The Eye of God - Science and Mysteries (Part 1)

Is there really a face on Mars? Is this the Eye of God? Why is there a giant hexagon on Saturn? - When I first saw these pictures, I thought, How the hell do you get that?

What has astronomers blowing things up? And why is one of Saturn's moons  looks just like the Death Star!

Could the strange shapes of the universe now solve mysteries that have haunted mankind since ancient times?

Ancient mysteries shrouded in the shadows of time. Now can they finally be solved by looking to the heavens?

The truth is out there, hidden among the stars in a place we call heavens. Of all the wonders in the ancient sky, perhaps nothing mystified mankind more than the moon. But what could explain the face that appears on its silvery surface? Was it a magic spirit or one of many gods ruling the heavens?

Some say the face belongs to Cain the Wanderer, son of Adam and Eve, condemned to circle the Earth endlessly for killing his brother Abel. Other ancients saw things differently. The man in the moon is only a man to us. In other cultures--for example, East Asian cultures-- many people see other shapes or other faces. In East Asian cultures, it was thought that rabbits live on the moon, and so the man in the moon is actually a rabbit.

Why does this mysterious anomaly look as it does? Is there an answer in science? The dark areas are ancient lava flows that are reasonably flat. And the bright areas are more mountainous regions where there are lots of craters, and they reflect the sunlight more. But what did the ancients make of the other imperfections in the celestial sphere? A star that suddenly brightened, a comet appearing to streak through space?

The invention of telescopes 400 years ago only deepened the mysteries, revealing strange shapes everywhere. When we look out into the universe and we see shapes in the distant stars or in other astronomical objects, what we're really looking at is physics as the sculptor, because the more detail that we get, the better we can learn about the shape of that object and the more detailed we can make our model of how it formed. For each of the odd forms we see, its shape is the latest chapter in the sometimes violent and often dramatic events that seem to speak to us with a story. Could this be the Eye of God?

700 light-years away, the haunting image appears in striking variations as modern telescopes photograph its details in different wavelengths of light. It really just looks like an eye staring down at you from space, and if the celestial sphere is the home of various gods or the single God, well, gee, maybe this is the Eye of God.

To our ancestors, the stars were great mysteries. What were they made of? What was their purpose? In those earlier times, the view of the night sky is that you had all these bright objects-- the stars, the planets-- as immutable, everlasting objects.


The strange shape we perceive as an eye proves that stars are not unchanging and everlasting. Like humans, they have limited life spans. This is an ordinary star in its death throes emitting gently its atmosphere out into space. The remainder of the star, its core, is so highly energetic that it's emitting enough radiation to light up this gas in space, almost like a fluorescent tube.

When discovered by telescope in 1820, the Eye of God appeared only as a fuzzy round shape, similar to what planets looked like. Astronomers called it and others like it planetary nebulas. Today's astrophysicists call this the Helix Nebula. Astronomers used to think that the Helix Nebula is a coil in space, and we see it end on, so it looks like this.

More recent study, though, has revealed a different shape hidden in the dramatic object. It turns out that modern observations have shown us that the Helix Nebula actually has two intersecting rings. If we could fly around it, the Eye of God is suddenly transformed into something dramatically different. About 3,000 planetary nebulas like the Eye of God are known in our galaxy. They come in a kaleidoscopic mix of strange shapes... Each a different way a dying star takes its final gasp. There's the Cat's Eye Nebula. There's the Lemon Slice Nebula. There's the Owl Nebula. One of my favorites is the Eskimo Nebula, because it really does look like there's a face there, surrounded by a hood to keep it warm.

Strange shapes also signal the deaths of stars that end their lives not so gently but in violent explosions. About 7,000 light-years away, odd-looking evidence of such a blast remains. It was observed in X-rays, and when we look at the structure of it, it appears to have these sort of spooky, dark eyes and then a grinning face, almost like a ghoulish pumpkin. Consider this a literal blast from the past, marking a mystery more than 1,000 years old.

In the year 1006, a bright star was suddenly seen in the sky, and it lasted for many months. It was brighter than Venus. It could be seen during the day. What could this possibly be? We now know that this object is the remnant, the expanding gases, of an exploding star, a supernova. The most famous of the supernova remnants is the Crab Nebula, its shape reminiscent of a crab's shell. Another is nicknamed the Hand of God for the form its long fingers of glowing gas appear to take. About 300 supernova remnants are visible in some detail to Earth telescopes, each one with a different shape. In supernova remnants, we see a variety of different shapes. Some look like the "@" sign. Some look like a Q, the letter Q. Some look spherical. There's even one that looks like a manatee. I don't know how you get the manatee. That's just crazy.  How can the simple spherical shape of a star explode to create such bizarre remnants?

