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REALITY/ It is all a matter of pictures

LORENZO ALBACETE compares the picture of a newborn planet and the photo of the helicopter taking away Pope Benedict from St. Peter’s Square. Which of the two photos reveal more of reality?

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It is all a matter of pictures. I keep looking at them. They appeared on television news this past week. I asked myself: Which of the two photos reveal more of reality?

The first picture is the picture of a newborn planet. As described by This Week, even though scientists had never seen the event firsthand, they had a good idea of how planets form.

"The dominant theory is that dust, gas, and other materials spewed from a newly formed star zip around a young solar system, smashing into one another chaotically. Eventually, a few objects start clumping together like cosmic dust bunnies, growing larger and more recognizable over time. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, a force called gravity molds these snowballing chunks of space rock into planets, like Jupiter, Neptune,.. and Earth."

I am a scientist, but neither astronomy nor cosmology were my fields of study. Still, I cannot resist the awe and excitement of news like this that confront us with the imposing majesty of the cosmos compared to the size and complexity of the human brain that allows us to investigate the universe.

I remember Pope Paul VI's reference to Pascal when looking through the telescope at the Vatican Observatory: “We may be just a tiny speck when compared to the size of the universe, but the universe doesn't know us while we know the universe."

The new planet (if that is what it is) is far away from its parent star. It is twice as far as Pluto. As This Week observes, "giants, as far as we know, are usually much closer to their host star. That might mean the massive infant was given the boot at some point, possibly due to a gravitational interaction with another gigantic planet."

Indeed, maybe it is possible that the new object seen isn't a new planet after all. It could turn out to be something much larger and distant. But even just the possibility of having a photo of the birth of a planet is exciting, since it could give us a clearer picture of how planets like Earth form in the first place. "Now, we just have to wait a couple hundred thousand years for the not-so-little fella to grow up."

And then there was the second picture.