Star formation

Another long-haul flight, another blog post. After I’ve exhausted the in-flight movies, this month’s issues of Scientific American and the New Yorker, listened to one and a half episodes of In Our Time, and even done some work, I’ve had to fall back to the option of last resort – writing a post for this weblog.

There’s something about long distance travel that engenders it to writing diaries or journals. For me, it’s a combination of being forced to spend lots of time thinking about nothing in particular, and soaking up large amounts of varied information from articles, podcasts and observations in general about people and airports.

Airports – now who couldn’t be moved to write a few hundred words about them? They’re an experience that everyone has to suffer once in a while, a shared environment that exists independent of location. Personally, I’ve often thought of airports as being extremely slow teleportation devices, in that you move between two near-identical buildings without any experience of the space in between them. Even the styling of airports resembles teleporters, from the retro ‘2001’ space-age look (60s US airports) to the high-tech space-age look (00s Chinese airports). Unfortunately the analogy falls apart when you spend 90 minutes waiting in immigration at JFK, but otherwise it’s a nice though.

US immigration – surely one of the worst flying experiences ever. No doubt in theory the fingerprinting and photo process shouldn’t take thatlong, but the geniuses in charge of the process forgot two things. One, that the immigration desks would be chronically underfunded and understaffed; and two, that there is a high proportion of fuckwits (and I use the term after some consideration) that pass through airports and slow the entire process down for everyone. Clearly the challenge of filling out a couple of forms and correctly stating your nationality was just too much for a good 75% of people – although the incredibly poorly designed forms didn’t help matters. I found myself wondering whatever had happened to the US free market – why can’t someone set up a few fast-track immigration lanes that you could pay $5 to use? I certainly would’ve stumped up the money to save myself an hour.

I also felt sorry for the US citizens who had to go through immigration. When entering the UK, EU citizens just have to flash their passports and get waved through. I have no idea what happens to US citizens, except that it seems to take about ten times longer. So much for American ingenuity.

One of the In Our Time podcasts I listened to was about galaxies. Normally, In Our Time’s treatment of science is not quite as good as the arts or humanities – I put this down to Melyvn Bragg’s slight disdain for the field, and the sad fact that many scientists just aren’t good communicators. However, this one was pretty good, mainly because there was a charming American scientist on the panel.

One of the interesting facts in the program was to do with the Milky Way’s spiral arms. What with all the ‘photos’ of the Milky Way showing the magnificent spirals (obviously they aren’t photos, since we’re in the Milky Way), you would think that all of the stars are packed into those arms. But apparently, they’re not. The stars in our galaxy are actually formed into a disc, so they’re also present ‘in between’ the arms. The arms themselves are regions of star formation, and because the new stars shine so brightly and light up the gas around them, that’s why the arms outshine the rest of the galaxy.

What’s even more interesting is that the spiral arms do not travel at the same speed of rotation of stars within the galaxy – it’s a bit like the way in which waves in the ocean aren’t composed of water that’s moving sideways, they’re composed of water moving up and down. The arms are also waves – they’re compression waves that roll around the Milky Way, collapsing the clouds of gas that lie in between the stars so that they form new stars. Where do the clouds of gas come from? From the ashes of exploded stars – which are themselves the engine of the compression waves.

*The Earth takes about 250 million years to travel around the galaxy.

The first time I heard this wasn’t from the podcast, it was from Will Wright at GDC this year. Because of a common connection, we happened to be at the same dinner one night and he, as ever, was talking about Spore. I was supposed to be talking about Perplex City and ARGs, which I did with a few folks, but I neglected my duties with Will and instead spent my time learning about spiral arms and swapping ideas about the chirality of amino acids (I think Will was pleased to find someone at the conference who also knew about astrobiology). I remember being absolutely fascinated by the notion of the spiral arms being a natural phenomenon writ impossibly large, like the carbon cycle or tectonics, but on the scale of hundreds of thousands of light years. Something that everyone recognises as being beautiful – the spiral arms of our galaxy – is made even more beautiful by knowing how it works.

I was impressed (although admittedly slightly dubious) by Will’s intention to actually show players in Spore how this worked in an interactive fashion. It’s not as if anyone needs to know the mechanism of star formation in our galaxy, but it’s one of those wonderful, perfect facts that just makes startling sense.

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