Crabby Thoughts

Crab Nebula

How wonderful to be on the cusp of March. March can be a deceptive month, it’s true, and many an April has arrived knee-deep in snow, but that snow has never lain so deep as the colossal drifts of human stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty that were on display during February, so I for one will be glad to turn my face toward spring, should we be lucky enough to see it.

Like most people, I often think about the Crab Nebula. The Crab Nebula is the gaseous remnant of a star that exploded in the year 1054—or at least that’s when the light reached earth. The nebula is about 6,500 light years away, so the actual explosion was about 2500 years before the appearance of the first cities in Mesopotamia. The Crab Nebula can be seen with a pair of binoculars in the constellation Taurus, just off the shoulder of Orion, the hunter, whose raised club points directly toward it. To find the Crab Nebula under a reasonably dark sky, start at the head of the unfriendly giant and move directly up, toward the zenith, until you see a bright star. That’s Zeta Tauri, and the Crab Nebula is immediately above it. It doesn’t look much like a crab to my eye, I have to admit, unless it’s an exploding crab.

The Crab Nebula was long thought to have been discovered by the English doctor and astronomer John Bevis in 1731, or possibly Charles Messier in 1758, who was looking for the return of Halley’s Comet when he spotted it. For the convenience of future comet-seekers, Messier compiled a list of comet-esque night-sky apparitions, and indeed the Crab Nebula is also known as “M1” on the list of faint fuzzies that bears his name. Now, however, we know the explosion was first seen by astronomers in present-day Japan, China, and Iraq. From the Chinese account, the initial explosion was visible to the naked eye for weeks, even during the day, so it seems reasonable to conclude that this was a global event witnessed by all of humanity, including much of the southern hemisphere. What a unifying experience that must have been: everyone alive would have known that everyone else alive was seeing the same lesson in impermanence, the same awe-inspiring reminder of the shortness and fragility of human life. Of course, they would not have understood the event with our modern clarity, as a cloud of expanding hydrogen and oxygen with a spinning pulsar at its core.

Entropy, the steady increase of disorder, is relentless, they say. The Crab Nebula will eventually disperse to the point of invisibility. The cities of Mesopotamia are long gone to dust. Orion, in the fullness of time, will need a new nebula for a hat. But down here, right now, I keep looking up for an antidote to disorder, for another lesson in unity. It shouldn’t be beyond us to see a nebula and remember that change is inevitable, that humans are small and even the mightiest among us has an end, so maybe we should all try to step lightly. Now there’s a wispy truth and a flag, maybe the only one, worth a salute. I wonder what, looking down, the Crab Nebula would think of us?

Stargazer by Dennis Vanderspek

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