Star trek


The Hubble telescope, anchored 350 miles above the earth, boldly goes where no man has gone before - straight to the heart of the Universe. Since December 1993, when its eyesight was restored to its full glory, it has been sending awesomely clear images of far-off galaxies as well as the earth's cousins in our own solar system, giving insights into black holes and unveiling the drama of the birth and death of stars.

The exhibition of "Images from the Hubble Space Telescope", at the tiny Blue Gallery, contains some of the most heavenly paintings. It's a veritable collection of unimaginable objects, rendered in mesmerising colours and filtered through light, "God's eldest daughter", as the 17th-century clergyman Thomas Fuller described it, "a principal beauty" that ultimately unravels the secrets of the universe. At first sight the fertile, abstruse images look like abstract paintings, and it takes some time for reality to sink in: these are actual objects.

The first image we meet is the iconic Hubble photograph - the spooky, dark pillar-like structure of the Eagle Nebula. Some 7,000 light years from us in the constellation of Serpens, the "elephant trunks" that protrude from the interior wall of a dark molecular cloud are actually a hatchery for stars. The interstellar gas and dust of these pillars serve as incubators. The embryonic stars are enclosed in oval-shaped clumps, the Eggs - "evaporating gaseous globules". The surface of the molecular cloud is being gradually eroded by a flood of ultra-violet light from nearby hot young stars in a process called photo-evaporation.

As the pillars erode away, the Eggs growing inside them are left behind. Eventually the Eggs break off and, once separated, they cease to grow further. In time, even the Eggs succumb to photo-evaporation and the new baby star inside emerges. Eggs at various stages of development can be seen in the image; in a few cases, the stars forming inside the Eggs are directly visible.

From here on, it is a parade of unlikely and quite implaus-ible objects. Some are "untitled" (actually, they're given numbers such as WR124 or NGC1818). Others are named, like the zodiac, after animals (Cat's Eye Nebula, Butterfly Nebula). Still others are given ambiguous descriptive titles (Giant Twister in the Lagoon Nebula, Cometary Knots in the Helix Nebula). In all cases, the image hypnotises and draws the viewer into a distant, abstract world of deep mystery and unspeakable beauty. The Cat's Eye Nebula, for example, is a dazzling image of concentric shells, rings and knots of gas. Estimated to be 1,000 years old, it represents the late stage of a dying star. It is exhibited on "electric paper", which consists of a large transparency coated with phosphorus and covered with an electro-conductive layer. The process, developed by German physicists in the 1930s, gives the image an intrinsic luminosity. The Cat's Eye Nebula glows like a firefly and appears as though alive and dynamic with movement.

The image of the Cometary Knots in the Helix Nebula is also exhibited on electric paper. A profusion of amber, white and blue, it looks like paint thrown on a canvas, a la Jackson Pollock, or tadpoles swimming away from a murky pond. What it shows is a collision of two gases near a dying star. The tadpole-like objects in the upper right-hand corner, emerging out of the cloud, have glowing heads and gossamer tails rather like comets. These knotty tadpoles issue from a doomed star in the Helix Nebula, the closest planet-ary nebula to earth, some 450 light years away in the constellation of Aquarius. Each head is twice the size of our solar system; each tail stretches for 100 billion miles, more than 1,000 times the distance between earth and the sun. The tails form a radial pattern around the star like the spokes on a wheel.

WR124 is an evocative burst of red and yellow. It is an extremely rare, short-lived, super-hot star in violent transition. The yellow is the mass that it is fiercely spewing out, the red, the surrounding hot clumps of gas being ejected at phenomenal speeds. Although only 30 times the mass of the earth, it is a 100 billion mile-wide lightbulb. In contrast, the Butterfly Nebula is a gentler hue of blue and green, tinged with a delicate shade of red. We see two stars in close orbit. Perhaps one of the stars is engulfing the other, its gravity tearing weakly bound gases from the surface of the other and flinging them into space as a thin, dense disc. The Antennae Galaxies mash blue clusters, a tint of violent red radiation and a swath of generous, white chaotic dust to produce a sweeping spiral-like pattern. Like two fuming bulls in a ring, the galaxies are on track for a head-on collision.

One looks at the image of a black hole in Centaurus A and wonders: where do we fit in all this? In this cosmic furnace, with its giant elliptical galaxy locked in an immortal combat with a smaller spiral galaxy, the earth would not even qualify as a speck of ash. Where does that leave man? The colours force you to look inwards. The blue of new-born stars, the blazing orange of gas, the dark silhouettes of dust and the bubbling white generate the entire spectrum of emotional responses. Somewhere inside this unfathomable image is a black hole scooping up everything in its path and sending it to - nowhere! The suspected black hole is so dense that it contains the mass of a billion stars compacted into a small region the size of our solar system.

Confronted with such forces of creation and destruction, such unfathomable spans of space and boundless time, one can only feel humble. How, one cannot refrain from asking, did our tenuous life-form survive all this? There is also a feeling of privilege, of being unnaturally fortunate. We are not just part of the cosmos; we can also observe and feel it in all its violent, exquisite and magnificent grandeur. It is not just "out there" but also "in here", now an integral part of our thought. Are we merely rediscovering the echo of our own existence? Is this where the artificial boundaries between art and science, physics and metaphysics, collapse, like the stars in cluster NGC1818?

I think that the poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam summed up best what these celestial paintings evoke. This is the work of the "Moving Finger" that "writes; and having writ, Moves on". Leaving us all looking with bewilderment at "that inverted Bawl we call The Sky/Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die".

"Images from the Hubble Space Telescope" continues until 31 January 1999 at the Blue Gallery, 93 Walton Street, London SW3 (0171-589 6690)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.