Cicadas and Megamergers
CHAPTER 35 - Goodbye Cicadas, Hello, New Hip, Hopefully
The singing has stopped. Most of the dead carcasses have been swept off the driveways and sidewalks. Presumably, the youngsters resulting from the mating frenzy have hatched, or soon will hatch and begin to burrow down underground to spend the next 17 years before once again emerging to see the light of day. In a way, I'm sorry to see them go, those most fascinating insects. I forget the TV program, but it had a segment on the cicadas and someone mentioned that the 17-year cycle makes one think of his or her own mortality. I alluded to as much in my last column when I wrote that I was pretty confident that I wouldn't be around in 2030 to witness the cicadas next emergence.
Thoughts of mortality naturally come to mind when one is contemplating surgery in these days of MRSA, tales of hospital mistakes and other unpleasant things. A couple days from now, I will be getting a total hip replacement. If all goes well, I'll be back home in a day or two without going to a rehabilitation facility. If the surgery is successful, I'll probably spend some time in next month's column writing about the advantages of the anterior approach to hip replacement.
This column will be very short. Aside from my own medical appointments and time spent doing the three sets a day of exercises a day to prepare for the hip surgery, my wife developed a sudden onset of severe back pain that resulted in visits to the ER and a hospital stay, followed by transfer to a rehab facility, where she will remain for a period overlapping my hip surgery. Old Bortrum, at 85, just can't handle as many tasks as in his youthful years back in his 70s!
In contrast to talk of mortality, let's look at what I had planned to write about before all these medical problems. This is about beginnings, or at least something that happened a very long time ago concerning how galaxies and stars come into being. Actually, there is a bit about mortality. I'm talking about the European Space Agency's Herschel mission. This very productive space mission has come to an end, at least as far as its mission to study the universe as revealed in measurements in the longest wavelengths of infrared light. Infrared light is akin to heat and to study those wavelengths required the detector(s) to be extremely cold. Hence, the mission was launched in May of 2009 with over 2000 liters of liquid helium to cool the infrared detector(s). Finally, the helium has all evaporated and Herschel's useful life is over.
But not before it had gathered enough data to keep astronomers busy for a long time to come. One of the most interesting findings has just been announced by ESA and NASA, a mind-bending mega-merger of two galaxies when the universe was only some 3 billion years old. When other telescopes, such as the Hubble, one on Mauna Kea and others zeroed in on the Herschel image, what they found was astounding. This huge galaxy merger involved a total of 400 billion stars! (I was blown away by this figure but then found in Wikipedia that our own Milky Way contains a hundred million stars and may contain 400 million. Even more daunting, Wikipedia says the Andromeda galaxy contains a trillion stars! And we're headed for a collision /merger with Andromeda in the distant future.) At any rate, in the mega merger that Herschel detected, there are some 2 thousand new stars created every year as compared with only two or three a year formed in our Milky Way.
Well, I've got to get back to my exercises. But one last word on cicadas. I just looked out the window and saw a robin pluck a cicada out of the grass and eat it. The squirrels and robins will now have to work harder to find a decent meal!
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about August 1.
Allen F. Bortrum