To investigate, astronomer Andy Howell enlisted the help of pyrotechnicians. Well, a supernova, you know, starts with a star that's spherical, and then sometimes the explosions are spherical, sometimes not, so it'll be interesting to see what we get here. Let's run that back and see it at the beginning. It's exploding in some not completely spherical way, and we see that in stars sometimes when you light the star off center, you can get an aspherical explosion. And, wow, here we really see this plume of material coming out, messing up the spherical symmetry, and sometimes we see that in supernova remnants. You'll see some little jet that sort of shot out of the supernova. So it's not exactly a supernova, but it's pretty analogous.  Some other stellar explosions, as well as the planetary nebulas, are often split personalities.

How can a star possibly start out as a sphere and then shoot out in two clear directions? We're trying to demonstrate how some shapes we see in remnants are bipolar. Explosions happen, not spherically, but they come out to the side.  A belt of dense debris may surround an exploding star in space. On Earth, a metal barrier between explosive charges does the same job. Any time there's an obstruction, of course, the energy is going to go where it has least resistance. It's just going to shoot out. Okay, so let's fire it, see what we get. - All right, ready to go? When we made an explosion with a barrier in the middle, we get these beautiful lobes go out on either side. We see that in a lot of astrophysical contexts where you have a ring or a disc of material, and it obstructs the explosion, or the mass lost from the star, and you see stuff flying out in these lobes.  Of all the bipolar shapes in the cosmos, there's one that's attracting special attention. The double cloud of glowing gas hides a giant star, now thought to be an ultra powerful supernova in the making.

What makes it so different? And why do some think it could wipe out millions of species on Earth?  In searching space for its strangest shapes, a certain spot near the Southern Cross constellation stands out. There, our ancestors were once perplexed by a sudden mystery from an ancient star named Eta Carinae. Eta Carinae is a star that was relatively obscure for a long time, but in the early 1840s, it brightened to become the second brightest star in the sky.


A century later, another layer of mystery enveloped the strange star. In the 1940s, telescopic observations of Eta Carinae showed that it wasn't just a point-like star, but rather, it had a nebula, a cloud of gas, around it. And in fact, the shape reminded people of a little man with stubby arms and feet and kind of a pointy head.  The nebula was nicknamed the "Homunculus," for the humanlike creature alchemists were once said to have created in their laboratory flasks. Today's telescopes give us a very clear view of the gas cloud. What forces were at work to carve out this strange shape? To explore the answer, astronomer Laura Danly wants to bring the nebula down to Earth.  Cutting-edge 3-D printing will allow her to hold the Homunculus in the palm of her hand. It actually breaks it up, layer by layer, into essentially the path that's going to get traced out by the 3-D printer. That’s not too different from what the scientists did when they observed it.  

In 2014, astronomers took about a hundred telescope slices of the Homunculus, essentially scanning it in 3-D. Now the printer uses the data to deposit plastic filament onto a platform, where, over the span of eight hours, the telescope slices take solid form. It's amazing to be able to hold in my hand the Homunculus Nebula. I observed this myself as a grad student, but to be able to look at it and see things you can't see from Earth is really an amazing thing. For a long time, we thought that Eta Carinae was just a single star, so we now know that there is a binary pair. What we didn't know is, did the binary pair have any influence on the shape of this Homunculus Nebula? Now with this 3-D model, we know that it did.  Dimples and ridges on each end of the nebula, plus two distinctive protrusions are the key clues. Inside the nebula, the binary stars circle each other-- one 30 times the mass of the sun, the other 90. Each one emits intense outflows of particles called stellar winds. The smaller star whips around the larger one, carving a tunnel through its stellar winds, leaving physical imprints on the nebula's cloud. The story of Eta Carinae, however, is far from over.

In the future, we know that Eta Carinae will actually undergo a final explosive death, and at that point when it does explode, it'll crash into these gases that it had previously ejected, and this will cause it to become enormously more powerful than just a typical, run-of-the-mill supernova.  Some believe it may pruce a gamma ray burst, a deadly beam of radiation that could cause a mass extinction here on Earth.

Most astronomers, however, say it's too far away and the beam wouldn't be a direct hit, so we're safe for now. Humanlike shapes such as the odd Homunculus are actually everywhere in the cosmos. Could the universe be trying to get our attention? When we look around us and see these incredible shapes in nature, we map them into things we're familiar with on Earth, like a butterfly or a face or an eye, and that's this phenomenon called pareidolia. It just means our monkey brains evolved to recognize things that would be of interest to us as people.  

