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