Sunday, September 4, 2011

Kaput Anyway!

Reading Time ~5 minutes. 
Two galaxies on collision course, as if in a cosmic exclamation point was caught by Chandra X-ray telescope and the image was published by NASA in August.
Galactic Collision: A Cosmic Exclamation Point!
3-5 billion years from now our own Milky Way will merge with our neighboring galaxy, the Andromeda.  Which brings me to my exclamation point.  How will it appear to us, on Earth?  To us, on Earth, a planet hitched to a medium sized star which in turn is earnestly burning away on an arm of the Milky Way?

Will the Andromeda come at us with the spiral face-on or sideways? Wait.  Did you say 3-5 billion years?  Close finish that will be, since the Sun has a remaining life of ~5 billion years.  Oh wait again.  Isn't the Earth supposed to become too hot for life in ~1 billion years?  Darn.  So we will not be around.  On Earth at least.  We may be still around as specimens of a species, if we figured a way  and traveled to other places to live.  Either way, forget about lying in the yard in a reclining chair, sipping Merlot and watching the night sky with a spiral galaxy slowly moving towards you.

I saw the Andromeda galaxy once.  It was a few years ago.  The Foothill College in Los Altos has an observatory. It is open for public viewing on late Friday evenings. I was in a waning phase of an obsession with astronomy, so guess what?  We spent our Friday evenings waiting in a line.
Cold, wintry conditions give the clearest skies for sky watching. The colder the better. However it is not the best time for waiting in line.  A long line too, from the central room of the observatory to the bottom of the winding stairs to the open outside. Filled with huddled frames of people, arms tucked in,  lightly bouncing up and down, heel to toe, toe to heel, trying to keep warm.  Sometimes, actually at rare times, there is no line and we can even make requests of the volunteer in attendance.  If still in a good mood at that hour, he may just oblige and turn the telescope around to focus on our object of desire.  He then punches the name on a keyboard, the computer program looks up the co-ordinates and bingo! the telescope moves, weee weee weee, along with the sliding roof, giving just the right level of opening.  
All I had to do was to look through the eye piece when my turn came. There it was, the Andromeda, slightly to the side, a small, neat spiral, just like our home galaxy.  Very nice, seeing the heavens.  But the magnificence of the epiphany was so effortless, it was difficult to hold on to. 

Not too long before then, the husbn bought me a telescope.  We were then in Chicago and the night sky of the city only allowed for moon viewing. After settling down in a new job and California, one day, I thought the skies were clear enough to try some viewing.  I opened the box and set the telescope up in one corner of the balcony.  A brownish-orange object in the sky seemed a perfect target.  It was in a portion of the sky which was clear of the surrounding pine tree branches. After sending some good vibes in that direction, I trained the telescope with eyepiece1 on it.  I was quickly able to put the object within range but it was a blur.  Next level eyepiece.  Blur again.  It didn't matter how I messed around with the focus.  Whaa.  Will I ever see anything?
Then came the last eyepiece, of highest magnification.  I lost the object.  Could not locate it.  The range was very sensitive.  Back to eyepiece2.  Okay, move the co-ordinates so the blurred object is at the center.  Change to eyepiece3 veeery gently.  Don't bump into tripod.  Easy, slow.  Gone again.  More iterations.
I wasn't giving up.   I kept searching, slower than a snail.  Bam.  Something at the edge.   A blurry, faint light.  I brought it to the center and focused.  Back and forth until I hit the right focus.  I could not believe my eyes.  A planet with all the tell-tale markings, and four moons.   Jupiter!
I walked away and came back.  It was Jupiter alright, exactly like in the images.  Except that only four of the moons were visible with the telescope I had.  I kept looking at it every now and then.  I was home alone.  The moment was mine.

With a little practice, finding and focusing became easy.  Next day I saw Jupiter again.  One moon was missing.  Ayyo!  Only three were visible.  Oh okay, it went behind.  I was in awe.  Saturn with its rings was easy too and just as beautiful.

Working even to the extent I did to find the object, the surprise element and the beauty of a different world made the experience  somewhat similar to what some others may have and call as a religious experience.  Reading a good poem, unique art, unusual scenery, unexpected grace of a person or a musical piece can evoke too, if they come at the right time and mood.  The consciousness perhaps shifts imperceptibly after the sensation hits different areas of our mind.  From where, the world and our view of it can seem slightly peaceable than before.  How much of this stays with us is subjective to our general inclinations and the nature of the impression.
For me, even now, seeing Jupiter in the sky brings up a smile. We have a shared secret, you see.

