Recently NASA released a press report with the colorful title: “Death Star Galaxy’s Black Hole Fires at Neighboring Galaxy.” Death Star Galaxy? Does the administration know about this weapon of mass destruction? Is this a new member of the “axis of evil”? Should we fear the wrath of a rogue and aggressive galaxy?
The report actually refers to a new set of observations of the system 3C321, the 321st object in the 3rd Cambridge radio catalogue. Daniel Evans at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics led a recent study of this source using the three “great space observatories” Hubble, Chandra & Spitzer, as well as the VLA and MERLIN. They found a jet emanating from the galaxy in the lower right of the image (big pink spot) was “slamming the side of a companion galaxy” (smaller pink spot closer to middle of image). The jet then flares off to the side (blue nebulous emission) having apparently done its damage.
A very interesting (and rare) discovery to be sure, and one that will likely help us better understand the energetics of these jets, which are formed by accreting, supermassive black holes commonly found at the centers of galaxies (our own Milky Way galaxy has one of these supermassive black holes, Sagittarius A*, but it doesn’t seem to be producing a jet at the moment). But it is no surprise that this story had real legs because of the seemingly “violent nature” of this galaxy-galaxy interaction. And boy did Evans and his press conference colleagues push the violence angle, calling 3C321 the “death star galaxy” that is “causing all sorts of problems for the smaller galaxy it is pummelling”. “A truly extraordinary act of violence,” Evans reportedly stated.
The most colorful comments came of course from everyone’s favorite astro-talking-head Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who was “not a member of the research team”. Some winners:
“This is like a black hole bully, reaching out … and punching the nose of a passing galaxy.”
“This shows there are no safe islands in the universe.”
But the astro-pundits were not the only ones stoking the flames of cosmic violence. Many of the reporters wanting to soup up their articles added their own phrases in praise of anger and strife:
“In a display of cosmic violence that has never been seen before, the jet of radiation is pummelling a small nearby galaxy, likely damaging or even destroying any planets that might lie in its path.” – NY Times
“The power-packed particles…delivered the cosmic equivalent of a right hook to a smaller galaxy that just happened to be wandering by.” – Boston Globe
“The aggressive ‘death star’ galaxy was caught in its attack by an array of space and land-based telescopes.” – BBC News
“The latest act of senseless violence caught on tape is cosmic in scope: A black hole in a ‘death star galaxy’ blasting a neighboring galaxy with a deadly jet of radiation and energy.” – Yahoo News
“Cosmic equivalent of a right hook”? This “battle galactica” makes Iraq look like a minor tussle between ants. But honestly, are galaxies really doing violence unto one another? As “courtgolf” says in his/her post to Comcast.net forums, galaxies do not choose to inflict violence on one another as humans do, so anthropomorphizing a galaxy as “aggressive” or on the “attack” is a little ridiculous.
Moreover, why play the violence card? Reading the paper, the analogy that struck me was more of an invigorating massage, like a whirlpool jet, stimulating a little star formation in the companion galaxy. A little titillating, perhaps, but sex sells, right?
Apparently not in astronomy. No, the order of the day is aggression, violence, danger. Tyson’s latest book: “Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries.” The next book of my friend Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy: “Death from the Skies”. And if that isn’t enough, here are a few other recent acts of violence reported from the cosmos:
Jupiter: Friend or Foe? – Astrobiology magazine
Planet Venus: Earth’s ‘evil twin’ – BBC News
Killer Asteroids: A Real But Remote Risk? – National Geographic
Cosmic catastrophe “a certainty”– BBC News
Cocoon surrounds “black widow” star– BBC News
Stellar Violence in 30 Doradus – Astronomy Picture of the Day
University of Chicago astrophysicists simulate hellish violence of neutron star explosions – U. Chicago News Office
Violent galaxy seen in 3D – BBC News
It sure makes me want to duck and cover!
In my opinion, these headlines promote sensationalism over thoughtful research. But they can also have a negative impact on our culture as well. In the daily violence that surrounds us here on Earth, humans for millennia have taken refuge in the tranquility and beauty of the heavens. What kind of picture are we, as astronomers, now portraying to the public by making cosmic events look like an endless series of violent acts, with the forces of Nature bent on not only destroying us but each other in a perennial cycle of aggression? What is happening to the beauty and imagination the Universe inspires – the colorful wisps of nebulae and the sky-arching swirl of the Milky Way, the presence of other worlds and the possibility of other life, or the sheer awe of the vastness and age of the cosmos? Instead of uplifting the public about the grandeur of Universe around them, are we dumbing down our research into some kind of running commentary on the ultimate “ultimate fighting championship“?
When we anthropomorphize an aspect of the natural world, we impose not just physical attributes but psychological and emotional ones as well. Perhaps the portrayal of the Universe as an arena of uncontrollable violence is simply a reflection of the uncontrollable violence in our own lives. Projecting our fears and anxieties onto the stars allows us to “make sense” of war, anger, violence as a natural process, not simply a man-made one. In the end, this serves only to continue the cycle of human violence, instead of seeing the irrationality of it in the grand scale of the cosmos.
Perhaps it is time to bring sexy back to astronomy…