Tabloid reveals a way-out truth
Tuesday, May 11, 1999
Everyone has a secret shame, and if you promise not to tell
anyone, I'll reveal my nastiest vice. No, I'm not talking
about sneaking out to go stargazing after my family goes to
bed. The other one.
Every week when I'm doing the family grocery shopping, I pick
up a copy of the Weekly World News. After all, it covers a
lot of astronomical news that you will find nowhere in the
hidebound, traditional press: "World War II Bomber Found on
the Moon.'' "Mars Face Beams Message to Earth.'' "Elvis Was
an Alien and I Had His Baby.''
And, yes, I keep a nice, fat file of these very weird articles.
The strangest of all can be found in the Aug. 28, 1990, issue.
Here's the headline: "Spacecraft Takes Photo of Paradise,''
i.e., "the place inhabited by God and the souls of the dead.''
Now isn't it worth a couple of bucks to see an actual
photograph of heaven?
The picture in question is actually a mosaic of photos of our
Milky Way galaxy taken by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE),
an Earth-orbiting observatory designed to explore the origins of
the universe. It looks like a thin streak of light with a fat
However,the "journalists'' at the tabloid saw fit to superimpose
a set of Greek columns on it. Ergo, heaven. What is most
remarkable about the Milky-Way image (excluding the Greek
columns, of course) is that it looks exactly like another
galaxy, much farther away, called NGC4565.
To find it, look high in the south about 11:30 p.m. for the
faint constellation Coma Berenices, Berenices' Hair. Coma
gets its name from the beautiful, naked-eye star cluster
marked as MEL111 on the accompanying star map. It is easy to
spot with the unaided eye as a large hazy patch. Just to the
left of MEL111 is NGC4565, a faint sliver of light visible
in a 6-inch telescope.
NGC4565 looks like a smaller version of the Milky Way because
both are discus-shaped collections of billions of stars like
our sun. At 90,000 light-years from end to end, 4565 is just
a bit smaller than the Milky Way. (A light-year is about 6
trillion miles.) We are circling our star, the sun, out on the
edge of the Milky Way. Our location lets us get a panoramic
view of most of our galaxy by piecing together pictures into
a mosaic. Because we're at the edge, we see the galaxy "edge
on,'' and it looks like a toothpick of light with a bulge of
stars at its center.
We're seeing NGC4565 "edge on'' as well, but from a much greater distance,
20 million light-years. Thus, the galaxy is one of the
best examples of what we would see if we could get outside our
own galaxy and take a look back.
It's only an example, however. The mind-boggling fact is that
in every direction we look, we see such galaxies as the Milky
Way -- hundreds of billions of them.
So in a sense, the Weekly World News got it right. As the
Book of Psalms says:
"The heavens tell out the glory of God. The vault of heaven
reveals his handiwork.''
Does heaven exist? Astronomy provides no evidence either way,
so I'll leave that question for theologians and the Weekly
World News to ponder. But one thing I do know: The heavens
are out there, grand and glorious beyond measure.
Tom Burns (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of Ohio Wesleyan University's
Perkins Observatory in Delaware, Ohio.