This week NASA published new astonishing high definition images
of the famous Pillars of Creation—two 4-light-year-tall columns located
in the Eagle Nebula, 7,000 light years from here, first photographed in
1995. The only problem is that the pillars don’t exist—they were
destroyed more than a thousand years ago.
How can the hell can that be, you are asking? Are they a computer generated fake, then? An artist impression of some sort?
These are natural thoughts. Limited by our understanding of reality
and time, we look at objects in space as if they were mountains or the
ocean. We genuinely perceive these stellar landscapes as something that
is up there fixed, secure, rooted in our reality, the solid foundation
of our existence. Some people see the work of gods in all this seemingly
immutable show, hence the mythological names of planets,
constellations, nebulas, and galaxies. Others just see “a vast cosmic arena,” in which the Earth is just a tiny speck of dust.
But our diminutive perception of time, the same that makes us think
we are the center of everything, is just an illusion. At the cosmic
scale, just like in our individual lives, things move constantly. The
architecture of the cosmos is ever changing and scientists know—since
2007, only a few years after they were observed—that these gargantuan
structures don’t exist anymore.
They were destroyed, blasted by a supernova that happened 6,000 years
ago. With our telescopes, we can see the supernova advancing,
unstoppable, destroying everything it touches. From Earth, the shockwave
has not reached the Pillars of Creation yet. For our senses, they are
An amazing show is coming
In one thousand years there will be a hell of a show. The shockwave
is already arriving to the Pillars of Creation and, just like they were
created, they will be destroyed once again, obliterated by the force of a
dead star. As Paul Scowen—from the School of Earth and Space
Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe and one of the men who
led the original Hubble observations back in 1995—explains:
I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are. They are
actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish
haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up
and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very
unique and short-lived moment in their evolution.
Rationally, I know why this happens. I know that, since the light has
to travel a vast distance, it will arrive after the event has occurred.
The further away something happens, the longer it takes to reach our
eyes. I know that when we look up to the sky we are looking at the
past—seconds, minutes, years, centuries and millennia away. The sky is
the most amazing of the time machines.
But that the fact that I understand all this doesn’t matter. Every
time I think about it, I experience the same sensation. One of awe and
humility. And also of wonderment, thinking that my own existence and the
existence of the people around me, the people I loved, the people I
love, and the people I will love, can’t be seen yet from the vantage
point of those pillars. If there’s a spaceship around those space
coordinates using magic telescopes capable of focusing on Earth and
seeing details, they would not know of our existence unless they wait around for 7,000 thousand years. For them, right now, we don’t exist yet.
That’s when I realize that we truly stand alone in the middle of this
huge storm that is the Universe. And every time I think about that, my
friends, that’s when my mind and my heart explode.
This is a version of a story published on February 11, 2012.
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