Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi A New Galaxy

By Harry Willson

JUNE 14, 1999:  Sometimes, when the world and local news become unrelentingly unbearable, or when the personal physical decline one must tolerate at this stage becomes a little too depressing, one can find a sort of encouragement in the observation that a hundred million years from now it won't matter. In fact in a mere 100 years, whatever is troubling me now won't matter very much. The longer perspective helps get things, both personal and planetary, back into proportion.

I have met people who are not encouraged by these observations, but I think they're focused in on the personal a little too much. Some time and effort spent pondering The Big Questions would relieve some of their pain.

I was discussing some of these things with a friend when he told me that a new galaxy had been discovered. I told him it couldn't be so, that he, and perhaps his source, weren't stating things correctly. Perhaps the astronomers have discovered a galaxy they hadn't noticed before. Europeans made a similar mistake when they first arrived in a hemisphere they hadn't known about. They called it The New World, even though people had been living there and calling it home for at least 20,000 years.

Tom figured that was no doubt true. Then he told me, "This galaxy is 165 million light years ..." and I figured he was going to tell me how far away it was, but, no, he finished by saying it was 165 million light years across. It takes light 165 million years to cross from one side of that galaxy to the other. That's traveling at 186,000 miles per second. It does put "are-we-there-yet-Mom?" questions back into perspective, right?

I didn't learn from Tom how all of this has been going on unobserved by us, but you can bet that part of the reason is because it's far away from us, or the astronomers would have found it before now. That galaxy is old, not new.

Recently another piece of news came out: A galaxy called "Sharon" -- which is our name for it, not theirs -- is 13 billion light years away. The galaxy appears "young" to the Hubble astronomers, but it isn't, because it has taken the light from it 13 billion years to get here. Just looking at it is a form of time travel. It constitutes fresh evidence that the universe is older than we thought. At the moment, it is the most distant object ever detected. In time they'll find more, further away, without doubt. The Sharon for whom the galaxy is named, sister of one of the astronomers involved, didn't get this longer perspective business. She looked at the photograph and said, "It's only a dot." Some dot.

I'm personally encouraged somehow by the sharpened and deepened awareness that those huge sizes and distances provide. Here's more. Astronomers have discovered that 90 percent of the mass of the universe is something they do not comprehend at all and cannot even see. They call it "dark matter." One is forced to wonder, at first notice, how they could have discovered it. Well, it was by inference. Additional undetected mass is affecting the behavior of what they can see. This is looking at whole galaxies, you understand. In summary, "The outer stars in galaxies seem to rotate too fast for the amount of matter that we see in the galaxy."

And the astronomers continue to think about it and do calculations about it and give names to things. They have Cold Dark Matter and Hot Dark Matter. They refer to WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), Machos or CHAMPS, axions and neutrinos. They will end up finding something, probably.

Further pondering, at least on my part, goes down a different track. "I hope they don't find it. If they find it, someone will want to fence it, subdivide it, claim ownership of it, cut it down, cut it into little pieces, set fire to it, bomb it, blow it up, pulverize it, destroy it, kill it, use it, box it, sell it." No, let it be a mystery. Let it remain out of reach.

Let it be like Tom's new/old galaxy. It's great to know it's there, way, way out there, safe, beyond our destructive reach. And knowing it's there puts a different light on deadlines, bills, a non-functioning air conditioner, the car that won't start, unexpected visitors, unwanted pregnancies, expulsions from schools, downsizing from what felt like a permanent job, illness, the sale of one HMO to another, the death of someone who mattered and species extinction -- including our own.


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