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Spiral galaxy NGC 300. Credit: European Southern Observatory


The Light at the End
Sep 10, 2010

This image of the nearby galaxy NGC 300 covers an area of the sky about the size of the full moon. Astronomers call it a “wide field,” which shows how much modern astronomy is afflicted with tunnel vision.

A wider view would see a line of quasars stretching nine degrees to the Southeast. A cloud of hydrogen gas lies nearby but is rotated about 20 degrees with respect to the galaxy’s core. (It’s called hydrogen gas because of the radio emission that reveals it, but its filamentary form and synchrotron radiation indicate that it’s actually a Birkeland current of plasma.)

NGC 300 and its companion, NGC 55, a short distance away, are the dominant members of the Sculptor Group, the nearest cluster of galaxies to our Local Group. As is typical for such groups, the dominant members have the lowest redshifts. All the other smaller galaxies in the group have consistently higher redshifts. The standard Doppler interpretation of redshift would have all clusters elongated and pointing at the Earth.

This observation alone requires that redshift of galaxies be primarily intrinsic, not Doppler. The only way to adhere to a Doppler interpretation (and with it an expanding universe interpretation, and the Big Bang theory following on a short leash) is to restrict one’s vision to a tunnel that encompasses only one galaxy at a time.

The Sculptor Group is embedded in a cloud of quasars that is up to ten times denser than the average cosmological background density. In fact, most of the excess quasars cluster around the two dominant galaxies—NGC 300 and NGC 55.

Halton Arp tells the story of this early inadvertent finding in his book Quasars, Redshifts, and Controversies:

"Now an extraordinary stroke of good luck occurred when two astronomers at the U.S. National Observatory in Chile, decided to observe a sample of quasars. They picked a declination zone that ran high overhead for them (Dec = -40°) and observed a long, narrow strip of sky, 5 degrees wide, running from west to east. The good luck was that this strip runs right across our Sculptor galaxies NGC 300 and NGC 55. The beginning and the end of the strip lie outside the Sculptor group and can be used to compare to the results in the center of the strip.

"An uncomfortable result became apparent as soon as they plotted their results. A good many more quasars were found in the center of the strip than at the edges. Since these two astronomers accepted unquestioningly that the quasars were out at the far reaches of the universe, this result obviously could not be correct. Therefore, after the fact, they decided that the photographic emulsions they had used were less sensitive on either end of the strip than they were in the middle of the strip!

"This was duly published and accepted. But I noticed that the quasars at the ends of the strip contained proportionally more 'weak-lined' quasars. That is, the emission lines identifying them as quasars were fainter and they were consequently more difficult to discover. If the photographic emulsions were really less sensitive at the ends of the strip, then a proportionally smaller number of these quasars should have been found rather than a larger number. When I tried to publish this result in the British journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, it was sent to one of the original two authors to referee. Needless to say, it was not published."

In the beginning of telescopes in space, astronomers decided not to put up a wide field instrument that would survey what there was to see from orbit: They assumed that they already knew what there was to see. So they put up the Hubble with its extremely narrow field in order to confirm the details of what they had deduced from first principles (i.e., from their presumptions).

Everything since has been a surprise. Now, finally, they’re making instruments with slightly less narrow views. But their eyes—their minds’ eyes—have been conditioned to see only down the conceptual tunnel. “The main purpose of this extensive observational campaign was to take an unusually thorough census of the stars in the galaxy…that warrant deeper and more focused investigation.” Perhaps the continual surprises will eventually lead them out of the tunnel.

At the end of the tunnel, vision opens onto a panorama of plasma: everything we observe is connected with webs of genealogy traced in lines of quasars, clusters of galaxies, hydrogen filaments, and x-ray emissions. The cosmos is not an ancient convulsion followed by predictable inertial drifting. It has a history. It’s a drama of procreation unto the present day.

Irving Langmuir named plasma well—because it seems alive. The cosmos seems alive—a “live wire”!—as plasma discharges, coupled across all scales, move an aboriginal charge separation toward a likely never-attainable equilibrium. We live in the midst of Heraclitus’s “thunderbolt that steers the universe.”

Mel Acheson



"The Cosmic Thunderbolt"

YouTube video, first glimpses of Episode Two in the "Symbols of an Alien Sky" series.


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