Beauty in violence

By Phil Plait | February 26, 2010 6:56 am

The European Southern Observatory just released a very pretty picture of the nebula NGC 346. Check this out:


I strongly urge you to click that to ennebulanate to the higher-res version; I had to shrink and compress it quite a bit to fit it here.

The picture is lovely, showing a star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own. The nebula’s about 200 light years across, and 200,000 light years away.

I won’t go into details; you can go to the ESO site for that. But there’s something I want to point out. The sharp wisps you see strewn this way and that inside the gas are due to vast and powerful winds of subatomic particles blowing from the surfaces of massive stars that are newly-born from that very gas. These streams slam into the gas, compressing it across trillions of kilometers, producing storm fronts that are thinner than a laboratory vacuum but are still so voluminous that the mass adds up to many times that of the Sun’s. Added to that is a flood of high-energy ultraviolet light from these massive stars, energy blasting out as they furiously churn out energy in their cores, leading ultimately to their demise in supernovae explosions.

So while you gaze at this nebula and wonder at its beauty, remember that in our Universe, beauty is borne by great violence. If there’s a life lesson in there I’m unaware of it. But it is worth pondering.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (12)

  1. Really beautiful – guess I found a new desktop wallpaper. :)

    Though it somehow looks to me like a blue fish with a pink Ninja Turtle head…


    Phil Plait:

    [R]emember that in our Universe, beauty is borne by great violence. If there’s a life lesson in there I’m unaware of it. But it is worth pondering.

    The lesson is: when creationists come banging on the school board door demanding “equal time”, kick them in the ‘family jewels’ department!

  3. Hm.

    So great violence bears beauty? As in, “Yo, nebula! I’ll put up wit’ ya if ya show me some o’ dat wispy luminescence dere! Else I’m gonna go supernova in yer face and blast ya from here to Andromeda!”

    Or, maybe beauty is born of great violence?
    BTW, is that a wee little planetary nebula toward the bottom of the image?

  4. GT

    Did you ever consider that perception of beauty is proportional to distance? On a human scale the proximate is more beautiful but on a cosmic scale it’s the inverse.

  5. SMC is where the action is.

    southern hemisphere has all the best stars, and both dwarf galaxies. Because until recently all the big telescopes were in the Northern Hemisphere, this stuff was relatively unobserved. Go ESO !!! Go Chile !!!

  6. Chris A.

    @GT (#4):
    “On a human scale the proximate is more beautiful…”

    I’m not sure I agree. While a face may be beautiful from a few meters away, close up you see the flaws in the complexion, etc.

    And, while I can appreciate the beauty of a scree slope, it typically pales in comparison to the beauty of the mountain on which it resides.

  7. It’s incredibly beautiful, but I don’t think there is any life lesson in it. We seem to be able to find beauty in almost anything that is several orders of magnitude different than our own scale – from galaxies to diatoms. We see beauty in things that look incredibly similar to us and incredibly dissimilar. I think the ranges in things we’re able to appreciate aesthetically is far more moving than how those things were created.

  8. The scale of things like this always blows my mind. A cloud of gas and dust 200 light years across. Streamers with more mass than the sun but still thin enough to be a vacuum.

    Just wrapping my head around the size of the Solar system is impressive enough for me. Space is just… BIG.

  9. Justus

    Are the stars we see in the picture of our own Galaxy or of the Small Magellanic Cloud, or both? Normally it’s quite clear what’s the case, now I’m not so sure.

  10. David K.

    I thought beauty in violence was when Buzz Aldrin punched Bart Sibrel.

  11. Aaron Mullinax

    Through the tempest of cosmic tides the hearts of man do reside
    In the violence worlds are formed
    Worlds destroyed
    Woe to be had in this revelation
    If not for the awesome beauty revealed
    For in the ashes of our predecessors
    We find ourselves
    At the whim of gravity
    And of nature.

  12. vivek raykar

    Beauty is in the fertile brain of the man who can envisage such pictures and distances
    Beauty lies in the laws of nature that give birth to such stupendous galaxies and brains that
    that give birth to the laws of nature.Beauty is fed back into the nature via beautiful brain
    that we have inherited from long evolution of living forms.It is such a wonder that a utilitarian brain can give us such wonderful vistas of time and space.Beauty of astronomy cannot be separated from beauty of evolution .All sciences participate in creating picture of the universe that is deeply satisfying to our innermost impulses and intellect.Hats off to bad astronomy that gives such wonderful interpretations of astronomical phenomena
    provoking sense of wonder .


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