When I looked into the distant past…
The Universe has always fascinated me. Doesn’t matter what level of understanding you have, Cosmology will always blow your mind. Have you ever wondered that when you look up to the stars, you are actually looking into the past?
- When you look at the moon, you are looking a little more than a second into the past.
- When you look at the sun, you are looking a little more than 8 minutes into the past.
- When you look at the pole star, you are looking about 430 years into the past.
- The list goes on. There are stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters which could be your window to the past ranging from a few years to billions of years!
You could actually go on into the past until about a few hundred million years after the Big Bang (I wouldn’t get into the technicalities of why we can’t see beyond). We don’t even know if some of these exist as of today when we are looking at them.
With naked eyes you can only see up to a certain limit. Telescopes can push you into the realms ranging from a few seconds to a few billion years into the past. I always wanted to push beyond what I could see with naked eyes. I started with a pair of astronomical binoculars. Little did I know that just a small magnification can help you improve the visibility into the past drastically.
I wanted to push this further. And luckily I got this opportunity a few weeks ago. I came across a large enough telescope and a very knowledgeable and generous guide, Kiran. When you look through a telescope, you don’t get to see the planets, stars and galaxies like those glossy high resolution images. You need to use your imagination to understand what you see.
When I first saw Saturn with its rings clearly demarcated, I somehow felt a personal connect. There was a feeling of possessiveness. After all I was not looking at an image. I was directly looking through the air. The galaxies looked like sugar sprinkled on paper. A few galaxy clusters again looked like salt sprinkled on paper. And when I paid a little more attention, I could make out that they were concentrated towards the center. I thought, could there be a black hole at the center? To my delight, Kiran confirmed that there is a black hole at the center indeed! It was like attaining nirvana! Can you imagine? I was staring at a black hole. Wow!
And it was not over yet. It turned out to be a lucky night for stargazing. The lazy city of Mysore provided an amazing backdrop for an exciting starry night. I saw a white dwarf! Yes, a dying star!! It had exhausted its fuel and had blown into a giant white shell, with a black dot, which was the core.
I stopped for a moment to think that I am looking at something which happened millions of years ago. When humans still hadn’t evolved. Probably when dinosaurs walked the Earth. Or maybe beyond that. I wanted to push back further. But alas! You can’t get into the billions. You probably need to get over the Earth’s atmosphere to look back to that scale. That is what the Hubble has been doing.
But I was more than satisfied with what I saw. I saw the child inside me waking up. I would never forget that night.
Some day, I wish to push the limits and get closer to the big bang by looking through one of the giant telescope arrays.