The Mind-Boggling Story of the Galactic Wonder That Didn't Exist When We Saw It

By Jesus Diaz on at

In 1995, the world was astonished by the image of a group of 4-light-year-tall columns located in the Eagle Nebula, 7,000 light years from here. So unimaginable it was that someone called them the Pillars of Creation.

The only problem is that the pillars didn't really exist. Something had destroyed them more than a thousand years ago.

It's a natural thought. Limited by our understanding of time, we look at objects in space as if they were mountains or the ocean. We genuinely perceive these stellar landscapes as something that is up there fixed, secure, rooted in our reality, the solid foundation of our existence. Some people see the work of gods in all this seemingly immutable show, hence the fantastic name they got. Others just see a cosmic movie set for our humanity's drama.

But our diminutive perception of time, the same that makes us think we are the centre of everything, is just an illusion. At the cosmic scale, just like in our individual lives, things move constantly. The architecture of the cosmos is ever changing and scientists know—since 2007, only a few years after they were observed—that these gargantuan structures don't exist anymore.

They were destroyed, blasted by a supernova that happened 6,000 years ago. With our telescopes, we can see the supernova advancing, unstoppable, destroying everything it touches. From that same vantage point, the shockwave has not reached the Pillars of Creation yet. For our senses, they are still there.

In one thousand years, there will be a hell of a show. The shockwave will arrive to the Pillars of Creation and, just like they were created, they will be destroyed once again, obliterated by the force of a dead star. Except that the show really happened a very long time ago.

Rationally, I know why this happens. I know that, since the light has to travel a vast distance, it will arrive after the event has occurred. So the further away something happens, the longer it takes to reach our eyes. I know that, when we look up to the sky, that's the past—seconds, minutes, years, centuries and millennia away.

But that doesn't matter. Every time I think about this, I experience the same sensation. One of awe and humility. And also of wonderment, thinking that my own existence and the existence of the people around me, the people I loved, the people I love, and the people I will love, is happening. Right now, in the middle of this huge storm that is the Universe. And then, my mind and my heart explode.

Clearly, I need a drink.

Above, top, a close-up of the Pillars of Creation as captured by Hubble in 1995. Over these lines, the Pillars of Creation within the Eagle Nebula, captured by the Spitzer telescope in 2007. On the left of that image you can see the supernova that destroyed them, surrounded by a red glow.

Images by NASA via Wikipedia via Photographs of the Brain via Petapixel