With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
(from the Navajo Night Chant)
Death — or at least dying — in the animal kingdom is rarely beautiful to human eyes. That may in part be because we see our own deaths in it. However, death is inevitable, whether on the scale of individual organisms, the extinction of species, the end of planets, the deaths of stars, the eventual wind-up of the observable Universe itself.
Of course, beyond organisms death is more metaphorical: stars don’t live and planets aren’t subject to the same kinds of influences that animals are. However, we humans are metaphorical animals, and the stories we tell — fiction, nonfiction, scientific, mythic, mundane — are rooted in analogy and watered by poetry. True, it’s wise to avoid too much poetic license in telling certain stories, and it’s never a good idea to mistake analogy for reality. That road leads to creationism, animism, astrology, and other ideas that confuse metaphor with fact. However, try to describe anything using only literal language, and you limit yourself to the point where meaningful communication can cease.
A star is not actually born and does not actually die, in the sense that a human does. However, it does undergo a definite cycle: it is assembled from the raw materials of gas and dust within a nebula, becomes a star when nuclear fusion begins in the core, grows and shrinks as it ages, interacts with planets, white dwarfs, and other stars, then eventually ceases being a star. If we grant metaphorical language to this cycle, it helps us: the star-to-be is formed in a stellar womb, is born at the moment its core lights it from within, grows to maturity, ages, and dies.
Stars like our Sun undergo relatively gentle deaths, compared to their more massive compatriots. The star that is shedding its outer layers to make the nebula NGC 2392 (seen in the image above) isn’t exploding in a supernova: it’s a slow process of releasing the envelope of gas surrounding the hot core. (In an instance of culturally dubious poetic license, NGC 2392 is sometimes known as the “Eskimo Nebula” because if you invert the photo and squint, it looks kind of like a face surrounded by a fur hood.) This particular nebula is turbulent, probably thanks to a unseen companion star whipping the shed gas into a frenzy. That turbulence results in strong X-ray emission, depicted in the image as pink light. Our own Sun’s death will not be so
In some sense, even the colors of astronomical images are metaphors, since humans can’t perceive X-rays — and telescope cameras don’t “see” light the same way we do either. If we looked through a telescope, we wouldn’t see NGC 2392 as it is in the image, but that’s not to say this picture isn’t real. The colors are enhanced or (in the case of the X-rays) added so we humans can see structures that would otherwise be imperceptible, even with a powerful telescope. To paraphrase the Little Prince, what is essential is invisible to the eyes.
I sometimes reflect on scientific beauty in this blog, because I find our Universe to be a beautiful and inspiring place, with its aesthetics revealed by scientific investigation. That’s often forgotten — not by writers or even scientists themselves, but by science’s critics, who mistake the need for evidence for a lack of poetry. Sure, it’s often hard to see the beauty, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there if you have the desire to look for it. Science isn’t so different from other endeavors, though: you can get lost in the mundanity of any work, even great literature, and forget its beauties.
My friend Brian Switek writes eloquently about the wonders of evolution, a theory often stereotyped as brutal and bloody and devoid of redeeming values — yet there is still much to inspire. My own field, cosmology, can seem to make humanity so small as to overwhelm us. Some people have chosen to reject both evolution and cosmology because humanity’s place in the story seems so insignificant, whereas alternative narratives like creationism can seem to grant us importance. Perhaps if these were all simply stories, books on a shelf where we can pick out the titles that appeal to us and ignore the others, I might choose something like creationism myself. The ancient, yet finite-age Universe, is weird, with its dark matter, dark energy, and vast expanses of emptiness. Yet it’s the Universe we have, and science’s narratives are the best way to understand it.
It’s time to lay certain narratives like creationism to rest, a beautiful metaphorical death for them. They can live on in memory or in fiction, but we should recognize their metaphors don’t tell us anything true about the cosmos we inhabit. Science, on the other hand, does provide meaningful descriptions of the Universe. Perhaps they’re not as narratively satisfying to some, but that puts the responsibility back on us: we should seek beauty, rather than expect it to be handed to us. We’ll find beauty and wonder if we look for them. We’re good at that.