Faces in particular jump out at us everywhere. Like the ancients, we still see the man in the moon. The sun recently had surface activity looking like a face, and if you look carefully on S moon, Dione, you'll see a face there too. But Saturn itself is the epitome of strange shapes. It's said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I know few people who don't think that Saturn is beautiful.  The ancients assumed the planet was a simple sphere, but when Galileo first saw it through his telescope in 1610, the fuzzy image opened up a new celestial mystery. When Galileo originally observed Saturn, he had really a rudimentary telescope and not great eyesight. So what he saw was a planetary body or something that appeared to be a planetary body with lobes off of the side of it, and so he drew, in his notebook, a planet that had these lobes and arcs off of the side of the planet.  As Saturn and the Earth each revolve around the sun, S angle, as we look at it, is always changing. For early telescopes, it was a challenge. One of the additional difficulties would be the fact that that fuzzy shape with t two ends would actually be changing, and that's because, of course, the rings are changing their tilt one way or the other as we look at them. When they're edge-on, they would actually almost disappear, so it would've been very confusing as to what could make that shape change.  

When astronomers concluded Saturn had rings the problem was solved, but it took some 17th-century out-of-the-box thinking. It was really an amazing insight. No one had ever seen or even thought about something like it. They had seen planets through telescopes, and they were all round, but to imagine a planet with rings around it was really a leap of imagination.  But the rings aren't the only strange shapes circling Saturn. The planet is surrounded by a mysterious array of weird objects, among them 62 known moons. My favorite Saturn moon is Mimas 'cause it looks like the Death Star. It looks just like the Death Star! In fact,  That's no moon. That's a space station." And that's what it looks like, but we know that the laser death ray on Mimas is actually just a crater. There was some giant impact in its past.  But the most mysterious shape in the Saturn system is on the ringed planet itself. Centered on its pole is a bizarre shape that seems impossible in nature.

Could it be a sign of intelligent life?  Strange shapes and patterns in the heavens have mystified mankind for thousands of years. While modern science can explain many of the phenomena that baffled the ancients, it has also uncovered new mysteries that we're only beginning to understand. The rings of Saturn once puzzled our ancestors. ΓÖ¬ But recent close-ups reveal a shape that seems to defy explanation: a hexagon at north pole. When I first saw these pictures of Saturn-- at one of the poles, there's this hexagon shape-- I thought, How the hell do you get that?  The clouds making up the hexagon form six straight sides, each 8,600 miles long. Four planet Earths would fit inside of it.

How can nature create this seemingly impossible shape? It's thought that the hexagon is formed when winds of differing speeds next to each other are actually creating vortices or rotations in the atmosphere.  But rotations in an atmosphere speed up to become storms. It happens that way on Earth, where swirling storms produce hurricanes or tornados, all more or less circular in shape. The same is true for the other gas giants in the solar system. How can something round end up creating something with six straight sides? This laboratory simulation in a tank of rotating fluids may reveal the secret. Six swirling vortexes around the edge work together to create the familiar shape. The vortexes on the ringed planet are thought to be atmospheric cyclones, large storms the size of Earth that are not visible from space. Most of the action is apparently below the surface. - The very sharp corners of the hexagon are the places where there are pinch points between two cyclones, so it looks like it's kind of an unnatural shape in nature, but in fact, it's very naturally shaped by those storms.  The extreme winds and chemical clouds of the gas giants create strange shapes in a realm of wild, fluid motions. But on the rocky planets of the inner solar system, other forces are at work. The planet Mars is especially rich in weirdly shaped rocks and landscapes. We see a lot of strange shapes on Mars, because now we have so many satellites and robots on Mars that we're seeing so much of the planet. There's just a lot more chance to see cool stuff. In fact, Mars is the only planet we know about that's entirely populated by robots. Of course, it's robots that we sent there.  

The mysteries of Mars began in ancient times. Its red color led the Chinese to call it "the fire star" and the Romans to name it for their god of war. 19th-century astronomers thought they saw canals built by aliens on a Mars rich with vegetation. The notion of a powerful Martian civilization lasted well into modern times, when space probes revealed the truth. From our spacecraft that we have observing Mars today, we know that Mars is not a rich, lush environment that has life and plants on it. From the photos from Mars, there are just a host of strange shapes that we can see, either from orbit or from the surface. Things like smiley faces in craters, the man on Mars, footprint-shaped craters, heart-shaped craters, and on the surface, we see rocks that look like rodents, frogs, blueberries, bones, traffic lights-- just a whole host of different things that we can see.  Photos from Mars are posted online every day, and amateur observers have an Internet obsession, combing through them to pick out weird objects.

Continue reading Part 2

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