Discover was usually observational marvels like the fact that visible meteors are only the size of apple seeds. In the ’90s, it was quantum phenomena, such as how an entangled electron “knows” its twin is being observed and assumes characteristics like spin that are opposite to its partner. The underlying mind-blow is that this “communication” happens instantaneously. There is no light-speed limitation. Observe such a photon or electron in a Cleveland lab and its twin in the Whirlpool Galaxy changes its own physical form in real time. That’s tough to accept without abandoning the reality of space and time, which then makes it pretty darn hard to picture the cosmos. Not to mention the implication of an instantaneous connection between two distant things. And where do you go with that?

Nowadays? Great minds from Isaac Newton to Werner Heisenberg to Roy Bishop have all been aware that we never see the external universe, but merely the inside of our brains, where visual images are created and perceived… And, well, I’m still getting used to that, too.

It’s easy enough to get what Newton meant when he wrote, “The rays are not colored.” I can grasp that actual light, being solely an amalgam of magnetic and electrical fields, is devoid of any inherent color or brightness. Since only our brains can generate the sensation of brightness and color, observations are always mental creations. That part is easy: It’s in every physiology book. But it’s quite another thing to overcome a lifetime of bias and truly realize that the Dumbbell Nebula’s visual existence happens entirely within the skull. To me, it’s as if the brain’s interior, previously regarded as black, mushy, and subjectively imperceptible, has actually been forever visible with every glance.

It gets much worse when you conclude the cosmos is physically interconnected with us, provided you trust the correlation between observers and outcomes that physics experiments such as the famous double slit have supported for decades. Beyond that, according to ideas from Stephen Hawking, John Wheeler, and other theoretical physicists, a past that is set in stone can’t be entirely ruled out. Perhaps it could even be as malleable as the future. Experiments have shown that it critically depends on our current observations and actions. Recent work even indicates — hold on — that independently flowing time doesn’t exist outside our perception.

In the ongoing can-you-top-this amazement contest, things have clearly gotten out of hand.