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Patrick Das Gupta Department of Physics and Astrophysics, University of Delhi, Delhi - 110 007 (India)
[The other day, I was having TEA in the university COFFEE house (an oxymoronic act, if you will), when there was a typhoon in my tea cup! I felt a hard thump on my back. It was Fraud’s doing. He was grinning from ear to ear. I call him Fraud, as he is our local expert on Freudian psychoanalysis.] Fraud (visibly pleased, seeing that I had spilt tea on my dress): Say, what is a galaxy? I (trying to keep cool, said): Has your subconscious been dreaming about one, lately? F (as if he did’nt hear me, continued): I was holiday-ing with friends in Nainital, few days back. The night sky there was really starry. One evening, a friend of mine pointed his ﬁnger excitedly in the direction of an oval silvery fuzz, exclaiming, ”Theres Andromeda!” Looking upwards, expecting something as pretty as the damsel in distress of Greek mythology, but ﬁnding just a white smudge, I remarked, ”That milky smear of a thumb can in no way represent Perseus dream heroine.” (Then, becoming sullen, Fraud continued) Upon hearing that, every one burst out laughing. Later, I was told that the celestial fuzz was Andromeda, a spiral galaxy. And hence, my question: What is a spiral galaxy? I (sympathizing with him): Well, galaxies are gigantic swarms of stars held together by their mutual gravitational attraction. The same force that glues us to the surface of the earth. Just switch oﬀ the gravity (if it was possible at all), and feel being hurled out from the merry-go-round, that is our spinning Earth! Stars and gas in a galaxy too feel the same attractive force. F: A fatal attraction, eh? But where do spiral staircases come in? (His mind still under the Pavlovian conditioning caused by spiralling stairs in murder mysteries that he is fond of.) I: Most galaxies are of spiral type. Use a powerful telescope to look at a spiral galaxy from top, face on, and what do you see - a cosmic whirlpool of light! A vortex of bright, young stars bunched in spiral patterns. The side view of a spiral galaxy gives you the feeling that it is a fried egg - a disc with a bulge at the centre, where the yellow yolk is supposedly located. F : Disc dislocated? Does a spiral galaxy suﬀer from Freudian slip-disc or what? (Then, remembering the fried egg, he summons a waiter) Food talk makes me hungry. I need to develop a bulge in the middle too. (After ordering for an egg dish, he resumed) So the spiral structure lends the galaxy its ego. It thumps its belly-bulge and proclaims, ”Hey, I am a rich spiral!” 2
I : Spirals are indeed rich in gas. The gaps between the spiral arms contain older stars and gas, mostly hydrogen. The disc stars, both young and old, as well as the gaseous matter go round the centre, making a complete circle roughly once every 100 million years! Gravity providing the centripetal force, and all that. F (becoming animated): I get it! The stars in the pirouetting spiral arms are like bright and cheerful thoughts in the conscious part of the brain. While the darker regions resemble the gloomy and mysterious subconscious! I (not wanting to digress): Returning to the galactic theme, rotation of matter around the galactic centre gives rise to an outgoing spiral density wave. When this density wave sweeps across the inconspicuous but gas rich regions, it compresses the dark gas clouds to undergo gravitational collapse. They collapse to form stars. That’s how bright stars are born from dark gas clouds. F: Ah, like a bright thought popping out of the subconscious during a Freudian slip! So, the density wave is like a psychoanalyst who prods a clients subconscious to let out a repressed thought into the conscious area. I: Density waves are actually travelling compressors. When they cross clouds of gas, latter get compressed to smaller sizes. After that, gravity takes over. F: Rather strange. Normally, external pressure or stress leads to depression. A depressed mind seldom shines like a bright star! Take yourself, for example. I (coldly): Here, we are talking about compression of a gas cloud. Hit by the density wave, the cloud size reduces but its weight remains the same. Gravitational pull between diﬀerent parts of the cloud then increases. So, the giant ball of gas contracts further. This goes on till the density and temperature inside the cloud becomes so high as to trigger a nuclear reaction. The core of the cloud becomes something like a hydrogen bomb. Continuous nuclear blasts stop the cloud from collapsing further. Hence, for the time being, gravity has been checked by nuclear fusion. Now, the object starts shining radiantly due to all those hydrogen nuclei fusing to become helium, releasing energy copiously. A star is born! That’s the MAIN SEQUENCE of events. F (not convinced): A confusing sequence, mainly! But wait a minute. May be one can think of the density wave going round as the creative force, causing ﬁrst a turmoil in the subconscious. Out of this fusion or confusion, a bright idea is born in the conscious. Eureka, there we go! I (showing signs of impatience): Look here, there are about 100 billion stars in a galaxy! 3