Sometimes some visiting children have asked for a viewing if they spot my telescope all set-up (it is back in the box now).  I usually ask what they want to see, set everything up and all a child had to do is look through the eyepiece.  Because of my own viewing at Foothill, I do not expect an aha moment.  But I never fail to see some bewilderment on what do with this very accessible yet extraordinary vision.

Note 1. The NASA's picture of the Cosmic Exclamation Point is the face of the new Facebook page of this blog! A galactic collision is inconsistent and incomplete, isn't it?

Note 2.  Silent movie time: A simulation of the Milky way and Andromeda Collision by the University of Toronto: 



  1. 3-5 billion years from now our own Milky Way will merge with the Andromeda

    This merger follows extensive negotiations between the CEO's of Milky Way and of Andromeda. Milky Way, it was learned was advised by the boutique investment bank Out of This World Mergers and Acquisitions. Andromeda was advised by Transgalactic Acquisitions.

    The outcome of mergers of this type, despite their scale, essentially boil down to two basic determinants of success. According to famous Organizational Behavior professor Blabbingus, the first key question, as with all mergers is compatibility of cultures. "Can the prevailing DNAs of the Milky Way and Andromeda adapt in the new post merger environment. Will the cultures combine seamlessly to form a new thriving organisim or will DNA's be separate strands each twisting and turning in its own helical path?" - asked professor Blabbingus with the air of pompous profundity that only a business school professor can have.

    The second important determinant of success, continued Professor Blabbingus is that "All Mergers fail." And despite this some how, the first question is the more important and lots of money and time is spent, focus groups are assembled, experts called to opine, boards are consulted to determine if there is cultural compatibility for two organizations to merge.

    Other commentators were concerned about how some of those affected by the merger might cope. Some of the stars in the Milky way may no longer be the brightest of the lot in the post merger environment. Some may feel dwarfed and others might get so burnt out that they may collapse into a black hole. Such matters of serious gravity could well be problems for some of Andromedas stars as well.

    Stars of the organizations arent the only ones feeling threatened. Stars of the Milky way and Andromeda are often surrounded by bodies that rely on the stars glow and ability to attract other bodies in an almost gravitational kind of way. The dependence of these bodies on the star may result in serious issues for them if the stars power starts to fade. Especially those bodies who have found their place in the organization by trying to be closest to the star find themselves particularly vulnerable.

    The CEO's of Milky way and Andromeda stand to get a significant windfall for effecting the merger. Lupelt Murdoche, who owns 99.99% of the Milky Way reluctantly disclosed that a nominal fee of 2 astronomical sums of money was paid to him for the merger. He was a little upset that his original demand for 3 astronomical sums of money was trimmed down by the board to a mere 2 astronomical sums of money. Luckily he was far sighted enough to clone a version of himself and successfully installed the clone Lupelt Murdoche II as the CEO of Andromeda. Lupelt Murdoche expressed some satisfaction that Lupelt Murdoche II got 4 astronomical sums of money from Andromedas board as a fee for the merger.

    The merger recieved favorable press especially from News of the Other World - the most successful news paper in Andromeda, a paper which, incidentally, is owned by Lupelt Murdoche. In an editorial supporting the merger the News of the Other World stated that "We are proud to second, third and fourth, the merger of Milky Way and Andromeda. Also, in our unbiased view, we support and deem as nominal the merger fees of 4 astronomical sums that is being paid to Mr. Lupelt Murdoch II."

    Despite the problems to the stars and the perennial feeling of being underpaid that is felt by CEO's in this and our neighboring galaxy, it stands to reason that there is significant synergy in the merger that might benefit every one - even for people not called Lupelt Murdoche or Lupelt Murdoche the II. The post merger entity will have such a large attractional power that other galaxies will find hard to resist to be a part of. Interest in the new entity may well peak and soon many other galaxies may merge. This may well be the new star alliance.


  2. Hey Arvind- Awesome! Brilliant!!

    While some of the DNA strands take luxury intergalactic trips on fancy shuttles, some others stay home, having suffered lay-offs. For, profit margins have to be maintained at any cost, say the traders on Boson Street. Meanwhile forecasting on the next galaxy merger is in full swing.... :)

  3. That would be a grand finale worth waiting for! I guess we have to make do with the artist's rendition for now. I loved the silent clip. It felt like two ancient warriors with their swords approaching each other, quickly moving away, swirling their arms and swords and then slowly come back, throw the swords and embrace each other - a "war into peace" so to speak. -Krishna

  4. Another Voice: I believe the drama will play out over millions of years! Except perhaps at the final clash when the galaxy centers will go at each other.