Note added May 30, 2005: This entry was chosen to be part of the Carnival of the Godless, a blog carnival that is not so much about atheism as it is about seeing the world from a godless perspective (i.e., not using a supernatural being to explain things). There are many fascinating blog entries listed there.
Some time ago, I decided to become prostrate to the gods of advertising, in order to justify to my wife the vast amounts of money I was throwing away on my website. I got Google Ads, which are supposed to be targeted ads based on the content of the page on which they are served. So if you have a page about, oh say left-handed pipe cleaners, then Google will serve ads on your page about pipes, left-handed can openers, and (it wouldn't surprise me) a homeopathic lip cancer "remedy".
I deal with a lot of silly anti-science hoaxery, and so, ironically, I get a lot of ads that actually go against my own fight. My page about the Apollo Moon hoax, for example, might have an ad for a book promoting the hoax, or a video about UFOs. I can filter such nonsense ads, but I have actually run out of allowed filters at Google. I figure what the heck, if someone reads my page, they are (hopefully) unlikely to buy any kind of garbage advertised by these wacky places. And since the advertiser pays anyway, it's win-win for the good guys. *
Still, the irony gets to me sometimes. Google served up an ad on one of my pages recently for a company selling pictures of the Cone Nebula as seen by Hubble. Drink in its beauty for a moment...
... and now indulge me as I regale you with what you are seeing.
The Cone Nebula is just one part of a vast collection of gas and dust. It's length is about 7 light years -- 70 trillion kilometers. It is 2500 light years away, which means that, if you were to look through a telescope at the Cone, the fleet of photons hitting your retina would have left the nebula when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon, and when the good people of Athens decided to experiment with democracy as a form of government.
Near the Cone (off the top of this image) is a very young, very massive star. This star blows an ethereal but violent wind of gas off its surface, a super-solar wind, if you will. Countless millions of tons of gas moving at hundreds of thousands of kilometers per hour slam into the Cone, sculpting it into the shape we see. Inside the Cone is a secret-- a nest of young stars, newly born, struggling to cast off the cocoon of gas and dust in which they are shrouded. Some of these stars will explode in tormented deaths in a relatively short time, while others will still be steadily shining well after our own Sun has faded and gone.
When you look at this picture, you are seeing the interplay of forces both subtle and gross, matter and energy interacting on a scale too grand for humans to comprehend, and spanning a timescale that dwarfs even the long, long history of humans as we currently know ourselves.
But for some people, that isn't enough. It's hard to imagine-- who wouldn't be satisfied with such glorious knowledge?
Why, the folks who bought an ad that Google placed on my website. Those people think they see the face of Jesus in it.
But I won't, at least not too much. I will show you something that galled me: just in case you don't see a face (and instead, if you have decent eyesight, and think it looks more like an infected fingertip or, uh, something a lot worse), the folks behind that advertisement want to help you along, so they Photoshopped a cheesy drawing into the nebula. Keep your eyes-- if you can-- on the animated image below from their website.
Feh. At least sometimes the objects in which people see religious icons at least have some vague resemblance to the icons, but this? Let me repeat myself: feh.
How many times have I heard that religion is about beauty, art, and something more than ourselves, and how many times, from those same people, have I heard that science is about cold equations, heartless numbers, and the emotionless accumulation of facts?
Don't anyone dare tell me about the emptiness of rational thought, the prosaic nature of science. It's science that revealed the beauty of the Cone Nebula, and science that opened our minds to the beauty of understanding it.
And long after every human currently on this planet has shuffled off their mortal coil, and a thousand thousand religions have come and gone, the Cone will still be thoughtlessly, coldly, and unemotionally creating stars for millennia to come.
* I wonder what type of ads will be displayed for this blog entry. Religious stuff? More astronomy images? Left handed pipe cleaners? Keep track in the comments! Collect 'em all!