Verner column: A day in the life … of the universe

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 11, 2009

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. ó Carl Sagan
Actually, the photos you see here don’t represent a single day in the life of the universe. They’re a montage of several different days, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope after it received a major tuneup last spring. The results, I think you’ll agree, were worth the effort.
Just as schools across the nation broadcast President Obama’s speech urging students to work hard and stay in school, I wish school systems would throw these images up onto widescreen, high-def TVs and invite students to ponder the stunning universe in which they live. Down here on planet Earth, we tend to focus too much on life’s muck and mire, while ignoring the heavenly vistas above. Or we tend to think of stars and planets engaged in a stately cyclical dance, rather than appreciating the universe as a violent cauldron of ongoing creation.
Want to inspire kids to reach for the stars? Introduce them to Omega Centauri, which contains almost 10 million of them. That should tell them something about the infinite possibilities of life. Or have them contemplate the Butterly Nebula, whose “wings” are actually superheated clouds of gas glowing at 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
It isn’t just the nation’s youth who could benefit from this expansion of perspective. Too often, we adults walk around with bowed backs and bent heads, slumped under the weight of the world. We look down rather than up. That’s a recent development in our evolution. For much of our species’ time on Earth, we looked to the skies, to the planets and stars, to give us guidance on our journeys, to help plan plantings and harvests, to gauge where we stood in the cycle of the seasons. Long before Galileo invented the first telescope in the 17th century ó the Hubble’s primitive forebear ó ancient priests and holy men were studying the movements of celestial bodies, trying to divine the nature of creation. (Of course, they didn’t have to contend with light pollution, which makes it increasingly hard to see the stars, even in the less populous areas of Rowan).
We could all benefit from getting in touch with our inner Galileos, whether we do it via Hubble images, lying on a blanket in our backyard on a clear night or participating in the activities of groups like the Astronomical Society of Rowan County, which works to stimulate interest in the cosmos among all ages, but especially the young.
“By offering students a chance to explore and witness first hand the beauty and wonder of the natural universe, we inspire and encourage them to use their minds while enhancing their critical thinking skills,” the group’s Web site notes.
Ralph Deal, the club’s public relations officer, has been interested in astronomy since 1957, when his father took the 9-year-old boy and other family members outside to watch Sputnik inching across the sky.
Once the Soviet satellite had passed, the others went back indoors. “I stayed outside,” Ralph recalls ó and a lifelong avocation was born.
Along with introducing him to many new worlds, astronomy helped him cope with the hardships of this one. As a child, he suffered from epilepsy, sometimes experiencing severe seizures. Exploring the heavens became a way “to get my mind off my medical problems,” he says.
Half a century later, he’s still looking up at the stars and encouraging others to do the same.
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.
For more information about the Astronomical Society of Rowan County, visit or call 704-857-2788. The club will be at Carolina Mall in Concord on Oct. 24, from 4-9 p.m. Telescopes will be on display in the food court and will be taken outside after dark for public viewing.
More Hubble photos: