On a wonderfully clear morning in October I was twice rewarded by nature. First, a vivid green praying mantis latched onto my screen door. I sat down and watched it and, in return, it moved its triangular head every so often to let me know that I, too, was being watched. Then, on my daily walk, a majestic red tail hawk that had been soaring above me decided to get closer and perch atop a telephone pole. I took its picture, said thank you, and watched it leave as I marveled at its colors and the breadth of its wingspan.
The rest of the day moved along until evening. I stepped outside into the (finally!) cool air. I gazed up and was rewarded again, though not by a singular object. Rather, it was just the enormity of it all, its perfection, its overriding mysteriousness.
It’s a rarity to see a praying mantis, or to see a red tail up close. They’re treasures because we often just get fleeting glimpses of them. The night sky, unless washed out by bad weather or light pollution, is always there. It’s as familiar as sunrise. Unfortunately, even when it sublimely inspires, I too often take it for granted. But that night as I looked up I knew there was one place in the heavens that I would never take for granted again.
The Orion constellation will slowly rise in the east throughout November and will remain visible until April when it will appear in the West. The nebula that glows just below the belt of the mighty hunter is no stranger to this column. It’s an easy sight to see and is quite incredible when viewed through a telescope. It’s a well-known star nursery.
Now, we know it’s much more than that. Astronomers, using images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), have recently discovered objects in the Orion Nebula that have never been seen or contemplated before.
What astronomers have zeroed in on are well over 100 JuMBOs—Jupiter Mass Binary Objects. They’re not stars and they’re not planets. Other than knowing that many of these gas giants are part of a pair, the scientists really have very little understanding of them even though they’ve been there for a million years. They weren’t hidden; we just didn’t have the technology to see them. And now, at least for me, staring at Orion and its great nebula will no longer be the same.
No earth-based telescope will give us a view of the JuMBOs. I wish we could simply put on a pair of special glasses, like we do when there is a ring of fire solar eclipse, and make them magically appear. Instead, all we have are tiny dots on an image courtesy of the JWST. So, we’ll have to imagine what they look like and how they came to be.
And, that’s okay with me. Imagination allows us to look beyond ourselves, to accept that we are often limited, sometimes by technology and sometimes by our own choices. Sometimes, we are unwilling to believe that there is really much more than what we currently know or see or are able to grasp with our hands.
The Orion Nebula is huge and distant. If your spaceship could travel 671 million miles per hour it would only take 1,350 years to reach it. Incredible as that is to comprehend, it is even more incredible that, starting with unbridled imagination, folks have not only devised powerful cameras that work in space, but have hitched them to a very small craft now parked a million miles from Earth. Pictures from those cameras are sent through the darkness and processed into breathtaking views of things that defy our current understanding.
It’s all a gift, a reward, just like a once-in-a-decade sighting of a praying mantis or a photo op with a red tail. We should appreciate these rare glimpses. Even more, we should appreciate how imagination can lead us to see things previously unknown. It should inform us. It should tell us to take nothing for granted. With imagination we can break free of biases and misconceptions that constrain our thinking. We can find solutions where none seemed possible. “Just imagine” should be where we all begin.
Harold Meckler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org