Cosmic fog

Planetary nebulae give up riddles

M27 Planetary Mist in Infrared View NASA
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Planetary nebulae are among the most fascinating and beautiful phenomena in the universe. Until recently, they were long regarded as "fundamentally explored" and well-known but recent images and data have now thrown the alleged certainties over the pile. They contradict common explanatory patterns and give the astronomers new puzzles.

The planetary nebulae are a good example of the fact that science always reaches the point where its protagonists assume that they now know the essentials of their research subject and that everything that comes after them is only improvements in detail.

Not only Simon Newcomb, who was called the giant of celestial mechanics, tapped his prognosis seriously wrong. He had probably just been a victim of the zeitgeist. At the end of the nineteenth century, many important physicists believed that everything fundamental had been discovered, and that the entire physical body of thought was now on an unchangeable foundation for all time.

But then the radioactivity was discovered, then came the theory of relativity, and today we have reached a point where in physics we can only say one thing for sure: we know that we do not know much. A comparable status, though not quite as blasphemous, astronomy seemed to have reached in the field of planetary nebula research. After having understood in recent decades how they are created, these research objects have been viewed with only moderate interest.

Granted, visually they make a lot. Above all, the fascinating pictures of the Hubble Space Telescope were very well received by the public. Their complex shapes and dazzling colors make planetary nebulae in amateur astronomers popular observation objects in the night sky. But scientifically speaking, everything essential said. This self-assurance of "mainstream astronomy" has recently been seriously shaken. Almost every day in the last few weeks and months, reports went through the specialist publications, which suddenly called into question certainty in standard knowledge, had long since rejected valid assumptions and validated and added completely new aspects to the subject. display

The last bit of dusty planetary nebulae suddenly moved back into the realm of the mysterious and the unknown. A proof that in astronomy there is something like a sure reason, areas about which one already "knows everything anyway", probably only rarely.

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Eugen Reichl / Starobserver
As of: 27.08.2004