Please dont bring in the ”mind”. Sheer size of a galaxy is mind-boggling. F (absolutely ecstatic): What a coincidence! There are that many neurons or brain cells inside our skull cave! I (trying hard to outwit Fraud): Astronomers have also discovered super-massive blackholes at the centres of galaxies, weighing more than a million suns. The ultimate collapsed objects, these blackholes! Chandrasekhar, the great, thought that they were the most perfect macroscopic objects. These powerful monsters remember nothing else but their strong gravitational identity, not letting even light to escape from their clutches. F: Then, these blackholes are the ”superegos”! What are their inherited ”id”, I wonder? I (by now resigned): They are more like Vakasura, devouring anything and everything in their horizon. Stars, gaseous matter and radiation get sucked into their stomach, making them grow heavier day by day. F (chuckling): The rogues have huge libido for gobbling up matter, eh! (Clucking and shaking his head) Eating all the time. Must be a worried lot, them blackholes. I: Listen, apart from spirals there are other types of galaxies. F (excitedly): Dont tell me, don’t tell me. Let me guess, let me guess! I (amused): Alright. After spirals, what? F (with a bright expression): Viral galaxies! I (throwing up my hands): Wrong. First of all, there are elliptical galaxies. Elliptic in shape. Then, there are ..... F (interrupting me): Imagine galaxies being epileptic. Had he known this, Julius Caesar would be in ﬁts! I (unperturbed): ... irregulars. With no well deﬁned structure. Large and Small Magellanic clouds are two such galaxies. They are the companions of the spiral galaxy we inhabit, called the Milky Way. The gravitational tidal force due to the Milky Way is believed to be responsible for disrupting LMC and SMC. Like the way moons (as well as sun’s) tidal pull causes upheaval in our oceans! F: Yes, bullies do bring about identity crisis among individuals. Highly irregular, these domineering acts! I (speaking at cross-purpose): At times, when galaxies approach each other, powerful tidal forces tear apart a loosely bound galaxy! Reminds you of the fate of Jarasandha during his combat with Bheema. Many astrophysicists believe that elliptical galaxies are 4
formed when two spirals come close and merge into one. In the beginning, the resulting object is all messed up and resembles an irregular due to mutual tidal tugs. But with time, it relaxes into a smooth elliptic structure, resplendent with a cosmic Diwali celebration! F (highly skeptical): How can an epileptic state be relaxing? These tidal inﬂuences cause a lot of mental untidiness. I (in a pedantic manner): The elliptical galaxies dont seem to exhibit much organized rotational motion, while a single spiral possesses a lot of spin. But when two distinct spirals, each with mutually uncorrelated spin axis, merge there is very little rotation left. Indeed, it ﬁts with the observation that ellipticals have less angular momentum. F (making up his mind once for all): From this angle, everything is crystal clear to me. Galaxies are like individual minds. Young, bright stars make the conscious part while gaseous matter and old, faint stars the subconscious. Density waves are the prime mover of creativity. They shock the subconscious in producing bright ideas, I mean, stars. At the heart of a galaxy is a superegoistic and libidinous blackhole. Two spirals merging is like two identities in one mind. Thats split personality, ofcourse! After the merging, what you have is a epileptic galaxy undergoing ﬁts! (Then, in a puzzled tone) But surely something is missing. Where is the completely hidden unconscious part? I (deciding to play along): Well, that is your ”missing matter”! All galaxies possess dark matter. Sometimes these are referred to as missing or hidden mass. They dont give out light, but their presence is nevertheless felt due to their strong gravitational pull on visible matter like stars and gas clouds. In fact, they outweigh shining matter by more than a factor of ten! F (jubilant): Freudian mind is supreme. (Then, cart-wheeling Descartes on his head) I think, therefore the galaxy is! I: Interesting. Immanuel Kant, the idealist, believed that space, time and matter are all due to an innate structure of human mind. He had already foreseen that the wispy fuzz one observes in the night sky are separate ‘island universes, much before they were identiﬁed by astronomers as distinct galaxies. F (slightly annoyed): Why bring in the ”islands” when we are discovering ”brave new worlds”? Kant cant be a Freud. I : But Freud can be a ”can’t”. Although, ”no man is an island ...”, Kantian ”island universes” are galaxies. Whether it is ”Treasure Island” or Islet of Langerhans, islands 5
are important. For that matter, do you think ”Descent of Man” would have been possible without Darwins voyage to the Galapagos. F (visibly irritated): I would rather have YOU deported to Pagal-logs island ! I (sarcastically): Mad about the idea, I am. So, when do we start? Islands usually have clear skies. We can sky gaze, and observe Andromeda and Whirlpool galaxies. F: We? What makes you so sure that I too will drown in the whirlpool? I: Fraud, ”we” are ”I” - the alter ego of one another! We possess distinct egos but are bound to one physical brain. And like Edgar Alan Poes protagonist in Maelstrom, we are trapped in a whirlpool - getting gradually sucked towards the eye of the whirlpool, into an unknown abyss. Two spirals merging - their central cores coalescing into a gargantuan, spinning supermassive blackhole..........! [ I confess : Fraud and myself are two distinct identities residing in the same brain. Just an ordinary case of split personality that I suﬀer from. All the conversations above were mere soliloquy. So, you ﬁnd the end somewhat chilling, eh? ]
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