Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Pillars of Creation, Time Travel, and Hangover Physics

This weekend is special for any a number of reasons. For one thing, it's the first time in forever I get to see my lovely, and it's the first time in about as long that I've woken up on a Sunday morning with a hangover and major craving for a nice, buttery roll.

It's also special, because this is the weekend I'm going to blow your mind, courtesy of help from Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo, who pointed my attention in the direction of a very special, very powerful demonstration, in real-time, of how Relativity works, and the implications of that discrepancy.

Hubble Telescope Image
This image to the right is of a feature called an Elephant Trunk, a formation of gas within a nebula. In this case, these are the poetically-named Pillars of Creation, located within the Eagle Nebula, and about 7000 light-years away from Earth, and us. That means this photograph is actually a form of time-travel, a snapshot of a 7000-year past state, a state that we are learning no longer exists.

Light travels at an absolute and known constant speed through, which is the maximum speed for the universe. This speed is actually so well known that it is considered to be a fundamental physical constant and is normally expressed with the mathematical constant, c, in place of the actually number, which is on the order of ten-millions of metres per second. A key implication of that law is that information (in its precise physical sense) cannot be transmitted faster than light either.

A star, 6000 light-years from us, and about 1000 light years from the Pillars of Creation superstructure, was recently noticed to have "gone nova", exploding as a supernova, which is, for all intents and purposes, the largest of explosions in our universe. The explosion is expected to reach and destroy the Pillars' structure, something we'll see a thousand years or so from now. Which means, in 1000 years, the pillars of creation will have been destroyed.

Here's the thing, now: the light that shows them being destroyed will reach earth 1000 years from now. That light had to travel 7000 light-years to get here, which means, in actuality, that the pillars were destroyed 7000 years before... or 6000 years ago. We discovered the pillars with the Hubble Space Telescope, sometime between 1990 and now... so we discovered them about 5900 years or so after they were destroyed.

Though their majesty would be lost to real-time viewing in future generations, images of the Pillars of Creation will not be their only legacy. It is the current understanding of astronomical theory that the pressure of such blasts, moving through nebulae, helps to induce the dust and gasses to coalesce into stars and planets, beginning the cycle anew. For what might well be the first time in human history, we'll have an opportunity to watch, over hundreds and thousands of years, as that happens.

I love living in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment