An Ornament

The planetary nebula NGC7048 floats in the midst of the star-swarm of the Milky Way, part of the summertime constellation Cygnus the Swan. From our vantage, it’s about 60 by 50 arc-seconds in size; its magnitude is 11.3.
Announcing its discovery in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, astronomer Heber D. Curtis wrote in September, 1919, that NGC7048 is “a rather faint oval, with slight traces of ring structure…. The brightest portions are at the east end of the minor axis. There is a very faint central star.”
Curtis said its spectrum indicates NGC7048 is gaseous, which stands to reason as we now understand such nebulae to be the material blown off by a sun-like star when its atmosphere puffs out during its death throes.
G. Huemer and R. Weinberger of the Institut fr Astronomie der Universitt Innsbruck, Austria, estimated that the nebula is about 5,218 light-years away, give or take 1,630 light-years. The paper, copyrighted by the Southern European Observatory, was published by the Astronomy and Astrophysics Supplement Series in March 1988.
The nebula posed for me on Sept. 3, when I was set up at Lakeside, Tooele County. From 2:44 a.m. until 5:06 a.m., I took 100 exposures (not counting the flat-field images and darks that I continued making), which I later combined.

[Planetary nebula NGC7048 in the midst of the Milky Way, taken Sept. 3, 2011, from the site Utah astronomers call Lakeside, Tooele County. The brighter stars, like the ball above the nebula, appear larger than dimmer ones. That’s just an artifact of the optics, as this telescope can’t discern the disk of any star except the sun. Photo by Joe Bauman]
Yet none of this dry description encapsulates the beauty of the nebula itself. It shimmers with pinks, reds, blues and purples; spikes and dots of structure show in the interior; curving bright edges outline the somewhat irregular globe — it’s a glorious ornament surrounded by myriad stars. I am reminded of one of my favorite Walt Whitman poems, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
“When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
“When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
“When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
“How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
“Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
“In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
“Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
Regardless of its violent origin when it roasted any planets in its habitable zone, despite its pedestrian designation, NGC7048 is beautiful to me. And I wonder, Why is that? Why can I recognize anything so distant and unearthly as beautiful?
If I had to guess, I would suppose that an intelligent being residing on a planet of another star might examine NGC7048 through some kind of instrument and conclude that it is beautiful. I also find beauty in the grand slow-swirling arms of spiral galaxies and in the shining tails of comets, and I imagine these things project a universal beauty.
Our ability to find beauty in natural forms is ingrained, and I wonder how that came to be. A principle of loveliness must permeate the universe. What was the origin of these feelings?
When I think of the start of the universe I’m filled with wonder and awe. Was this idea of beauty born, fully-formed, in the instant of the Big Bang? And what about the natural laws -– were they in place in that same instantaneous flash of subatomic particles and energy?
It’s hard for me to believe that natural laws developed gradually. Take the simple situation of the distance between two points. If we were to anchor one of the points and spin the other around it on a plane until it reaches its starting place, that trajectory would be the circumference of a circle. Take two of those lengths together (two radii of the circle) and multiply them by pi and you get the measurement of the circumference. As we all learned in school, C = 2 r times pi.
Pi is an endless number, starting with 3.1415926535897932384. It must always have been that bizarre value. I can’t imagine a time, even just a few moments after the Big Bang, when pi was incomplete or experimental. There was no period when pi happened to be exactly 3.
So it must be for all natural laws. Universal laws governing interactions of atoms –- bonding, electron shells, valence — must have existed, somehow, before atoms themselves did. That too I find beautiful.
In the beginning there was beauty and it’s still here.

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