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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The Beauty of Reality

By Phil Plait

After the particularly foul episode I put you through this morning, let me offer this by way of an apology: a superb and compelling time-lapse animation of the night skies over Michigan called North Country Dreamland, by photographer Shawn Malone.

Ahhhhh, thatâs better. I think my favorite part is right at the very beginning, when you can see the stars of the Big Dipper reflected in the lake, slowly gliding across the water, distorted and fuzzy compared with the crisp clean pinpricks of their counterparts in the sky. The blue heron phasing in and out of existence one minute in is another delight.

And, of course, the dancing aurora, the individually feeble but collectively mighty glow from countless atoms and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen high in the atmosphere, wounded by subatomic particles blasting in from the Sun, their green and red and purple and pink light an announcement that they have healed from the onslaught. What I would give to see this with my own eyes.

One of the most appealing aspects to me of these time-lapse videos is the sense of motion and contrasting directions. The stars move one way, clouds another, planes zip in accelerated rates, aurorae circle and undulate diaphanously. Itâs mesmerizing.

And I actually gasped out loud when, at six minutes in, I saw the fogbow arcing on the horizon under the aurora; like a rainbow but caused by moonlight. The tiny droplets of water suspended in the air bend and manipulate light differently than larger raindrops, so the colors are muted, and all you really see is a ghostly, milky arch of light.

But for everything in this video, there is one thing that rolls over me, one piece of it lying beneath that ties it together and makes it even more wondrous.

All of this stupendous beauty, this moving delight, this profound display of nature: It can be understood. Itâs not magic, or something that just happens; itâs the laws of nature writ large, from particles too small to see yet make up the entire of existence, to massive structures trillions upon trillions time larger than our entire world. They all dance to the basic rules of the Universe.

That we can observe them, learn them, understand them, is one the greatest and most important endeavors humans can undertake.

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