A meditation on a nebula, deep time and us

View of the Carina Nebula from the James Webb Telescope. Photo: NASA.

Why is this photograph of the Carina Nebula, taken by the James Webb Telescope, so intriguing? We are looking at a nursery of stars, many of which are much larger than our own sun. And we also look back in time. Deep time. Still, there’s something intimate about it, even if there aren’t any pareidolic references to hang on to easily.

I thought a lot about this image. Perhaps it has such power for so many people because we can imagine our souls being born alongside these juggernauts of condensed energy in great flashes of light. And even with all that bombastic expression, the colored gases appear like a veil of gauze comforting new skin. Every birth is both violent and caressing, after all. Perhaps, therefore, many of us can relate.

And I can’t stop thinking about where I’m looking at it. The living crust of a tiny world, in a tiny solar system, on the edge of an extremely vast galaxy. A tiny world whose thin ribbon of air and water, source of life and maintenance, is endangered by the supposed “apex species” that resides there. Where the sea and the atmosphere boil and boil more and more year after year thanks to the excesses and greed of a part of our species. And for what gain? Power? Status? Access to luxury? Nationalism and flags? Celebrity? religious dominance?

I think of the video of an orangutan trying to push a bulldozer away from her house with only her arms. To be thrown to the forest floor, broken and bloodied. His house will be razed, likely to become a disposable piece of furniture to be sold in a big-box store thousands of miles away, then put on the pavement a year later when the trend is over. Or perhaps to extract palm oil to use in an overpriced latte at a Star Bucks in Los Angeles, where the wealthy complain about homelessness.

And then I think of this photo taken in 1946. The one with the military generals and the lady in the atomic bomb hat, cutting a cake in the shape of an atomic bomb. It was barely a year after hundreds of thousands of human beings were incinerated in two cities by similar bombs. It celebrated the start of years of nuclear explosions on a once-pristine atoll in the Pacific, forever polluting the waters and the people who call it home. Celebrate everything, with a cake. And I remember that crazy chapter in history didn’t end. That the world once again stands on the precipice of nuclear annihilation.

I keep thinking about what I would say to a future generation of us about this little world. But I’m less and less certain that there will be future generations to tell. At least not of our species. Perhaps in deep time there will be another race of sentient beings who will evolve upon this celestial stone to create a powerful mirror to see through time into the heavens as we have. Maybe crows or ants or hydras. Will they be equally impressed, enough to pause the great wheel of self-destruction that now consumes us, if only for a moment?

If a nebula can tell us our beginning, can it tell us how we will end?

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